I am the founder and director of the Institute for Sexuality Education and Enlightenment (ISEE), a professional training program for educators, counselors and therapists. The vast majority of the people who come to our program are professional psychotherapists who wish to have an advanced knowledge of sexual problems so that they are well-trained in their practice, and health and sex educators who wish to make sure that their information is well-rounded, holistic, and of a high standard.
I faced a conundrum when we first opened our doors and my first sex worker called us, asking if we would certify her as a sex educator. Being affiliated with multiple organizations in the field, I didn’t know. Would we?
Don’t get me wrong. We would not certify sex workers for sex work. We would not certify strippers for stripping, escorts for escorting, or erotic massage workers for happy endings. But what about simply certifying them as sex educators, for the educational work that they do that is non-sexual in nature?
It is socially unacceptable with many in the human sexuality field to discuss this. This is partly because the education and therapy professionals have banded together to create organizations, and they are understandably worried that people will mistake “Certified Sex Therapists” or “Certified Sex Educators” for Certified Surrogate Partners or sex workers themselves. They are not. These are hands-off, clothing-on professionals who work very hard to get out good information as well as healing. These folks can be trusted to behave impeccably in any environment and with any age population, and all have signed ethics statements.
But when we opened our doors in 2011, I received calls from people who were, or had been, sex workers. Have you ever actually spoken with a sex worker at length? I have, many times. I learned how often sex workers were asked questions by their clients, and how many of them actually research the answers. I learned how common it is for sex workers to talk to clients about erectile dysfunction, difficulties with intimacy, fetishes, body image and penis size, and even to help them get over and through these difficulties. I also learned that the people I was talking to loved to help their clients—even when they felt inadequate to the task. Yet when they reached out to some organizations and wanted to be honest about their backgrounds or their professions, they were either turned away or told that they must keep the sex work to themselves.
Again, this is understandable, given the legal situation. But is it, in fact, hypocritical? Even exploitative? Has the field forgotten its history? The fact is, the study of human sexuality in this country was founded substantially through the expertise and contributions of sex workers.
Let’s take a little trip down memory lane, shall we? Alfred Kinsey, arguably the father of American sex research, interviewed sex workers as part of his study of human sexual behavior, and was known to ask them regularly for information about sexual functioning. Kinsey’s work was the seminal scientifically and statistically rigorous research on human sexuality in the United States, and his data remains valuable to this day.
Bill Masters of Masters and Johnson also gained extensive amounts of information about sexual response and orgasm from female sex workers, and it was a sex worker who famously told him, “You need a translator” (between himself and women), prompting him to hire Virginia Johnson.
Masters and Johnson then went on to create a training program for sexual surrogates—people who worked directly and physically with their clients to help them to work through sexual problems. Hartman and Fithian followed suit. This profession still exists, most known in the form of the International Professional Surrogates Association.
What about Somatic Sex Educators, Sexological Bodyworkers, Sacred Intimates, Sacred Sexuality/Tantra practitioners? “Sexual Surrogates” have transformed over the years and their work as Surrogate Partners includes everything from helping someone to learn how to date, to how to flirt, to how to hold someone’s hand, and also how to be sexual with another human being. Certified Somatic Sex Educators use one-way touch to educate their clients one-on-one, therefore aiding them with pleasure, masturbation, and orgasm. Both of these fields of work have their own ethics codes, and people certified by these organizations must abide by them or lose their certifications.
So are we in the human sexuality field hypocritical? Worse, are we in fact exploiting sex workers by using the data that they have provided, and yet in some cases silencing them as people who may want an education, people who deserve the chance at certification like anyone else, for the hands-off work that they do? If they are willing to sign ethics statements like everyone else, and use their certifications for specific types of work only, who is to say they may not be educated, may not be certified–unless they keep their other work to themselves?
It’s time that we addressed these issues, including the respectability politics, in more depth as well as finally giving the somatic folks the floor for awhile so that they can speak for the work that they do. We literally owe it to them.
Dr. Rosalyn Dischiavo is the Founder and Director of Institute for Sexuality Education & Enlightenment (ISEE), which offers live classes on both coasts as well as many classes online. ISEE will be sponsoring a conference in the spring of 2019 called Sex Education with Adults (SEACon©), where among other topics, the contributions of the somatic workers will be explored and many of these issues will be addressed. To be on the mailing list or get more information about this upcoming conference, please write to firstname.lastname@example.org or head to the website at http://instituteforsexuality.com
By Rosalyn Dischiavo, EdD, MA, CSES
Those who understand sexual orientation in deeper ways tend to talk about it as a fluid state throughout the lifetime, with people falling into points on a spectrum—some remain fairly consistently attracted to one sex or another throughout life, but many people find that their orientation shifts about as they age, whether or not their behavior follows suit. I have been wondering the same about kink (BDSM).
