What being a Sex-Positive Psychotherapist Means to Me, Why it’s Important, and Where it’s Led Me

To me, the term Sex Positive, boils down to the idea that consensual sex is pleasurable, pleasure is ok, our bodies are good, and we need education, not rules, governing sexual behavior. To others, it means that commie pinko sex freaks are going to take over the world and teach your children gay S & M. I’ll let them speak for themselves.

For me, as I embark on almost 50 hours of evidence-based, apolitical, sex-positive training to become a sex educator, I thought it would be useful to explain why I call myself a sex positive psychotherapist, why that matters whether you are a suburban, straight, married person whose idea of racy action is flirting with your grocery bagger, or an urbanite poly genderqueer couple out flogging naked people at the Folsom Street Fair.

As a sex positive psychotherapist, I have or have had clients that identify or exhibit behaviors that reflect the labels Gay, Lesbian, Bi, Queer, Genderqueer, Kinky, Polyamorous, Swingers, In an Open Relationship, and probably several more I’m not remembering.

I also have what some of the folks in the above paragraphs would identify as “Vanilla”-straight, monogamous, married, non-kinky, etc.

And to me the therapist, the two groups aren’t as radically different as you’d think. In fact, I don’t parse lifestyles into groups at all. They are just people, suffering from the same anxiety, depression, work issues, problems with their kids, relationship snafus, and heartbreak that we all struggle with.

And here’s the thing: my clients come to me after they’ve had some pretty negative experiences with other therapists, despite being fairly similar to the rest of the population. they’ve had to spend hours “convincing” their therapist that their S & M wasn’t a danger to themselves, that their open relationships weren’t cheating or coercion, and that they weren’t from abusive backgrounds. (They got to pay the therapist to educate them). So, I’m mixed on this. On the one hand, this has put money in my pocket. On the other, I live just far enough south of San Francisco that I’m in a small handful of licensed therapists who work with sexual minority populations and alternative lifestyles (barring gay and lesbians, whom a majority of therapists work with).

In the almost four years since I’ve started my private practice, I’ve gone from “Hey, I know! I’ll put my name on these lists of kink-friendly and poly-friendly therapists because I understand the subject and it could bring me business” to “Whoa, I’m serving minority population with multiple stories of discrimination from therapists,” pretty much in one fell swoop.

It’s important to serve minority populations, with non-judgmental, client-centered, effective therapy. It’s important to put myself out there as someone who doesn’t judge and doesn’t try to separate people into groups, or separate one kind of behavior as OK and another kind of behavior as NOT OK.

Except for pedophilia. Pedophilia and child porn is never ok. Neither is having sex with your therapist.

Because when we start saying things like “it’s ok for my husband to put me in a blindfold but not to go to a dungeon” then you start Making Rules and Passing Judgment. Then you start labeling “those people” as “wrong” and “these people” as right. When really, the married hetero couple playing at a bit of slap and tickle in their marital bed are no better or worse, and suffer from the same character flaws, anxiety, depression, relationship issues, work stuff, problems with their kids, etc. as the naked couple with floggers at Folsom.

It’s not my job to tell people how to live. It’s my job to help them figure out how they want to live. If that means going from being a naked flogger at Folsom to getting married and having 2.5 kids and moving to Los Altos Hills, so be it. If that means opening your relationship, so be it. If that means changing your gender, so be it. If that means consenting to allowing yourself to be insulted by a guy in a leather mask and tied up in fancy Japanese knots, so be it. Believe me, if I’m your therapist we talk about the impact on your public image, your children, your job, your relationships, and your mental health. Things need to line up for the whole person to be happy. It’s a balancing act, just like it would be if you decided to get divorced, move across the country, or become a vegan.

