"Anytime in this culture you mess with a taboo, it gets sensationalized," says Washington-based family therapist and trainer Audrey Chapman, whose spring workshop on "Man Sharing" received a barrage of media attention.
A score of major newspaper articles as well as several radio and TV talk-show appearances surprised even originator Chapman, who "had no idea" that her Howard University workshop, "Man Sharing: Challenge or Dilemma (and for Whom)?" would "touch on a major chord that would pulsate across the entire country and some parts of Europe."
"The media grabbed a hold of this thing," Chapman speculates, "and went crazy with it," because it dealt with a taboo, "because it was a woman who came out with it," and perhaps because "a black woman came out with it."
Isn't it ironic to have a family therapist run a workshop dealing with the issue of "man sharing?" Not at all, according to Chapman. They are "connected, very connected."
"If I'm here at the Howard University Counseling Service on the one hand helping families who are divorced as a result of some of these concepts and situations, I'm defeating my own purpose, in a way, if I'm not also addressing the other element that is keeping people from coming together."
In the flurry of media attention, however, the workshop "has been greatly misunderstood," says Chapman, "particularly by the media who have played it up as woman teaching other women the cheating game, woman teaching women how to share a man, woman teaching women how to date a married man. Everybody's fantasies in other words went into this thing."
Initially planned "for women in Washington"--whom she regards as "victims"--Chapman's workshop uncovered "common ties among all women, all groups, all ages, all colors, all shapes, all sizes.
"When I said in this workshop her first, with an audience of 110 women, predominantly black, aged 25-70 that 'some of us will go a lifetime and not have a man exclusively to ourselves,' you could have heard a pin drop."
Among the hundreds of responses she has received:
"I have been crying for years," wrote a never-married 32-year-old government administrator, "and it's like my cries have been falling on deaf ears. Now I know that somebody else knows what I'm going through."
Snapped another woman who misunderstood her message: "I lost a husband because of what you're going around promoting, whom I still love and still want, to a single woman who came along and took him from me."
From another woman, summing up the confusion of those who grew up during a time of commitment, courtship and marriage: "It's like being left on Mars with no instructions as to how to survive."
Other workshops, arranged through Creative Connections, have followed in Ventura, Calif., in San Francisco last week and another is planned for New York tomorrow night.
Chapman's ongoing workshops are, she says, "prevention" oriented, designed "for women to cope with the fact that they are confronted with sharing their men.
"It is for single women who are dating single men, who believe they are in exclusive relationships with them, and then are being told after several dates they're not in a monogamous situation. Or they stumble upon the fact, sometimes the person herself--another woman--and are being devastated by that."
Because friends, associates and clients universally shared the experience, it made "sense to bring all of us together and network and support each other around it," says Chapman--to help deal with "feelings of rage, depression and helplessness."
The title was "a question," she says. "I was asking women, 'How is it for you? Come and talk about it.' "
Because she is urging women to take charge of their personal lives, her concept, says Chapman, can be tough for men to accept.
"They're used to being the one who makes the decisions around this issue, so when a woman says, 'Okay, you want to share, we'll share and we're going to define how we're going to do that,' they are overwhelmed by that. They are threatened."
Among the men who tried to register for or crash the spring workshop were those who said: "Sometimes there are women who also go out on us. We want somebody to address that."
To accommodate men who want "a forum" to express their side, a separate, simultaneous workshop conducted by a male colleague will be available during the Oct. 4 Washington session. And Chapman is renaming her workshop "Mate Sharing," to reflect the larger focus.
But it is the adverse sex-ratio (example: 78 men per 100 women in the 35-39 age group) that most influences women, insists Chapman, to give up their "ability to bargain or negotiate. They shoot low, they bargain for little, ask for nothing and get little in return.
"It's not a black problem," she maintains, although "black women obviously have a harder way to go with this. It's dismal for us. The numbers might be there but the men are not available to us. They're not available to us if they're in prison . . . they're not available to us if they're in the military overseas . . . if they're gay and . . . if they're relating to other women."
"Decide what it is that you are willing to stand behind," she tells workshop participants, "and initiate and negotiate with him.
"If you can't live with the results, leave it."
When women say, " 'that probably means I'm going to spend the better part of my life alone,' my answer to that is you don't lose anything that you never had."
Although Chapman, 39, who was married for 11 years and is now divorced, describes herself as an "old-fashioned girl," favoring courtship, monogamy and "candlelight and wine," she is a "realist" who acknowledges, "The likelihood of me getting that from one person all the time is probably not great."
She advocates developing a cadre of friends--both male and female. "I have other platonic relationships--three of which I value. It in some ways frees me up. It doesn't make me as dependent on one person.
"I don't think that anybody will ever like sharing," she says. But "it does exist. I had nothing to do with creating it and I probably will have very little to do with ending it.
"But I'd like to be a catalyst in developing an awareness for the families of the future."
Audrey Chapman's next workshop on "Mate Sharing: Dilemma or Choice? (a Prevention Model)" will be offered Oct. 4 at the Howard University Counseling Service, 6-9 p.m. To register, call 636-6870. Fee, $10; Howard students, free.