My first observation is about identity itself. We have so many parts of our identities, but those we talk about, and those we feel strongly about, can shift and change in a healthy person. Some we will keep for a lifetime: “I’m a geek.” “I’m a cop.” “I’m a feminist.” “I’m a Democrat.” If you know us, you’re will often know those things about us pretty quickly, because we consider them so important to who we are. But which ones we lead with—those we talk about, own, pride ourselves in, or discuss–shift as they move in and out of importance to us, or up and down our list of priorities.
I have seen interesting identifying behavior among groups of people, and I find it fascinating that at various points in our lives, we may feel that a particular aspect of ourselves is strong enough to warrant a place in our identities. As a drug and alcohol professional for most of my young career, I observed, for instance, that people in early sobriety tend to identify strongly as a recovering addict or alcoholic. They may think of themselves “as a recovering alcoholic first”, and even proclaim it to others outside of the recovering or 12-Step community. Though anonymity is strongly valued in this community, those who are newly sober or clean often eschew or ignore this anonymity in favor of holding fast to this new identity.
Yet as people stay sober or clean, the recovery identity, though it may still be a very important part of their lives, may become less primary. You hear them start to say things like, “Yes, I’m an alcoholic, but I’m also a human being.” They stop referring to non-recovering people as “Earth-people”, or “aliens” (a common in-joke in recovering communities), they often begin to have a broader base of friends, and they often connect more strongly and more often with family.
Although orientation is not an illness like alcoholism, it has historically been stigmatized in similar ways, and I notice a similar pattern in identification as gay, lesbian, bi, pansexual (and even transgendered folks, though this is outside the realm of orientation). When people first come out, their orientation can be a very important part of their identity, and it may be a big part of their discussion as well as a way they can easily identify with others. Part of this phenomenon is how hard-won the queer identities often are. People face prejudice and discrimination, even violence, so perhaps strong identification is also a part of this process—pride in our bravery, our courage, and our persistence in the face of adversity. It’s also strength in numbers. If I identify, I may be able to join a community with those identities, and garner much-appreciated support.
Later in life, LGBTQ folks may focus on orientation less when they meet a new person. New acquaintances may be surprised to find out they are queer (or trans*) because it doesn’t necessarily come up right away. It’s not that it’s not important, it’s just that it’s not quite as primary in many people’s identities as time goes on. They may focus more on career, or family. They can get tired of people never being able to see past the queer or trans aspects of themselves to the other interesting parts of their personalities and their lives.
It’s also interesting that as these aspects of ourselves become less primary, we may allow any natural fluidity to surface more readily. I have so many gay and lesbian friends over 40 who have shared with me that if they came out now, they would come out at bisexual or pansexual. They have found themselves attracted to multiple sexes as a natural part of their development, and the gay/lesbian identity does not fit as exactly as it did. I’ve seen it happen the other way, as well, where previously straight-identified people are suddenly in a same-sex relationship.
People who identify as kinky have a similar path in many instances. When they first allow themselves to be openly kinky, they may talk about it all the time. They may spend hours discussing their kink within trusted circles, attend alt-conference after alt-conference, or spend hours on FetLife. They also frequently own a role in conversation or online, such as “top”, “Dom”, “sub”, or “switch”. They literally ask people how they identify. If you are close to this person, you may hear about it a lot when they’re new to the scene—even if you’re not part of that scene. But I’ve also seen that once people feel more comfortable and accepted, this identity can move more into the background–just a little, or quite a lot.
Something I’m keenly interested in is kink-fluidity. Even more than with orientation, I see kinksters as often fluid—both in behavior and in identities. While it’s not necessarily most people, many people who initially come out as submissive—and identify that way strongly– end up as tops or Doms part-time, or even primarily. The reverse can also be true.
Apart from roles, kink itself can also be a transitory state. A friend once confided to me that she’d been in the scene so long, vanilla sex felt “kinky” to her, and she was craving it then. She’s still kinky, she probably always will be. But her natural flow was away from kink at that point.
Some people are kinky for a time, and then more traditional in their sexual practices. Relationships, too, can begin as kinky and end up more vanilla over time–and is it really so surprising? Healthy human beings change and flow over a lifespan. Our needs change, our partners change, our relationships to ourselves and our communities change.
This flow, this fluidity, can be unnerving for those whose identities may be shifting a bit. It can even become a full-blown identity crisis. Like queer folks, kinksters have often fought long and valiantly against being pathologized and demonized. The fight is still on for acceptance in Western society. Some people attend kink conferences who haven’t been actively kinky for quite some time, but they still feel safer and more normal in BDSM communities. So what happens when I’m a kinkster who doesn’t feel so kinky anymore, or moving from a top to a bottom? It can be terrifying. Do I have to leave the communities where I feel so accepted when my identity starts to shift and kink is no longer at the top of the “Who I Am” list? If I’m getting the urge to dominate after years of being a sub, do I have to leave my partner or partners behind?