People hear the word “sex” and they lose their minds (and not always in the good way). They hear me say I work with people in a polyamorous lifestyle and assume that I have seventeen partners at home in my commune and that I am telling them that they now have to do the same thing. (I don’t, by the way, (not that there’s anything wrong with that, just not my scene) and I am not making anyone do anything, except pay me at the end of a session). They hear me say I work with people who enjoy BDSM and they assume everyone who is submissive has suffered at the brutal hands of a cruel and abusive disciplinarian and are trying to re-create that for ya-yas. (Actually, in my non-scientific clinical observations, most submissives I have run across didn’t have enough discipline and are trying to re-create the boundaries they never got).

Being sex-positive and tolerant has taken me to a very live-and-let live place. I don’t think government should be making laws governing human sexuality and behavior (against gay and lesbian behavior, governing reproduction, governing specific sex acts, classifying certain sexual behavior-besides pedophilia-as indication of mental illness, etc). Instead, we need education, education, education. Sex education. Health education. Relationship education. Marriage education. Childbirth education. Parenting education. Education should be evidence-based, apolitical, mandatory and widely available.

One of the reasons I’m passionate about becoming a sex educator is because I will get to purvey this education. The group I am most excited to share with is other therapists. One, because I’m sick and tired of hearing my well-respected-in-their-fields, conscientious, caring, and intelligent clients tell me horror stories of condescending, ignorant therapists. Two, because, I’m getting referrals I have to turn away, and there’s only a few people I trust to refer to these days. Three, because I’m the kind of therapist who believes in working through my own baggage, and I’ve had plenty of baggage come up around people whose lifestyle I can’t readily understand (until I listen, and then do my own work with a trusted consultant). And I’m pretty open minded to begin with. Imagine someone with twice as much baggage being the only therapist available to work with someone in a sexual minority population.

Sex positive therapists and interns of the world: this is a call to action.

We need you.

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Where I went to graduate school

It looks like my alma mater for my Master’s in Counseling Psychology, Pacifica Graduate Institute has been sprucing up their website.

If you were curious about my training and influences you might hop on over there, and even if you aren’t, there’s a great description of both Depth Psychology and the program here.

I really cherished my time at Pacifica, and think they are worth promoting for a lot of their degree programs in depth psychology, mythological studies, humanities, and now even apparently organizational psychology. I thought the MA in Counseling Psychology program was extremely well-crafted. Plus, their one-weekend-a-month programs made it possible to study with people from all over the world, all in the lush gorgeousness of Carpinteria. If it wasn’t such a…..high end school, I’d be tempted to pick up another degree.

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Shocker: Sex-Positive column gets trounced by commenters on Fox.com

This makes me sad. Read the article, then read the comments.

http://www.foxnews.com/health/2011/02/01/unleashing-animal-instincts-bed/?test=faces#content

The debate is so polarized. I feel really bad for Jenny Block, author of a sexuality column, in the wolf’s den of Fox.com. Knowing she’s just trying to educate people on sexuality with what I thought were harmless and non-scandalous comparisons between people and animals drew a lot of fire.

I think about how I would speak to some of the commenters, the anger, the bile, the hyperbolic arguments, and I scratch my head about how I’d argue on the side of sex positive culture to them.

If she had written an article citing animal behavior that reflected heteronormative pair-bonding behavior in swans, do you think she’d be getting this backlash?

How do those of us in the sex-positive community bridge the gap and work towards a society where our desires and our bodies do not create and sustain shame?

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Movie Review: The King’s Speech and the healing power of the therapeutic relationship

By any account, The King’s Speech was an amazing film. As a therapist, I was especially amazed at the poignancy with which the film depicts the healing power of a therapeutic union, and how many elements of a good therapeutic relationship are depicted in the film.

Set in England of the 20s and 30s, the film is about Prince Albert, who became King George the VI (Colin Firth), who took the throne from his brother, who had to abdicate it because he had insisted on marrying a woman who had already been divorced, a scandal that would undo national faith in a king poised to lead England into World War II.

“Bertie,” as George’s loved ones called him,  the brave Duke of York, possessed of the thoughtfulness and caring needed to be a strong leader. There’s just one thing: he stammers. Badly. The first scene of him giving a speech at Wembley Stadium which was also being broadcast as his first radio address, is painful to watch. Colin Firth is brilliant in portraying the Duke’s anxiety and the way his body appeared to betray him by closing his throat and choking away his voice. The way his wife, Helena Bonham Carter, flinches when watching is what I feel as audience member.

