Review of Sexualities


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WOMEN, THERAPY, AND SEX

A Review of Sexualities

edited by Marny Hall, Ph.D.

Binghampton, NY: Harrington Park Press

Review Copyright © 1997 by William A. Henkin

Originally published in Spectator

 

 

As a psychotherapist who is also a sex therapist, I take what I trust will be an understandable interest in the views and experiences of other therapists who work in the arena of human sexuality. Since, in addition, I work a good deal within the wide world of "alternate" sex and gender concerns – fetishes, role reversals, fantasy explorations, body reclamation, gender identity questions, variable orientations: all the stuff that's lately been labeled "queer" – I take especial interest in thoughtful writings that elucidate queer experience.

More than a decade ago, when there were still some rather heated arguments in the pages of the BAR [the Bay Area Reporter: a San Francisco gay bi-weekly newspaper – WAH], the now-defunct Sentinel [another – WAH], and other gay papers about whether the word "queer" could or should ever be legitimately applied to non-homosexual people, and whether some homosexually-oriented people even wanted the designation, Marny Hall published The Lavender Couch: the first "consumer's guide to psychotherapy" specifically geared to lesbians and gay men. And in part because of that publication, whether lesbians and gay men or non-traditional hets were or were not queer began to seem a little academic. Instead, while honoring the differences, it seemed more and more important that in a society as sexually diverse yet repressive as ours (yes, even in San Francisco and New York, and don't forget the 2750 air miles that separate the frequent flyer's meccas), all people had something in common whose modes of erotic relating did not conform with a century of clenched-sphinctered pedantry and posturing about sexual behavior that was presumed to be "normal" and was therefore supposed to be "healthy" and "right" – what the anthropologist Gayle Rubin once called "the charmed circle" of "good, normal, natural, blessed sexuality" as opposed to "the outer limits" of "bad, abnormal, unnatural, damned sexuality." (Rubin, G., [1984], Thinking sex: notes for a radical theory of the politics of sexuality, in C. S. Vance [Ed]., Pleasure and danger: exploring female sexuality. Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul)

Though I had some differences with what Dr. Hall said in her first book, I could say that about any overview of therapy. On balance I found The Lavender Couch a far more useful general guide to therapy consumption than most I'd read, and where her advice was specific to lesbians and gay men I thought it also translated easily for other people whose sexual preferences were not always based in heterosexual, male-superior, genital intercourse. Consequently, when I learned she had edited a new book about sexualities, plural, I thought it was a Very Good Idea.

Now that I've read Sexualities I still think its publication is a Very Good Idea, but not for the reasons I'd expected. First, this is hardly a book about sexualities, plural, at all. It was published simultaneously as a special issue of the journal Women & Therapy, and that, with a pronounced sexual overtone, is what the book is about. No objection here except that as a book its title is unfortunately misleading, and since I know a little bit about the book publishing industry I would guess the blame belongs to her usually more insightful publisher rather than to Dr. Hall herself.

Second, her dozen contributors are excellent and diverse – and, incidentally, mostly from the San Francisco Bay Area. From her own charming biographical blurb ("In 1958, Marny Hall, PhD., LCSW, was expelled from the Emma Willard School in Troy, New York because she liked girls too much. Further indiscretions followed....") through 46 of Annie Sprinkle's "101 Uses for Sex," a concise and blessedly enlightened explanation of "Women, SM, and Therapy" by Spectator columnist Carol Queen, and a gracious, gracefully wry tale about her own experience with breast cancer by JoAnn Loulan ("Our Breasts, Ourselves") the collection is readable beyond the province of only women or people interested in therapy.

Only one article in Sexualities is strictly academic in the sense of being statistical and research-based, which is also the single piece in the book whose writing involves a male ("Gender and Sexuality in the Cyberspace Frontier," by Naomi McCormick and John Leonard), and only one article is strictly academic in the sense of being a formal case presentation ("To Kiss or Not to Kiss: A Case Study of Transformation," by Marcia Quackenbush). But even these articles raise real issues for real people trying to work with real relationships in the waning days of Generation Zero. The Cyberspace piece provides supporting data for what lots of folks have talked about for years: that multiple people prowl the Internet writing porn and such-like come-ons in the guise of other people whose age, sex, gender, orientation, and/or erotic interests can be utterly different from their own, and that the way a cyber writer identifies her or his virtual sex plays a huge role regarding who says what to whom on-line. And some features of the kissing case – which concerns HIV, desire discrepancy, and the enormous importance deeply bonded partners ascribe to their passionate, long-term relationships even after they become non-sexual and even after they become formally non-primary – show up in therapists' offices periodically only because they show up in people's lives.