Perhaps part of our jobs as professionals in the sexuality field is to recognize the natural ebbs and flows of not only orientations, but also gender, kink and other alt identities. These shifts and growth spurts are all part of being healthy, whole human beings. We can normalize the fluidity of identity. We can support people’s current identities strongly, while also supporting their rights to relax or change their identification as they feel so moved. Isn’t that what allies are for?
~Dr. Rosalyn Dischiavo is the Founder and Director of Institute for Sexuality Education & Enlightenment (ISEE), http://instituteforsexuality.com
September 8, 2016
“What is essential is invisible to the eye…” Antoine de Saint Exupery
A friend of mine in the field shared a post today on social media, it was a call for facilitators to educate some medical students. The time expected was 2 hours per online class for several weeks, and 28 hours of preparation time was estimated. The compensation was zero. “Medical connections” was the extent of the benefit offered. She shared one of my ongoing frustrations—the lack of respect given to professional sex educators for the value of our work.
This is not unexpected, perhaps. Educators in general are tremendously undervalued. But educate about something as trivialized as sex in our culture? Clearly, we must not be serious professionals. After all, education isn’t something serious people do. Anyone can teach, can’t they?
And educating about sex! Well that’s always good for a good laugh or at least some raised eyebrows. As those of us in the field know, revealing what we do for a living is also good for blank stares, stutters, dirty jokes, stunned silences, and just plain panic. No, I am not exaggerating. Some people I have encountered have literally left the vicinity after finding out what I do.
But the stride-throwing nature of this profession of ours is actually one of the compelling reasons why we should be highly valued in this world—and—I’ll get to this in a minute—why we should greatly value ourselves.
Sex is not trivial. It is not juvenile. It is natural. It is not a big deal, and it is a really big deal. It makes us vulnerable. It brings us tremendous joy, or grievous sorrow. It can make us sick. It can heal us. It can bring new humans into the world. It is part of the fabric of who we are, how we identify, and how we relax. It can be play, and it can be work.
It is, perhaps then, no wonder that sex education is a field where many do not dare to tread. There’s a particular kind of bravery and a particular kind of soul needed to spread that kind of information. We are pioneers. And we are RARE. Very few do what we do, and even fewer do it well.
Of all of the types of people who have minimized the rights of sex educators to be compensated fairly for this crucial work, there are two who bring out the most reaction in me.
The first is sex therapists. If you’re not guilty of this, you can read the next 2 paragraphs keeping others in mind so you can gently remind them of the next few points. But I have been privy to conversations by some psychotherapists specializing in the field of sexuality who complain publicly and loudly about the cost of an education for themselves, and sometimes for their supervisees. These costs, by the way, are often lower than costs for other types of professional development, or at the very least even with them. I don’t mind most complaining. No one likes the cost of education in America. But when the complaints move to grumbling about “people making money” or “people turning a profit” for education, quite frankly I am outraged for myself and my colleagues. Therapists of all people should have some sympathy—no, empathy—for being undervalued for what they do. As a trained therapist myself, I have heard a lot of jokes about being a “rent-a-friend.” But friendship is not what therapists do. It’s a lot harder than that. They diagnose, they track progress toward goals, they strategize, they sit with pain with no expectation of reciprocation. And they educate.
So, hey therapists that are griping about others making a living? Especially sex therapists? I get it that you may not have been aware of this before, but can you please cut that out? The reason you are a sex therapist, and probably have a waiting list, is because of highly competent sex educators. They taught you everything that you know. I know sex therapists who charge $200-$250 an hour. So how much is your education worth to you now? Thanks. We’d all appreciate it.
The other group that gets my back up when they undervalue sex education is a more insidious one—sex educators themselves. Sex educators have such passion for what they do, and they love it so much, that they often charge little for their work, or even teach and train for free. Uh—hey, folks? Can you please stop doing that?
You are rare. Almost no one wants to do what you do, and even fewer know how. You are rare and you are tremendously, tremendously valuable. Your work prevents illness and even death. Your work reduces the amount of unwanted children coming into the world. Your work liberates people from shame prisons, breaks locks of fear and phobia, unwinds knots in marriages, bursts depressions, and evaporates oppression of identities, orientations and behaviors.
So please, please–value what you do. Once you are trained, require fair compensation for everything that you teach. When you undervalue yourself, you undervalue us as a field. You add to the myths that education can be done by anyone, that because sex is fun to talk about it is trivial or unimportant, or that we are a dime-a-dozen. We, most emphatically, are not. You are not. The sooner we understand that and begin acting in accordance with that value, the sooner that others will, too.