Enter Geoffrey Rush playing Lionel Logue, a quirky down-on-his-luck Australian actor and speech therapist. His unconventional and shabby flat is the therapeutic container, the room in which most of the relationship unfolds. Nobody else is allowed in and for much of the story, Logue’s family does not know that he is treating the King. Lionel insists on being on a first name basis with the Duke-soon-to-be-King, transcending class, protocol, and tradition in order to establish the healing relationship, which, when good, exists outside of those constraints as much as possible. Lionel levels the heirarchical gap between them with cheeky humor that pushes boundaries.

The future King George VI is challenged, pushed, angered, made to do lots of drills and silly exercises, drawn into the shadow of his psyche, and boosted by this relationship. The speech therapist takes risks, listens, reflects, cares, cajoles, and even screws up a few times. It is a very human and instantly recognizable healing relationship that clearly transforms both people.

And although it’s about speech therapy and not psychotherapy, and although Bertie wasn’t quite ready to dive into painful memories at first, Logue does ask for them right away, and almost immediately suggests that the stammer is related to them and related to feelings of inadequacy towards the bigger brother he’s slated to replace.

And in one incredibly rich scene, Bertie becomes enraged when he finds out that Logue is not a doctor. He actually never said he was, but the transference on Lionel as expert is so strong that the Duke/King believes that he is a doctor.

A lot of technique and interventions are given by Lionel to bring the new king to pivotal speeches from key points in history: his coronation, and the announcement of war. But the healing comes down to, in this film as well as in good psychotherapy, the relationship between the two men. It is a tender friendship, and Lionel comes to know a great deal about Bertie’s deep emotional life. He also sees the greatness in the man, the future King, and in a Merlinesque way, brings out the best in HRH. And this in turn, brings out the best in Logue, giving him a chance to shine in ways the frustrated actor hadn’t been able to before.

We find our way to a King not devoid of fears, but one who is able to face them with courage and to find his center and his voice at the time that he and many others needed it most.

Being cared for, listened to, having your thoughts and feelings mirrored back to you-these types of relationships, when we are lucky enough to have them, can bring such things out of us.

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Links to other reviews of the film

like this one by Roger Ebert

and this more critical one

the one in the Guardian.uk

and this fairly snarky NYT review

and this gushing one by Rex Reed

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Book Review: Sex at Dawn Challenges Institution of Monogamy by Examining Human Prehistory

Sex at Dawn is hard to describe. On one hand, it challenges monogamy. That’s what all the buzz is about. And indeed, the book squarely takes on many cultural assumptions about monogamy-that it is preferable for a society, that it is natural, that humans have always tended to favor monogamy, and that evolutionary biology and the archeological record prove this, for a few.

But I feel like if I lead with that, you might not read it. And I want you to read it, even if the last thing you want to read is anything critical of monogamy. (Even if I personally believe that someone who wants to be monogamous benefits from understanding common criticisms of monogamy in order to come to peace with their choice to practice it.)

So, I’m going to give you a montage of other cool things in the book, written by Christopher Ryan (writer and research psychologist) and Calcida Jetha´ (practicing psychiatrist) who I have read are married (to each other) and then I will circle back to the whole criticizing monogamy thing.

In this book, you will find:

How bonobos and chimpanzees differ in their sex lives, and how both compare to humans.

The corrolaries between mens’ penis shape and promiscuity.

A challenge to conventional thinking on what prehistoric humans were actually like, from their estimated life span to what their family units looked like.

That Darwin had a daughter that was so sexually prudish that she attempted to eradicate phallic mushrooms from her property.

How evolutionary biologists and psychologists and the staunchly religious have in common when it comes to what is “natural” mating behavior, and particularly how the evolutionists, influenced by the cultural mores of the time, interpreted existing data to get there.

