How Views on Sex are Changing in Couples Therapy
For many years, the subject of sex has been shrouded in myth and taboo. It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that many medical professionals also tended to believe more conservative but ultimately unsubstantiated claims about human sexuality and relationships. Modern medicine, however, has made impressive strides within the past decade alone. These days, our understanding of the spectrum of sex, love, and everything in-between has expanded far beyond the perceptions of our ancestors. That being said, we still have a ways to go. Just like society grows and evolves over time, so does therapy and the treatments we provide to individuals seeking help for their personal, and oftentimes intimate, lives.
Learning About Sex Shouldn’t be Taboo
Dr. David J. Ley is a clinical psychologist who practices in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He’s worked for years treating various issues dealing with sexuality throughout his career. When he began his practice, Dr. Ley focused primarily on perpetrators and victims of sexual abuse. However, in later years he’s expanded his work to include fostering and promoting healthy sexuality, as well as raising awareness of normative sexual behaviors. According to Dr. Ley, the challenge that many modern therapists face in learning about human sexuality is facing educational barriers.
He explains: “A minority of mental health, social work or medical training programs offer graduate-level training in sexuality issues, beyond covering the paraphiliasand sexual disorders included in DSM-5. Some programs address sexual diversity issues, but not all. Few, if any, states require specific training in sexuality issues in order to qualify for licensure. Only a very few states (California and Florida when I last looked) require a license or documented training in order to call oneself a sex therapist.”
Sex Myths that Need to be Eliminated
The fact that the taboo surrounding sex and relationships persists even in academic and legal circles is problematic for those care professionals who find themselves addressing these subjects in their work. Because of this, there are a few remaining yet pervasive myths about sex and relationships that modern therapy is working to at the very least question, if not completely eliminate. In Dr. Ley’s experience, some of these myths are as follows:
1. Kinks are Rare (and also Unhealthy)
The notion of fetishes and paraphilias was introduced sometime during the 1800’s. Since then, many therapists traditionally believed that such behaviors were considered unusual and rare, and worse yet, abnormal. Luckily, the DSM-5, which has become the go-to diagnostic tool for mental health professionals, now establishes a distinction between paraphilic interests and disorders. What this means is that it is now acknowledged that individuals can have “unusual” sexual interests without experiencing distress or dysfunction.
Other countries have taken this a step further. Dr. Ley notes that “In Scandinavia, they abolished the paraphilia diagnoses several years ago, with no regrets or reconsiderations in the time since.” Moreover, he reveals that according to Canadian statistics, nearly half of the population claims to have at least one “unusual” sexual interest. Perhaps they’re not so unusual after all. After all, what exactly is “normal” in terms of sexuality? This question is fairly difficult to answer considering the diversity of sexual interests in existence. The ultimate goal is that the interest in question is consensual and doesn’t permanently physically harm the individual or individuals engaging in it.
2. Porn Inevitably Leads to Divorce
Porn is perhaps one of the most controversial subjects not only in discussing human sexuality but also in terms of ethics. As always, discretion is key, but while there are many aspects of pornography that frequently inspire debate, some accusations are more founded than others. A popular myth links porn viewing with higher rates of divorce. In fact, there are some who allege that pornography is involved in a whopping 50% of divorces. According to Dr. Ley, the origins of this statement are two-fold. First: “the Family Research Council has asserted that they conducted research, and found that porn was involved in over 50% of divorces. But the Family Research Council is a group founded by James Dobson, which promotes ‘traditional family values’ and lobbies against divorce, pornography, abortion, gay rights, gay adoption and gay marriage.”
It’s worth acknowledging that the findings produced by the FRC were not published in a research journal nor were they subjected to peer review, making their legitimacy highly questionable at best. Dr. Ley explains that the second source of this statistic may be linked with The American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. During a 2003 conference, the Academy allegedly surveyed 350 of their attorneys. According to this survey, around half of these lawyers reported that porn played some part on their client’s divorces. However, this information is suspect because, as Dr. Ley explains: “Because the methodology is unclear, we don’t know if they said they’d seen it in half of divorces, or if half of the attorneys had EVER seen it at least once. But again, this survey has never been published, and these data and methods never analyzed.”
Part of the old stigma against pornography with regards to relationships derives from its use by those who are depressed or lonely as a means of mediating the problems in their relationships rather than facing them head on. That being said, although increased porn usage can be a symptom of relationship troubles, it isn’t necessarily a cause. The real cause lies in the structure of the relationship itself.
3. Casual Sex is Unhealthy
Because sex has been long considered taboo, it follows that the practice of casual sex is seen as an unhealthy practice that is to be avoided. There are many, even within the medical community, who think that sex outside of an emotionally-committed relationship is inherently unhealthy because it is less meaningful. In our society, we might find ourselves faced with the now antiquated viewpoint that casual sex is somehow cheap and dirty when compared with the more emotionally-invested bonding sex seen as part of an ideal committed relationship. It doesn’t help, then, that the research on casual sex is difficult to sort through since it’s very nuanced and multifaceted.
According to Dr. Ley, “Some research has shown that many women experience depression after casual sex, and are less likely to have orgasms.” Meanwhile, further research suggests that the individual’s experience during a casual encounter depends entirely on their attitudes towards it which predict how they’ll end up feeling. For example, if someone thinks that casual sex is bad and cheap they might feel guilty after an encounter. Conversely, if someone doesn’t have these reservations prior to their session of casual intimacy they might not have these bad feelings. The subject of casual sex in its entirety is complex and subjective to individual experience, meaning that classifying it as entirely bad or unhealthy is likely an assumption steeped in one’s own bias.
Times are Changing, So are Relationship Dynamics
While there still exists many misconceptions about sex things are definitely changing and evolving for the better. The science of human sexuality has expanded far beyond the theories and beliefs of its predecessors. This is doubly true for therapy. Today’s therapists have made great strides in the treatment of relationships and reparation of personal and intimate lives. Modern therapy, while still continuously learning and adapting, is now a better resource than ever to dispel some of these harmful myths.
True, there are some therapists who might hold fast to their personal beliefs more than others, and this can influence their methods of treating their clients. However, Dr. Ley explains that “licensed clinical practitioners are held by their ethics to practice based on the best, most current clinical information available. They are also prohibited from engaging in stigmatizing treatments, regardless of the therapists’ religious beliefs.” As such, one should not be afraid to talk with their therapist about any aspect of their lives that they feel might be affecting the health of their relationships, their relationship with themselves, or their overall happiness and quality of life.