And for those of you who may be thinking that this rant is self-serving, given that I am the founder and Director of a sex education school? You’re damn right it is.
Rosalyn Dischiavo, EdD, MA, CSES
Institute for Sexuality Education & Enlightenment
I read this morning about yet another human being, a pastor who committed suicide because he was publicly revealed to be a philanderer and shamed repeatedly on the Internet. It reminded me of the young man who took his life when he was outed by a college roommate as being gay through release of a sexual video. It reminded me of Jessica Logan, a teenager who was repeatedly devastated in social media by peers for sending nude photos of herself to a boyfriend. She killed herself, too.
Many people would not see the parallels here. How is a cheat like a gay man? How is a liar like a newly minted, experimenting teen?
It’s not the victims who are similar. It is the current digital mob mentality of the public, who seem to have forgotten that we have an obligation to look at ourselves first before we throw stones and wave pitchforks, and when failing to find a comparison or a similarity, to exert compassion or even forgiveness when it’s appropriate.
We have laws against harassment for a reason. Harassment is violent in its essence. The original meaning of the word meant to lay waste, or devastate. And how devastating it is.
But we have no laws against public shaming, or public censure, even though personal isolation through public humiliation is clearly one of the most destructive forces on a human being. Isolation is so torturous that we are not even legally allowed to impose it on prisoners. We’ve moved past that in theory if not in actual practice, yet the terrible isolation that happens when we humiliate someone so thoroughly and so openly is second to none.
So why is it that we find it acceptable in this day and age to publicly humiliate and shame people for their private behavior? And why do we always seem to save our greatest shaming behavior for what we deem to be sexual offenses?
The answer is simple and sobering. We like it. We love the feeling of self-righteousness. It’s a combination of anger and freedom. We finally have a feasible outlet for the unacceptable emotion of anger and we are going to use it.
It’s understandable, really. We’ve all been shamed into boxes, our sexuality squeezed into tiny spaces that meet acceptable public mores. Whether we realize it or not, we’re angry about that. But we see no out–no easy way to break free from these spaces, few public role models to empower us. And we fear censure ourselves. So we shame. We harass. We “share” and “like” and “send” our anger, our disappointment with ourselves, our frustration with our lives.
The fact that most people are asleep to why they do it is not an excuse. We have a moral obligation to develop character. The remedy is not more shame on shame. The remedy is a good, hard look at what we want in our lives, and a genuine search for resources and community to help us achieve it.
What do you want–really? What is your heart’s deepest need for your body and its desires? If there were no one to judge, what would you do?
If we can be happy, we won’t mind so much what others do, and even if we see some hurt that has been caused, we will find a way to be a balm to the situation rather than becoming another screaming peasant vying for a place near the noose.
Dr. Rosalyn Dischiavo, Director, Institute for Sexuality Education & Enlightenment
September 11, 2015
This weekend I had the privilege of attending a keynote by Esther Perel, who does international research on infidelity as well as working with couples where someone has cheated. Last night I was also privy to a great conversation between Esther and Dan Savage, who won the AASECT Humanitarian award for the It Gets Better campaign.
It was a high level conversation. If you haven’t read Esther Perel, or seen her speak (her TED talks are just the beginning–see this one–https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K3vY5Q-NoMY), then you may need to read her books or watch one of them to understand the nuances of this post.
One of Esther Perel’s observations is that the universal experience that she hears from all people who cheat from any part of the world and of any gender is one of “aliveness.” People who cheat often feel very alive for the first time in quite some time. They are breaking habits that they have been following, sometimes for their entire lives. This breaking from habits, this breaking of vows and traditions, can release a tremendous amount of energy. It is this energy that many people crave.
Another discussion was one of transgression. Why do people transgress? Is it really chiefly for the excitement of the forbidden? Because this is only one of many motivations to cheat.
I began to wonder, as we talked about the possible appeals of transgression, if it isn’t something entirely different that people are looking for when they cheat. What if it isn’t transgression, but transformation? What if people are mistaking novelty, which looks like change, for true transformation? We can distract ourselves with mere changes for awhile. Novelty looks like change, but it isn’t. Change looks like transformation, but it isn’t. It isn’t the wholesale evolution of the self and the soul that a lot of people crave, particularly at midlife, or at specific crossroads.
When people cheat, at the most basic level they are transgressing. They are betraying a partner. But they may also be attempting to evolve.
~Roz Dischiavo, ISEE
by Roz Dischiavo, EdD
Are we babies in love who want to be taken care of, partially because there is no one to take care of adults anymore?
There’s a lot of talk out there about the unrealistic expectations of romantic love. Comments about the juvenile hope that the most intense part of “true love” will last forever are ubiquitous on blogs and in print. Columnists decry the idea that we could ever be taken care of the way that we were as infants, and claim that it is this infantile need to feel the center of someone’s universe and to feel loved unconditionally which keeps us unhappy with the way love “really” is in today’s world–busy, scheduled, dull–warm but not hot.