How prehistoric and present-day foraging societies that eat insects and do not grow their own food actually may have better nutrition than you and I.

How the advent of agriculture completely changed human society, including, argue the authors, our sexual practices.

A theory on why human men have such large testicles compared to other primates.

Why a man who has an affair often thinks he is in love when he is just experiencing the chemical boost of feeling sexually vital, and why that feeling is so important that it often is mistaken for love.

What sperm competition is and why it might explain why women are so vocal during sex and why some men have “cuckold” fantasies.

And other fascinating things. So, yes, I’m basically saying, “come for the monkey sex, loud women, plunger penises, repressed Darwins and big balls–stay for the compelling argument that humans are not basically monogamous creatures.”

Christopher Ryan said in interviews:

“What we argue in the book is that the best way to increase marital stability, which in the modern world is an important part of social stability, is to develop a more tolerant and realistic understanding of human sexuality and how human sexuality is being distorted by our modern conception of marriage.”

Ryan and Jetha argue that this more tolerant and realistic understanding includes re-thinking this old argument: that men want to impregnate everything in their vicinity because of copious sperm and that women want to be monogamous with one man because of her scarce eggs and because of the need to find a man who will help raise and protect the children she bears him. The book suggests that this might not be the whole story and that the idea of sexual jealousy and exclusivity evolved because of our culture and not our nature. The argument is that we have as many genes for resource-sharing and peace as we do for scarcity and warlike behavior, circumstances allow certain attitudes among humans to prevail.

In fact, it might be that women are a whole lot more sexual and naturally promiscuous than that story suggests, but that in a culture where women do not have the same access to resources to men (in contrast, the authors argue, to prehistoric society), women have learned to be sexually jealous, and in foraging societies, where women have more free access to resources without having a man as an intermediary women are far less invested both in romance and monogamy.

Even if you don’t agree with these arguments, or aren’t sure if you do, or aren’t sure you have any  clue what to do with the information in terms of your own relationship, it’s an intriguing and beguiling read. If the authors make any conclusions at all about what this means for you and me (and they do try to avoid that, and if it is indeed true, as I’ve read, that they are a married couple and one of them is a therapist, I could totally see why), it’s that it’s worth beginning a dialogue with your partner. We could all stand to talk to one another about the unrealistic demands of a monogamous culture-such as we are only supposed to want to have sex with our spouse and that if we have fantasies or feelings this automatically makes us wrong. Why not admit that it can be tough to make a monogamous commitment and work through the pitfalls as a couple, as difficult as that may be, as opposed to a marriage breaking up over things left unsaid, but one thing leading to another?

This book did leave me feeling that some of the arguments were a bit heavy handed and some of the transitions  a little random, and the scope, while unified, felt far-flung at times.

But anything that gets you to question your own assumptions, challenges your opinions, rattles your cage, and makes you laugh quite a bit while doing it, all while getting to learn more about monkey sex and vocal women, has my vote for a great read.

links to other reviews of the book, along with valid criticisms and author responses:

Amazon reviews

review by a primatologist

great q and a with author and reviewer

Author responds to a pot shot taken by a Washington Post writer

Posted in Book Reviews, Relationships, Sex | 8 Comments

Creator of AWARENESS iPhone app responds!

After reading my review of the AWARENESS iPhone app, the app’s creator Ronit Herzfeld, who just wrote another thought provoking blog (this one about the universally loud self criticisms resounding not only through your own but everyone else’s head) in the Huffington Post, sent me this nice note:

 

