May 16

“Ask Dr. Ruth”: Sex Therapist Up Close

Ask people of a certain age to name a famous sex therapist and the answer will probably be “Dr. Ruth.” Ryan White‘s new documentary Ask Dr. Ruth, filmed as the still active Ruth Westheimer was approaching her 90th birthday, now reveals more about her as a person.

“Dr. Ruth’s public life turns out to be the least interesting piece of her story. The first half of the documentary is artistically expansive and frequently emotional,” notes Dan Fienberg, Hollywood Reporter.

Here’s why, as reported by Amy Nicholson, Variety: “…Half of the documentary is spent tracing how Karola Ruth Siegel, of Frankfort, Germany, became the only member of her Jewish family to survive the Holocaust. When she was 10, her mother put her on a kindertransport to a Swiss orphanage. She never saw her parents again, though she still has every letter they sent until communication abruptly stopped.”

The second half is more about her professional life, which has included sex education and therapy, authoring books, and frequent appearances on TV and radio. According to Robert Abele, The Wrap, “America’s Favorite Sex Therapist Gets a Cheerful, Enlightening Doc Portrait.”

Some info about her career, via Justin Chang, LA Times: “What made Westheimer’s 1980s radio program, ‘Sexually Speaking,’ so radical wasn’t just the frank advice she offered her anxious callers or the ease with which she normalized the use of words like ‘penis’ and ‘vagina’ on the air. It was the reassuring lilt in her delivery, the gentle, grandmotherly insistence that the matters under discussion, embarrassing though they might be to those listening, were nothing to be ashamed of…”

Her inner life apparently receives little mention, according to Amy Nicholson, Variety. Dr. Ruth is actually very private herself, not “in touch with her own emotions,” and a workaholic.

Some of the important things we do know about Dr. Ruth are from her words and deeds, per Josh Modell, AV Club:

She’s been unwavering in her support of gay rights, reproductive rights, and empowerment of women, though much to her granddaughter’s chagrin, she resists labeling herself a feminist. More than once in Ask Dr. Ruth, she’s told that her advice—and really just her very existence—saved someone’s life, and she happily accepts that claim as true. She knows that she’s been a force for good in the world, for acceptance and equality.

Watch the trailer below. If you can’t find the movie in theaters, it’s on Hulu:

Jan 17

Sex Therapists As Parents (See “Sex Education”)

What kind of individuals become sex therapists?

Sex Education, a new Netflix series, stars Gillian Anderson as Jean, an “extremely forthright” sex therapist who “overshares” with her son Otis (Asa Butterfield), a teenage virgin (Vulture). He tries to turn this to his advantage by “counseling” his classmates regarding sexual matters.

Is Anderson’s character typical of parents who are sex therapists? An unusually high comfort level with sex talk, surely; weird parent-child boundaries, best not to generalize.

One individual who’s commented in the past on having a sex therapist mom is Tom Cutler (The Guardian). “Her straightforwardness on the topics of sex and what can go wrong with the sexual psyche led me as a boy to view the subject first as intellectually interesting and, second, as perfectly normal, in all its incredible variety. As a consequence, my own son has been brought up in an unembarrassed household where sex questions have always been answered in plain words, and often with a laugh, for if sex is not a funny subject then what is?”

Another “survivor” is Lola Maltz, whose one-woman show in New York, “My Mom Is a Sex Therapist,” was derived from her own personal experiences. From a Broadway World description: “…Lola plays multiple characters, including her Mom, a sexually voracious alter ego, and the full cast of a lesbian safe-sex PSA…” Unfortunately, I’ve found no deeper info than that.

What about the actual practice of sex therapy? Clinician Isadora Alman emphasizes, for one thing, that “there is no personal touching in the office” (Psychology Today).

What kind of educational and professional background do sex therapists have? Alman notes that there may be no state licensing, but an advanced degree and training is necessary. In addition, a sex therapist generally belongs to a specialized professional organization such as the American Association for Sex Educators, Counselors and Therapists or the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality.

One well established—30-plus-years—sex therapist and sex educator is Sallie Foley, who was interviewed by Brad Waters for Psychology Today. Regarding her enjoyment of her work:

What keeps me going every day is that combination of head and heart. Being present to witness people change as they become more empowered to take their journey into their own hands. It’s a commitment to knowing that change requires a presence and a connection.

Sex is different for all of us. One of my favorite writers, Margaret Nichols, who is a sex therapist in New Jersey says, ‘We’re all queer.’ We’re as different in our interests in sex as we are about food and that makes this work very interesting.

Oct 19

Sexual Surrogacy and Sex Therapy: Follow-Up to “The Sessions”

In the new film The Sessions (see yesterday’s post), the role played by Helen Hunt is based on Cheryl Cohen Greene, who actually provided sexual surrogacy to Mark O’Brien. Her new book, An Intimate Life: Sex, Love, and My Journey as a Surrogate Partner, becomes available next month.

Greene is the current vice president of The International Professional Surrogates Association (IPSA), the principal surrogacy training ground. According to Newsweek, however, relatively few certified surrogates are actually available for the hiring—there are “only 25 IPSA-trained surrogates in the country, almost all of them located in California.”

What is surrogacy and what is it not? In the movie, one of the things Mark is immediately told by Cheryl is that surrogacy is not the same as prostitution; rather, it’s time-limited help for a fee. In an interview about her work, real-life sexual surrogate Linda Poelzl explained how she clarifies her role to clients:

…I have a confidentiality agreement. I spell it all out in a paragraph, differentiating my work from prostitution. It’s not a contract for sex:

‘CONFIDENTIALITY AGREEMENT: I understand that the surrogacy sessions are for the purpose of expanding my ability to feel physical pleasure and emotional fulfillment through greater intimacy and increased sensation and to overcome sexual dysfunction.  I acknowledge this session series is not for the purpose of sexual gratification or entertainment and may or may not include sexual intercourse, manual, or oral stimulation.  I understand and will abide by the above agreements.’

Some other interesting things about sexual surrogacy, as indicated by the above-cited Newsweek article:

  • The practice is not widely endorsed by psychiatric professionals or related professional associations, e.g., the American Psychological Association.
  • “More than half of IPSA’s clients are middle-aged virgins, and 70 percent of them are male.”
  • “Only 10 percent of IPSA’s clients are physically handicapped, and teaching them to embrace their sexuality is paramount to helping them find romantic partners. But even after a reaffirming experience with a surrogate, they may feel disconsolate and alone.”

Sexuality counselor Ian Kerner (The Chart, CNN) offers additional info about surrogacy, including its difference from sex therapy:

  • “…(L)ike a therapist/patient relationship, the question of whether a surrogate partner is sexually attractive to the client is not part of the equation.”
  • Sex therapy is different from surrogacy. Many sex therapists neither conduct “hands-on” sessions nor refer to surrogates. Sex therapy is more likely to be similar to other types of therapy—it’s about talking, not doing; it’s about encouraging the client to use his or her own real-life partner as the “surrogate.”
  • The practice of sexual surrogacy is “highly unregulated,” though IPSA does have a code of ethics. Who, though, watches over those surrogates who don’t affiliate with IPSA?

What’s the future of this profession? Surrogate Poelzl’s response (in her 2010 interview) to being so asked:

We are a dying breed. I think some of that has to do with the fear of liability that psychotherapists have; there are people who think this work is excellent, but fewer therapists want to risk their licenses. Maybe I’ll look into training people. We need young blood!