I agree with them. What I don’t agree with is their logic. As neat as this psychological analysis of our attachment issues may be, I believe we miss the forest for that tree.
I do think we have a need to feel that we are the only one, that all of the attention is focused on us for once, that it’s all about me, me, me, and that I can be loved unconditionally. If you ask me if I think this is a juvenile need, I don’t know, because we have never had to live this way until the last century or so.
Adults have historically had the support of extended family as well as a village or neighborhood communities to help raise kids, plant food, keep things safe, get some affection, build a house. We lived in smaller communities; we lived with grandpa and grandma, sisters and brothers, older cousins with older kids, close friends. We didn’t rely on one person—a partner—to fill all of our needs. We had lots of help and company. People took care of us for our whole lives, not just as babies. And we took care of them.
What about today? We know it’s not fair to ask a spouse or life-partner to shoulder so much of the burden of what we need. But we don’t have enough support to get what we need, either. So we take on too much, and our partners take on too much, and no one gets enough. Is it any wonder that we all want to be infants again—the only life period when this society deems that type of care acceptable?
Is the answer to the “We Want Romance” problem just that we are just big babies seeking to return to an idealized space where we had everything that we needed, and therefore we need to grow up and understand that this is unrealistic and childish? Or is the answer that we need more community and family closely around us to give us a hug when we need it instead of a latte, to give us a hand when we need it instead of calling a contractor, to tell us we’re awesome when we need it instead of paying a therapist? Would it free us up so that we could go on more dates instead of sitting in front of the TV, exhausted? Would it mean we needed less attention from our partners since we had more overall? Maybe it would simply be that we would feel less guilty asking for it, knowing there was more to go around.
We don’t have to return to the past to test the theory. We can create community close to home, it just takes time. We can make decisions to make partnerships with others in our neighborhoods or families or with friends so that we can share more of our burdens and not feel so alone. Maybe this would give us more breathing room so that we wouldn’t need our partners so much as want them. Maybe this would allow us to love our partners, and to be loved, with the aliveness that in some distant place in our soul we know is our birthright.
This article was originally published as a guest blog by Dr. Roz for Psychology Today‘s “The Intelligent Divorce” column, a regular advice column by Dr. Mark Banschick that reaches over 20,000 readers: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-intelligent-divorce/201312/no-sex-in-school
I was in my third trimester of a respected Marriage and Family Therapy graduate program when a classmate of mine fired the question to the director of our division. “Where’s our sex class?” she asked. The answer was nowhere. We didn’t have one.
We could take it as an elective, we were told. To do this, we had to compete with the division of counseling psychology for spots in the class which was housed in their program, not ours. On top of this, the sex course was on the same weekend of another class—one that was required for our degree.
I don’t know anyone who went.
When we took our couples therapy class, it came up again. There was precious little sexuality content in an entire trimester course. When we protested, we were told that sexuality was a specialty that could be studied after we graduated.
I wonder how many of us did? Yet we all proudly graduated as the Marriage Therapists of tomorrow.
Training in Human Sexuality:
That was in 1996. In 2014, the situation has not improved much. Most therapists, whether they’re psychologists, clinical social workers, MFTs or counselors have little to no education about sex. Our clients don’t know this, which is critical, but many of us are equally unaware of how poorly prepared we have been to deal with the very complex bio-psycho-social-spiritual issue that is human sexuality until it walks into our session room–and it’s always in the room.
Most therapists have been decently introduced to sexual orientation, which is a common exception to the “no sex in school” rule, and gender identity is now in its heyday in terms of attention on the therapeutic front, but pleasure? Techniques? Bio-medical causes of sexual functioning? Desire discrepancies in couples? Sex and disability? Basic anatomy, for heaven’s sake? All are missing from the typical graduate school curriculum.
If you’re someone who has been to a therapist for a sexual issue, a light bulb may be going off for you right now. You could be saying to yourself, “No wonder that didn’t work!” If so, please let me be the first to say that it probably wasn’t the fault of your therapist. I’m sorry that our field let you down. Some of us are working very hard to change this.
If you’re a therapist yourself, you may feel defensive. I can sympathize. I now train therapists and others in human sexuality, but at one time I was in private practice and I know how many issues walk through the door.
How are we supposed to choose what our professional development hours should look like? Should we choose trauma training? There’s certainly a lot of trauma. What about gender issues? Also very important. Infidelity counseling competence? Good idea! The choices can be overwhelming, but I am going to make a bid for every therapist now reading this blog to consider some sexuality or sex therapy training as soon as you can.
The Importance of Sex:
Sex is FAR more important than we may think it is.