Hi Lia,
Thank you for letting us know about your review of AWARENESS.  I appreciate your comments and am taking them to heart for what we could do to improve.
Just a couple of thoughts to help you get more use out of the app, if you wish:-)
Every screen has a TAP ME icon which gives pretty good explanation how to best use that particular screen.
The user can schedule as many interceptions as s/he wants up to 22 times.  With increased interceptions, over time, it will not only help them  get more in touch with their feelings but also allow them to come to the present moment.  The meditations practice videos are intended to help stop the person from moving unconsciously in his/her day to day to day life.
Also, in the reports. you can tap into the emotions and begin to see a patterns between your feelings and your activities.  It is a feedback loop allows you to examine negative associations and do something about them.  Users have seen major transformations in their lives as a result of this feature.
Finally, it was very hard to categorize the feelings since there are so many of them and sometimes they overlap like, you could be angry when you are sad or when you are angry, etc.  You do have the option of adding your own activities and then the top 10 show up for you so that you don’t need to scroll.
Again, I really appreciate you reviewing the app and spreading the word.  It seems we both want to change the world with our work.  All the best to you.
Open and warm heart,

Ronit

Ambassador of the Heart

It’s awesome to get immediate feedback from someone working on an iPhone application, and it’s clear from the letter how much thought was put into the app itself and how much thought will be put into improving future versions.

No Android app, as one reader asked about, but I’m sure that won’t be far away if there is enough interest.

 

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iPhone app teaches mindfulness, effects change

I first learned about the Awareness iPhone App through a link somebody shared on Facebook. Ronit Herzfeld wrote a lovely article about how a lack of emotional awareness is connected to divisive political thinking  and how increased awareness can change us in fundamental ways and hence change the world.  It was the last paragraph of the article, which was in the Huffington Post, that she pitched the iPhone app which she had just pre-sold to me by writing the piece.

I’ve been using the app for a few weeks now. It sends you alerts 5 times a day, heralded by your choice of about 5 sounds. The text on the alert tells you the name of the app, AWARENESS, and asks “what are you feeling right now?”

You can then either snooze the alert or record your feelings from a choice of a menu and sub-menu. A graphic that vaguely relates to the feeling flashes across the screen and you are directed to go deeper into the feeling. You’re reminded by soothing white text that feelings pass, and then you’re on to a screen where you can record what you are doing from a list of categories and sub-categories. You can add new activities, but not new feelings.

The last little part of the Awareness user experience is some sort of relevant quote by anyone from the Buddha to Anais Nin.

Part of the app takes your data and creates interesting pie charts and graphs, so you can see the percentage of passionate versus happy versus angry, etc. feelings as pie slices. There are monthly and weekly reports, too.

After using the app a few weeks I am more apt to recognize how I am feeling at different moments in the day that are not when the alert is going off. Increased mindfulness always results in giving me the experience of having more choices for my behavior in the moment.

Also telling about the app is I’m still using it after two weeks, although not as faithfully as when I started. I don’t record the feelings every time the alert is going off, but I do enough to make the pie charts useful. My husband bought the app as well, and says that although he’s no longer logging feelings, he’s more aware of them and checks in with himself during the day.

A friend to whom I introduced the app told me “I have been using it for two weeks, and I’m noticing just how much I catch myself being happy.” That’s a powerful testament to the power of attention. sometimes when our lives are really stressful and full of difficult things to deal with, we color our whole experience as stressful or sad, and forget that we are having thousands of little moments of every day when our experience is not that of stress, but of passion, excitement, joy, humor. The app caught me eating chocolate the other day and hence I recorded an unexpected moment of unadulterated ecstasy. (Maybe if it had caught me a few moments past that I’d have recorded a fleeting moment of guilt. Either way, the AWARENESS app would have reminded me: “emotions pass”.)

So, definitely worth the 3 bucks I paid for it. The little movies are pretty, the sounds are nice, and it’s not a huge committment. The user interface is a little clunky and can be unintuitive: I am not sure why certain emotions exist in certain categories, and why certain activities are in certain categories, and I wish I didn’t have to go through so many menus to log feelings and activities. It can seem to take a long time to watch some of the little movies and quotes. (Is that me catching myself feeling “impatient”?) Lots of room to expand and improve in future fixes and versions of the app.

All in all, I found it to be a nice periodic and structured experience for mindfulness practice that I can keep up with.

Find out more about Ronit Herzfeld’s project here.

Do you want me to review your wellness iPhone app? Drop me a line or a comment and I’ll be glad to.

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