Three essays from this book engaged me in particular, and for very different reasons. In 1986 Diana E. H. Russell's remarkable book, The Secret Trauma: Incest in the Lives of Girls and Women completely changed the nature of debate about incest because it was so well researched and so eloquent in its compassion for the astonishingly large number of American women whose sexuality and lives had been violated when they were children by the men closest to them: often by the very men most responsible for their care and welfare. As a man, as a therapist, and as a human being I remain indebted to Dr. Russell for helping me to understand the nature and extent of the problem she addressed, and it was therefore with considerable anticipation that I turned to her essay in Sexualities – and with considerable disappointment that I went away disgruntled.

In "Intimacy for Sale" Dr. Russell posits that while men in our society are acculturated to buy intimacy in the form of sex, women, who are not conditioned to pay for sex, purchase intimacy, instead, in the form of psychotherapy. She proposes that therapy has become a successful business because by selling intimacy therapists exploit this need in women, and uses her arguments and selective research as if therapy that is "unnecessary, inappropriate, destructive, or abusive" were the rule rather than the exception.

I agree that as a society we train men to buy sex and that we do not train women to do the same, but from my vantage we encourage men to think that sex is intimacy, and we allow women to accept other forms of intimate self-care most men can't, won't, or anyway don't pursue, from massage to facials to body lotions to make-up to manicures and pedicures to extensive emotional expression to spa weeks. As a therapist with a widely varied clientelle – I see women, men, and people examining their (sometimes multiple) gender identities, as individuals and as couples, any of whom may be gay, straight, and/or bi in a variable mix, nearly all of whom very appropriately desire some degree of intimacy with me as they allow me to share insights into their deepest lives – I bridle at Dr. Russell's poorly supported generalizations about what my clients do and why. She relies on limited use of one-sided research to make a tendentious argument as if she thinks business is most of what therapy is about, which is tantamount to saying that professors scheme their ways into academia chiefly for the summer vacations rather than to teach or do research.

Worse than her attacks on therapy as business, though, Dr. Russell seems intent on misunderstanding the purposes of therapy. She never makes clear what would be wrong about purchasing intimacy in the first place, whether through sex, therapy, massage, or in any other way; but like those feminist fundamentalists who would ban sex work and pornography, she derides the value of constrained intimacies she regards as "ersatz." We live in fractured times when families, friendship bonds, love relationships, and other forms of intimacy that sustained people for millennia are often hard to come by and harder to retain. Sometimes a shoulder to cry on, a steadying hand, or a trained outside observer's insight is the most valuable thing we can buy. In any case, intimacy is not chiefly what therapy is about. It is usually a component of good therapy, as it is a component of many other relationships; but while it is a condition ordinarily necessary for effective therapy, it is hardly a sufficient one.

Unhappily, I went away from "Intimacy for Sale" feeling that Dr. Russell had had a bad run with therapy herself, or that maybe she is one of the many people in the world for whom psychotherapy is not a right path. But by identifying a few bad features of some therapy practices and making them stand for all of therapy, she has done readers the disservice of picking on an ugly straw doll as if it represented the whole toy store, and she's done herself a disservice by resting such a specious piece on her generally superb and well-earned reputation.

As sorry as I felt about the previous essay, just so excited did I feel while reading Nzinga Shaka Zulu's "Sex, Race, and the Stained-Glass Window," described in its abstract as "one person's reflections on her life as an African-American lesbian growing up in a Christian fundamentalist church." Definitely not this New Age white boy's background. It is Dr. Zulu's contention that "the race card is inseparable from the gender card, or even, surprisingly enough, the God card," and she documents that view from the eloquent facts of her life. Her essay is so artistically woven that quoting passages out of context must demean her message; yet, Dr. Zulu is such a sharp writer that failing to quote her would be worse. She begins:

 

I grew up in a traditional African-American church, which is to say that both the choir director and the organist were gay. The closet was full, and people of all sexual orientations winked and hoodwinked their way around the sexual terror that was produced by fundamentalist doctrine....

My church was also traditional because it was racially segregated. Eleven a.m. Sunday has always been the most visible hour of apartheid in America.... I mention race because the arbiters of sexual behavior in our church were white men who ruled from afar.... [and who] sent out written directives on correct Christian behavior.... Racism was their drug of choice.

 

At 17 she "fled" her hometown because people were beginning to suspect she was "attracted to girls." "I left to attend an all-black theological southern college built for the colored' in the 1890s by church missionaries. There I was supposed to metamorphose into a heterosexual...." Instead,

 

I was in love.

With the campus sweetheart.

At a Christian fundamentalist theological college.

In the South.

In 1966.

To be gay on a Christian campus is to be in exquisite pain.... One becomes a sexual charlatan, a sexual chameleon, a sexual comedian.