In our society, we have a tendency to minimize the importance of sex. We treat it as though it were juvenile, self-indulgent, trivial or sinful. We act as if sex is completely separate from love or intimacy or care.
I was recently on a very disappointing discussion board where multiple therapists were insisting that sex has little to do with love, or that it was a “lower” form of love. These people were no doubt passing these ideas on to their clients. What a terrible shame. It is because of this minimization that we are unable to become our full, actualized selves. Sex is a part of us. It can create much joy. Cutting it off and de-valuing it is harmful and creates an artificial schism between body and mind.
According to Maslow, self-actualization is aided by peak experiences. The more peak experiences someone has, the more likely they are to be self-actualized, and happy. The thing is that peak experiences are often hard to come by—and it helps if you bring sex into the picture. If Maslow was right, then sex can be an inroad to a happier person.
Bottom line – an orgasm and other ecstatic sexual moments are readily available to most of us, even if we’re already living a fulfilled life.
Sex & Psychology:
In addition, therapists should make sex a priority their work because so many issues that look like other things are linked to sexuality. Is depression the problem, or is it a sex problem causing the depression? How does an anxiety problem impact a person’s sex life, and how might that exacerbate the anxiety? We don’t know if we don’t ask.
If therapists don’t inquire about sex, clients don’t know that it’s OK to talk about it. A client could come in with a sexual problem and never discuss it unless the therapist poses the right question. I have had far too many people tell me that they never had a therapist ask them about sex, not even in an evaluation.
If you’re a person who has been to a therapist or is thinking about seeing one, did you feel comfortable talking about it with your therapist? Would you bring it up if they did not ask? I encourage you to ask your therapist if you can talk about sexual issues with them. If they act uncomfortable or unfamiliar with the request, you may want to consider another therapist.
Finding the Right Therapist:
Don’t we have other things to think about? What about family, intimacy, communication? My answer is simple: sex is an adult training ground for all of these important skills. How are many families created? Sex. How can we deepen intimacy with our partners? Really good sex.
And, how can we hone our communication skills?
Nothing sharpens them faster than good sexual communication. It takes true maturity to reveal what we want, what we don’t want, ask for advice from our partner on how to please them, to stop when things aren’t working, and to share fantasies without judgment. Even partners who have been together for many years often don’t have these skills, and yet taking them for a spin impacts our entire relationship and deepens our connections.
My take? Sex is the life force, whether it’s being used for recreation or for procreation. That force, that power, is going to express itself in us somehow. Personally and professionally I’d like to see it expressed in creative ways rather than destructive. I’m not only talking about having babies or avoiding STDs. Sex can be a tremendous creative expression of self–very healing, very exciting, and very real.
We cannot claim true healing until we have attended to our sexual healing. The field of psychology was founded by sexologists—we should go back to our roots.
Like a lot of people in my field, I’m getting a little tired of the sex addiction debate. There are many sides to it and they can all get to be strident and irritating, even the ones I might agree with. As a former addictions professional, there is an aspect to the arguments that I feel really needs to be addressed. Who does the word “addiction” belong to?
One camp claims that people who compulsively act out sexual behaviors are addicts. They obsess about something sexually, perform one or more behaviors pathologically and usually frequently, and their lives and functioning go down the tubes. Some people in this camp argue that “sex addiction” is a disease. Some also argue that the brains of “sex addicts” show changes in the reward centers of the brain similar to other types of addicts.
Another camp yells, “Where is the research?” Many in this camp claim that sex addiction cannot be proven to exist because there are no consistent studies that show a disease condition. They point to conflicting research about the effect of pornography on the brain, much of which shows nothing conclusive. They also say that since “sex addiction” is not in the DSM 5 (the manual used to diagnose psychological and psychiatric disorders), using the term is therefore irresponsible.
But who owns the words? Regular people who walk around in the world can see someone acting compulsively. They can observe an obsession in themselves. They notice a pattern of behavior whereby a life can be ruined. Am I allowed to call myself an addict if that’s how I feel about it? Are you justified in telling me that I’m wrong? The same therapists who would argue passionately that people should be allowed to self-identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, straight, male, female, trans, or gender fluid are sometimes the very people who want the words “sex addict” stricken from the mouths of those who would identify this way.
I can be at odds with the addiction medicine people, too. Just because something cannot be observed in the brain does not mean that it doesn’t exist as a behavior or a phenomenon, and doctors do not hold supreme authority over our language. Don’t tell me that because “porn addiction” is not a “disease” it is therefore not an addiction. The disease concept has been misappropriated a thousand times since the AMA declared alcoholism one. It makes me nuts when someone says that compulsive shopping is a disease. But in my mind, a disease and an addiction are not the same concept. One is a term for a biological process that may have behavioral consequences, and one is a term for behavioral phenomenon that may or may not have observable or measurable biological processes. I, personally, do not feel that behavioral health practitioners must wait on the medical establishment to figure it out.
