Sex Therapist at the Academy Awards, Part 2: The Courage to be Seen

Sex Therapist at the Academy Awards, Part 2: The Courage to be Seen

On the occasion of The Sessions being up for an Academy Award this year (Helen Hunt, for best supporting actress), we’re discussing some of the film’s implications  for sex therapy.  This is part 2. Something quite ordinary The Sessions tells the story one man’s extraordinary misfortune — paralyzed by polio at age 6 — and of his equally extraordinary courage in living, loving, and finding a place in the world.  It also concerns an extraordinary kind of sex treatment — sex surrogacy — where the therapist actually gets naked and has sex with her client. I don’t do sex surrogacy.   Neither do any of my colleagues.   Few sex therapists these days refer patients for sex surrogacy.   And not many sex therapists see clients who are as profoundly disabled as Mark O’Brien, the hero of The Sessions.    So on all counts, it’s hardly a typical story. But in one respect, O’Brien’s quest for sexual healing is completely ordinary — and entirely typical of the individuals and couples I see daily in my office. I’m referring to his intense ambivalence about getting help. Ambivalence, of course, is characteristic of all human endeavor.   And that’s certainly true about seeking any kind of mental health care.   But it’s in the realm of getting help for sexual suffering that the natural and universal human tendency toward ambivalence reaches perhaps its absolute peak. One of the movie’s most dramatic scenes has O’Brien, flat on his back as always, being wheeled to his first appointment with a sex therapist.  It’s an appointment that he himself made.  But he is screaming to be allowed...
How The Self Comes Into Being: Remembering Daniel Stern

How The Self Comes Into Being: Remembering Daniel Stern

Stern’s Groundbreaking Work Explored The World Of Babies A month ago, an article in The New York Times noted the passing of Daniel Stern, MD (below) — psychiatrist, psychoanalyst and researcher, at his home in Switzerland. Stern’s death failed to make the Times’ front page, but the Science Times featured a memorial piece by Douglas Martin that pretty well captured the significance of Stern’s work. I was a resident in psychiatry at New York Hospital / Cornell Medical Center in 1985 when Stern published his groundbreaking work, The Interpersonal World of the Infant. The book took the psychology world  by storm in the 1980’s, and Stern went on to become an academic superstar of the highest rank. Drawing on Stern’s own experience both as an infant researcher and a psychoanalyst, the book pulled together a vast amount of research to try to answer basic questions such as “What’s it like to be a baby”?  and “How do infants and toddlers experience the world?” It also posed the most important question of all — “How does the SELF come into being?”   The Self Comes Into Being in “Layers.” Stern’s answer was that the self is a layered creation.  As the infant’s mind unfolds and develops, adding new capabilities month by month, new layers of selfhood are laid upon the old. The speaking self of 18 months is built on layers going all the way down to the original nursing self of the newborn. As a sex therapist, I’ve been rather interested in these matters. After all, peak sexual experiences (the kind most of us yearn for) seem necessarily to involve a regression to states of mind...
Eros, Spirituality, and Crying During Sex

Eros, Spirituality, and Crying During Sex

Most recent in a series of articles  and interviews based on the new book Slow Sex by Nicole Daedone.   This is article 4 in the series.   My fellow sex journalist Tracy Clark-Flory was a guest at one of  Nicole Daedone’s weekend retreats  for women at Le Meridien in San Francisco last year.   One of the events was a live demonstration of Daedone’s technique of what she calls Orgasmic Meditation (OM) with a female volunteer.  (See references 1-3 below) During this public OM session, the volunteer apparently experienced one or more sexual climaxes, accompanied by loud vocalization. Writing later about the experience for Salon, Clark-Flory described the experience as having been “both arousing and deeply bizarre.” She also noted that during the demonstration two women in the audience were silently crying. I’m not surprised that Clark-Flory found the experience arousing, or bizarre.  But I’m disappointed she didn’t inquire more why those two audience members were crying. I would love to have asked them.   My guess? These women were crying because the scene, strange as it was, touched something profound inside them.   Not unlike what might cause one to cry during especially satisfying sex. Say what one will about Daedone, one must credit her with having followed an intuition that there is something profound about deeply felt sexual desire. Peak desire involves a sense of specialness, of connectedness, even of sacredness, that shares something with peak religious experience.  It’s not hard to imagine eros and spirituality sharing some special part of the human self. In her book Slow Sex, Daedone writes about her clients coming in saying that they’re...
Mass Erotic Choice as a Social Organizer —   from Beatlemania to Fifty Shades of Grey

Mass Erotic Choice as a Social Organizer — from Beatlemania to Fifty Shades of Grey

Photo credit:  Pedrosimoes7,  via Creative Commons.    The Questions Never Change Working as a sex therapist, I have more than a passing interest in what the culture happens to be serving up about eros. Part of it is simply curiosity about what my clients are reading.  But the greater part involves a search for conceptual tools with which to understand the erotic mind. Fact is, sexuality remains a mystery in many ways. Are humans inherently monogamous, or not? To what extent are men’s and women’s sexual natures the same or different? What’s the connection between sexuality and spirituality? What do women want? These questions forever haunt us. Last year, I endeavored to review a new book, written not by sex experts but  by computer scientists, that nonetheless purported to offer insights about human sexual nature based on such things as Google porn searches and word choice in online erotic fiction. The idea was and is a compelling one:  If you want to understand human sexuality, look at people’s actual choices.   On the internet, those choices are measurable. By year’s end, my review of A Billion Wicked Thoughts had stretched to eleven articles, with no end in sight.  Wary of tiring my readers, I put a stop to it.   Mass Erotic Decision-Making But now with Fifty Shades of Grey it seems we’re back in the territory of mass erotic choice. Can we learn anything about sexuality from the success of FiftyShades?   Yes, I think so. Since the book is erotic fantasy rather than actual sex, though, we have to be careful.   We shouldn’t, for example, after reading the book presume...
Sex therapy NYC: What You Still Might Not Know About BDSM After Reading Fifty Shades of Grey

Sex therapy NYC: What You Still Might Not Know About BDSM After Reading Fifty Shades of Grey

Reader Beware After reading Fifty Shades of Grey, you might think you’ve learned something about  men who wish to sexually dominate their partners. In particular, you might conclude that being a sexual Dominant probably means one had a very bad childhood, as Christian Grey did.  And that like Grey one has problems loving, being loved, and being touched. You’d be wrong on all counts. Those are common stereotypes.   And they’re common enough in such men who present for sex therapy.    But one can’t generalize from people presenting for treatment to people in general. Let’s look more closely.   Does BDSM Suggest Childhood Trauma? Patients in treatment often seem to have turned past tragedy into current triumph by re-packaging scary memories into sexy feelings. When one starts out as a beginning sex therapist, among one’s first hundred or so sex therapy patients there are often many who resemble the fictional Christian Grey of Fifty Shades — people with kinky sexual tastes who come from horrible early environments and have led lives of great torment. But if one is not blinded by always expecting to find trauma, one finds among one’s next several hundred patients many with unusual sexual tastes who don’t fit this mold. Some come from perfectly decent homes and have been loved every bit as a child ought to be loved, but nevertheless experience cravings to tie people up, to be whipped, or to make love to amputees. And what of the universe of sexual humans who never come for psychological help?   In the absence of more objective information, it’s important not to conclude that someone...