 

And through it all, God dominated race dominated sex dominated God, like the old children's game of rock-paper-scissors. Black Bible students did not have the same privileges on their campus that white Bible students had on theirs because "It was obvious that the blacks were to be on a tighter rein. Nothing personal. Just obvious." When Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, the black students were not permitted to travel the few hours to Atlanta for the funeral. "Too dangerous. Too much happening." Two days later, when her church had its first integrated conference Paul Harvey spoke about "The Mop, the Broom, and the Hoe." "It was we colored folk who were destined to be tied forever to the mop, the broom, and the hoe."

During her college career and after, male mentors, ministers, Bible college presidents, and other Christian fundamentalists sought sex with her; the campus sweetheart she'd been in love with married a minister, wrote his sermons, and "lambasted homosexuality." At 25 Dr. Zulu left her church "because I could no longer function as a healthy, spiritual being in an organization that was racist, sexist, and homophobic." Yet, she concludes,

 

It is important for us not to demonize fundamentalists in reaction to their campaign against gay rights. The struggles are fierce in the African-American communities in which I have lived.... [where for many people] religion is the anchor, the solid ground, and often the only certainty. Church is the place for connection, both spiritual and communal. It is up to us to remind people that religion should be for healing, not harming.

 

Finally, I would happily make Leonore Tiefer's utterly refreshing essay, "Towards a Feminist Sex Therapy," required reading for every therapist and every therapist in training, regardless of persuasion. Dr. Tiefer, who cites the Gayle Rubin quote I included early in this review, is smart, funny, iconoclastic, and extraordinarily well-grounded in her work as a clinical sexologist, a professor of urology and psychiatry, and a feminist writer. She is happy to retain the tradition of sex therapy that encourages "looking at and touching oneself and one's partner," and happy to "recommend ignoring the DSM [Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, now in its fourth edition, and used by most psychotherapists and all insurance companies to name and categorize emotional problems, including sexual dysfunctions' and sexual disorders.']," because "By ignoring the social context of sexuality, the DSM nomenclature perpetuates a dangerously naive and false vision of how sex really works."

In seeking to create a feminist sex therapy Dr. Tiefer proposes remedial and compensatory education – for women, specifically, but I must say it wouldn't be a bad idea for men as well – and a visionary way of reframing the whole notion of sexuality. Her education program begins with a host of questions therapists as well as clients would do well to entertain, such as What is gender? What does it mean to be a woman? How is sexuality related to femininity? Second, she suggests some basic education about a woman's body's sexual parts, because "It is not just that the genitalia are important to sexual pleasure; it is more that uncertainty about one's genitalia seems to create an inhibiting insecurity." Third, she thinks that women's assertiveness training is essential in matters of sexual communication because "most sex therapists seem oblivious to the fact that heterosexual marriage is an unequal playing field. As a result, they continue to discuss couples' failures in communication in strictly psychological terms rather than acknowledging how communication is linked to sex roles and power dynamics." Fourth, she wants women to reclaim their own bodies "as ever-changing individualized sources of sensations and competencies." And fifth, with a bow to Betty Dodson, she recommends that women learn to masturbate.

Her vision of reframing sexuality is based in the paired questions, "What is sexuality, and what could it be?" Though she thinks "a million ideas are waiting to be born here," Dr. Tiefer begins with four. First, she notes that contact comfort – cuddling and other non-genital, even non-orgasmic pleasure touching – can be rewarding all by itself, and is, in many relationships. Second, she reveres fantasy life including sexual fantasy life – what she calls "mental masturbation" – as a seat of creativity to be encouraged rather than discouraged. Third, with Anne Fausto-Sterling, Sandra Bem, Kate Bornstein, Cheryl Chase, and others, she wants to consider a concept of gender that goes beyond our usual two-category notions. And fourth, she notes that some people are sexually talented while others are not, and that no one should be penalized for using a gift or not using one she doesn't have. This notion is reminiscent of John Money's statement in an Omni interview seven or eight years ago that if we want our children to understand sex we should do what we do when we want them to understand sports: tell them the rules and send them out to practice.

As I intimated a few paragraphs ago, in writing toward a feminist sex therapy Dr. Tiefer is thinking about the needs of women. But one of the more vibrant components of feminism has often been the inter-connectedness of all people and, indeed, of all life. Her prescriptions could easily be applied to men as well as to women to form the basis of a newly humane sex – and psycho – therapy.

The fact that I haven't mentioned every essay in Sexualities does not mean the ones I passed over are less important than the ones I mentioned, it only means I've run out of room. You might prefer to spend your time on different articles. Marny Hall has out together a valuable book, and my only real regret about it is that she didn't contribute more writing to it herself.

 


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