How’s this for a way to break the ice with strangers?:
“So, what do you do for a living?”
“I’m a therapist.”
“Hm. What kind of therapy?”
“I do a lot of work in the realm of sexuality, including issues of sexual harm, and sex therapy with individuals and couples.”
[Stranger awkwardly shifts conversation to another topic.]
I know it seems weird to many people to be a sex therapist. Of course, most people would acknowledge that there’s a need for sex therapists in the world. (Especially when they run into their own sexual problems, as the vast majority of us will at some time in our lives.) But what kind of a person actually chooses that as a profession? – At least, that’s what I remember thinking as a little kid when I stumbled upon an interview with Dr. Ruth Westheimer on TV one day: Who the heck is this weird lady? Now I’m grown up, and here I am.
Call it weird, I don’t care. I love sex therapy.
More precisely, I love therapy that engages sexuality. Because I love sexuality. I find it to be endlessly fascinating. There is no aspect of life that is as rich and multi-layered as sexuality. Sexuality has to do with our deepest experiences of what it is to be a self, full of vitality and vibrancy, as well as our deepest experiences of connection with others. In fact, there is no aspect of life that isn’t touched by sexuality.
And, though sexuality is everywhere, it’s also mysterious. It’s notoriously difficult to pin it down to a clear definition (as modern cultural debates clearly exhibit). It’s definitely a thing… but what is it? I’m not going to try to provide an answer right now; but if I were, it would probably be better to answer in poetry than in prose.
Here’s what I will say: Sexuality is important, and sexuality is good. Sex is the place where immanence and transcendence meet. Where the hugest abstract questions of meaning and purpose meet the tiniest, simplest moments of pure presence. As Dr. David Schnarch points out, sexuality is as much about your capacity to experience the excitation of the nerve endings in the most sensitive parts of your body as it is about the meaning you attribute to those experiences of arousal.
That means that sexuality is not just about physical acts, but about the context of those acts, and the story we tell ourselves about them:
The story of a particular moment of contact…
Which is embedded in a particular relationship…
In a particular season of your life…
A life about which you also tell yourself a particular story…
Which is happening in a particular kind of universe.
All of these things, all at once, folded up into a single moment which can either be a peak experience of delight and aliveness, or a moment of suffering, isolation and alienation. Or anything in between.
Why sex therapy? Because these things are worth talking about. It’s worth discovering what kind of story we are telling ourselves, and then finding out if, perhaps, it is possible to live into a different kind of story that is more life-giving than the one we have known so far. The answer to which, I believe, is always yes.