By Jeanette Hurt
Photo by Ekaterina
Pokrovsky via Shutterstock
Last August, clinical psychologist Dr. Lynn Vice saw something unusual. One of the first certified sex therapists in the country and a three-decade veteran of the field, Vice typically runs a steady business of teaching others how to get their groove on. But Hope Springs, the Meryl Streep-Tommy Lee Jones romantic comedy, hit theaters in the summer of 2012, and Vice’s business jumped about 25 percent.
The movie was fairly realistic, Vice says, and it sent people to her door. “The therapist gives very similar assignments to the ones I do,” she says, “except I don’t tell people to go have oral sex in a movie theater.” Patricia Connors, a sex therapist who practices at Pathways Counseling Center in Brookfield, also approved, saying the film provided “good, accurate information about relationships.”
Like the characters Streep and Jones portray, many couples seeking the help of sex therapists haven’t been intimate in years, if not decades. Vice recently assisted one couple in such a situation. “I saw them for five visits,” Vice says, “and now, they’re just on cloud nine.” The couple, who for obvious reasons prefers to remain anonymous, says Vice gave them a road map for getting back together: “If we hadn’t seen her, we would have stuck it out, but our lives would be much less. We would have stayed unhappy.”
Patients often display an initial awkwardness, and myths abound. Hollywood hasn’t helped. Although Hope Springs encouraged couples to seek help, The Sessions, in which Oscar-nominated Helen Hunt plays a sex surrogate, gave some the impression that sex therapists help in the most intimate way possible. Not the case.
“My patients do not have sex in front of me,” Vice says. “Sex therapy is talk therapy, but it’s very specific talk therapy. We talk about what goes on in their sex lives, and I give people specific strategies to use in the privacy of their homes, and then we talk about how it goes.”
To practice kissing, Connors gives a couple instructions, leaves the room and returns to process the experience. “In some ways, a sex therapist is almost like a coach,” she says. “First, you act as a relationship therapist, then you act as a behavioral coach for the exercises that are done at home.” Delving into the intimate details of what goes on in and outside of the bedroom is part of the job.
The American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists began certifying sex therapists in 1976. Certification requirements aren’t easy: a graduate degree, post-degree clinical experience, and a valid state license to practice psychology, medicine, social work, counseling, nursing, or marriage and family therapy.
All of that knowledge and experience transfers into assignments for patients. Vice tells her patients to schedule “sex dates.” Men will often complain that it’s not spontaneous, but Vice has her rebuttal: “Let’s think back to when you were dating. What happened during the week? You talked to each other on the phone, saying nice things. If you’re a woman, you wore a nice outfit, and if you’re a guy, you cleaned your car, picked out a nice restaurant, and finally, you’d go and have spontaneous sex that you spent the whole week planning.”
Changing misconceptions is common. “Sometimes, with sex therapy, the actual behavioral solution is counterintuitive to what people might expect,” Connors says.
Vice’s anonymous couple, for instance, initially rebuffed the idea that forced interaction would help. But it did. “This experience was not without its uncomfortable moments,” the husband says, but “ours was a four-month journey that was worth every moment we invested.”