People are frequently interested in why and how I became a sex therapist. I suspect my story was not particularly typical, but it’s a fun one to tell.
This sounds unbelievable, but I have always been interested in psychology, families, and sexuality. I grew up in a psychologically minded family. Both my parents were consistently attentive, loving, and warm. They had a wonderful marriage and always seemed to enjoy spending time together.
(I knew how lucky I was to have such parents, but when I became a psychologist, saw patients, and learned about other people’s experiences in their families, and when I read the research about how common adverse childhood experiences are, I was astounded by my luck.)
My mother was a medical social worker, and was always open about sex. When I was young, she would read me very progressive books about where babies come from. These books used all the correct names for sexual organs and accurately described how babies are conceived and born.
So even when I was a small child, I was able to talk about sex in an open and unashamed way. It was always okay to ask questions about sexuality in my family.
Most people in this country have a very different experience. If you grow up in a sex-negative home or a “sexual vacuum” home where people act like sex does not exist, you’re likely to feel squeamish and ashamed talking about sex. (Luckily you can over come this as an adult.)
My mother had been a high school English teacher, but she went to social work school when I was eight. I used to read her graduate school textbooks, including some about families and sexuality. I have warm memories of lying alone on my parent’s bed with my mother’s textbooks scattered all around me.
These books described social work interviews with different men and women. They contained vivid case examples, descriptions of people’s different life experiences. Some were about child abuse and rape. A lot were Freudian.
I think my mother was a little worried that I would be upset by what I was reading, but I wasn’t, so she let me keep reading.
The books were not disturbing to me because I was growing up in a safe, cocooned existence, protected from abuse. (I do not recommend trying this yourself if you came from a family with neglect or abuse, because it would be too triggering. If you come from an abusive family, then you should explore your toxic experiences with professional support.)
When my mother died and I cleared out her house, I found that she had saved a series of homegrown “social work” interviews I had done with my friends about their families, with specific questions about how they felt about each parent and each sib and their general feelings about their upbringing. I would write each question and then type blank lines for me to record their replies. I did these when I was in middle school, so I was somewhere between 11 and 13 years old.
I only had my life to compare it to, and no one’s life was exactly like mine. Some people loved one parent and not the other. Some friends revealed that they did not like either parent. Some people had parents who drank too much. Several of my friends had siblings who bullied them.
Certain of my friends were amazed at hearing the words that came out of their mouths when they answered me, and I got to share their astonishment.
I had the intuition to promise everyone I would keep what they told me as confidential, and of course, it was. Looking back, this childhood project blows my mind, because in essence, this is what I wrote about in my 1998 book SexSmart: How Your Childhood Shaped Your Sexual Life and What to Do About It.
After college and graduate school, I became licensed as a psychologist and began my generalist clinical practice. I did many different kinds of training, much of it very powerful stuff. It ran the gamut between classical psychodynamic training, hypnosis, and Reichian/bioenergetic therapy (which is very body-based). In the 1970’s, I was lucky enough to work intensively with Myron Sharaf, Ph.D., who had been a beloved student of Wilhelm Reich’s .
Over time, I became colleagues with an endocrinologist named Andre Guay, who I had hoped with send me some infertility patients. He said what he really needed was a sex therapist. So I set off to get trained in sex therapy. The training took several years, but it was a labor of love, and doing sex therapy was a great fit.
So that’s the story of how I got into sex therapy. Writing this all up makes me want to ask Dr. Ruth some questions…. I hope my journey held your interest.
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