The most commonly accepted definition of the word addiction in the addictions field is “continued use of a substance or behavior despite harmful consequences.” To diagnose someone with a dependence on a substance, for instance, we do not need to see health issues or medical dependence on a drug. If the person’s functioning is affected in multiple areas and they refuse to stop, we diagnose them as dependent. One of the reasons for this is that physical health is often the very last thing to go–a life can be in tatters before the health fails. The common term for alcohol dependence (which is in the DSM) is alcoholism (which is not). The common term for obsessive-compulsive use of porn is “porn addiction.” Yet I don’t see people as upset over the use of the former the way they are over the use of the latter.
As a sexologist, a sex educator, and a person who was certified and practiced in the addictions field for a significant part of my career, I do not use the term “sex addiction.” I choose not to because the term sex addiction is too vague and/or imprecise. The fact that it is also overused, often by people who simply want to shame people with high sex drives (sometimes themselves), disturbs me but is not why I don’t use it. The fact that some people who use the term are making loads of money by shaming clients about normal behavior and calling it a disease also disturbs me tremendously, but I won’t allow them to claim the word, either.
So would I use the term “porn addiction” at this point? It’s not as imprecise. I’ve observed that many people who stop the use of internet porn do not have to stop masturbation in order to recover from the compulsive nature of their behavior, and I can observe a marked improvement in multiple areas when they stop watching certain types of porn. This suggests strongly (without proving it) that streaming porn is the mitigating factor. So would I use the term, especially if I had a student or friend who identified this way?
I confess to some cowardice here. So many of my colleagues are polarized at this point that rather than be labeled and misunderstood, I’ve coined the term “porn-exhaustion syndrome” to deal with the realities of that phenomenon. But if the shoe fits in my mind, you’re Cinderella, baby.
Dr. Roz Dischiavo, Founder/Director, Institute for Sexuality Education & Enlightenment
My husband and I live in New England, and we took a walk the other day in Kent Falls State Park, enjoying the fall foliage. After our customary walk up the right side of the falls we followed the road less traveled and our dog, crossed the river and headed back down the opposite side. We came upon a sculpture garden of inukshuks and cairns, and once we really looked we could see that they were beautifully engineered and crafted to balance perfectly.
Enchanted, we began to snap pictures. As I did, I realized that the act of taking the photos was interfering with my encounter with these works of art, and I told him I was going to stop. He was feeling the same, so instead we simply let ourselves look, notice, pointed things out to each other each structure and swapped impressions. The experience became much deeper, richer, and more satisfying all at once.
I’m not putting down photography. A true photographer is creating a work of art. But I hadn’t even allowed myself to feel what I was looking at fully before trying to “capture” the image of it, and it became part of what I have been thinking about recently in terms of the media.
Media has the same word root as mediate–medi: “in the middle,” or, if you like, in between. It’s often a good thing. The original and biggest plus of media such as radio, television and the internet is that media helps us to communicate something across distances, and fast. I appreciate this tremendously as an educator and researcher. I can research a topic in a few afternoons when it would have taken weeks 20 years ago.
A negative, though, is that we forget that the machine is in between. We forget that talking on the phone is not the same as having an embodied experience with someone, we forget that a text cannot emit the scent of a lover, or that an adult sex video is not the same thing as a live sexual encounter. The more that our experience is mediated, the more isolated and depressed we can feel without understanding why. If we have fewer and fewer immediate (im=not, so immediate=not mediated) experiences, we’re in danger of forgetting that our minds have bodies attached to them.
And maybe we’re forgetting, too, in this age of “no pain: no gain,” that our bodies can feel GOOD, and that pleasure is not the same thing as comfort. Comfort is a ceasing of pain. Pleasure is more than that. It is active reception. It is flow. It is joy, it is ecstasy, and it has healing properties that comfort cannot provide.
I’m not going to stop taking pictures. I’m not giving up my laptop. But I am consciously more mindful of my husband, of the New England leaves and of my hound dog sniffing the autumn air.
It’s 6:30 in the morning on Labor Day weekend, and I am up writing because I can’t stop thinking about something, and if I don’t write about it, I’ll probably implode, exercise, or do something equally crazy.
There was a lot of chatter and outrage this month about Miley Cyrus’ performance at the VMA awards, so much that as a sexologist, it caught my attention enough to watch the video (which can be viewed here). I watched this young star dance, stick her tongue out (what WAS that?), gyrate, “twerk”, and touch her crotch on stage, disturbed.
I’m not disturbed for some of the reasons that others are. Performances like these are problems for sexologists not because they are sexual, because, quite honestly, it wasn’t a sexual performance—bear with me, I’ll get to why. They’re a problem because they create negative feelings about sex in many people through the successful conflation of sex and sales. When we watch a performance like this, we know that we, or our children, are being manipulated. And it is this manipulation that we are disgusted by. We then fuse the disgust with our fears about our children’s safety and our own feelings of protectiveness around sex, a vulnerable and sacred area for many, and we become outraged. There are calls for action about “sex on TV” or “sex in the media”.
But Miley wasn’t having sex on stage, not even with herself. She was employing sexualized sales, and it worked. On August 20, Forbes reported that sales of her new track “Wrecking Ball” were at 90,000 and her song was at number 13 on the Billboard chart.
We almost never see sex in the media. If we were to see a true connection between human beings that was spontaneously and authentically sexual, whether it be a playful one, a loving one, or even just a very exciting one, most of us would find it beautiful, arousing or simply natural. But we absolutely never see this. Not even in online porn. What we are watching is not sex so much as it is a performance used to sell a product. In Miley Cyrus’s case, her handlers are selling music, and they are using her as the means to do so. In the case of porn, it is being used to sell more porn, and the products that are advertised on these sites.
We know this, and yet we don’t. The fact is, the true nature of this sales job has been so successful that much of the time the public ire becomes directed at the idea of sex, or even the depiction of sex, rather than the idea of sexualized commercialism. People become enraged about online porn. But to me, porn is not sex. It’s a sales job. I spend hours re-educating college students about the nature of sex due to the unnatural ways that the media often depicts what it is and how it’s done.
I also spend hours helping educators, therapists, and average citizens to re-examine their attitudes about sex (many of them negative and shameful) for the very same reason. We have entire classes in my field for this, called SAR (Sexual Attitude Reassessment). Most students leave a SAR class changed, some for life. Many state that it has set them free from unreasonable fears and expectations, allowing them to have a balanced view of sexuality for the first time in their lives.
This fusion of sex and sales, sexualized sales, should have another name. if it weren’t so early in the morning on a holiday weekend, I could probably come up with one. Sexmercialism? (See, I’m too sleepy.) I’ll call it sexualized commercialism and leave it at that.
Dr. Rosalyn Dischiavo is a professional health and sex educator, public speaker, former therapist, and the founder of the Institute for Sexuality Education & Enlightenment at www.instituteforsexuality.com
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Please visit http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/ZJ5QP2R to take our Interest Survey, and get $10 off your first workshop. Coupon cannot be combined with other discounts.
I believe that intentions are very important. As the Buddha said, “With our thoughts, we create the world.” No matter what your beliefs or practices, it is certain that we cannot achieve something we cannot imagine. As for me, I choose to shoot for the stars and wish you not only happy holidays, but also the satisfaction that comes from learning, teaching and offering what you love. It is a Tantric principle that pleasure is healing, and I wish for you great happiness and pleasure in the coming year in all aspects of your life, knowing that what you receive is as important as what you give.Happy Holidays and a Wonderful New Year to you all.
Roz Dischiavo, Founder
Institute for Sexuality Education & Enlightenment (ISEE)
ISEE will begin to offer some online classes for AASECT CE credit beginning in 2013. Our commitment is to Holistic Sex Education, and we feel this is done best in person. But we also are creating interactive short courses online for your convenience. The calendar at www.instituteforsexuality.com will begin to show these courses as of January.
Speaking of the website! It has been undergoing a complete redesign, and will soon have a new look and much greater functionality. All students, whether in a certificate program or not, will be offered the option of creating an account which will track your courses for you, including showing you which CEs you still need for certification. It will also record which courses you have taken so that you can check your progress. We expected this to be up earlier but unfortunately our very talented designer lives in NYC, and Hurricane Sandy had other ideas. We will send an email when it is up and running.
In mid-December, the faculty is meeting on retreat to determine courses and workshops to be offered next year. The instructors have some wonderful ideas for expanding our classes and we will be posting the classes in mid-December, so please check the website, www.instituteforsexuality.com
Dear ISEE students and community,Happy December holidays to you all from cozy New England! We’d like to give you some news and updates on classes, workshops and programs.
What We’ve Been Up ToISEE opened in October of 2011, and we have had a very successful year in 2012. We have offered classes on anatomy, sexology, holistic sex education and sex therapy methods, Tantra, trauma, sex in later life, sexuality and drug issues, gender variance, and so many more, all using a unique holistic teaching method. We have had great guest speakers such as Tammy Nelson and Gina Ogden who have offered their workshops to very satisfied students. We have drawn students from all over the country and are beginning to see international students attend. Students who attend once are returning again and again, even those not interested in certification. New students are joining the certificate programs. We are so happy that our students appear to be gaining so much from their learning and we, the faculty, are delighted with what we learn from you. The caliber of student at ISEE is amazing, we thank you for attending and enriching us with your presence.
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