“There Is No Normal”: A Chat with Couples Therapist Jane Ryan on Sexuality and Relationships

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Jane Ryan is a couples and family therapist based out of Tacoma, Washington. She is also my mom. I was lucky enough to not only grow up learning from her wisdom, but to also chat with her recently about her work with relationships, the myths about sexuality and sex addictions, and the unique and vulnerable nature of each individual’s erotic template.

Ansley Clark: How did you get involved with sex therapy? When did you first discover that this was a field you were interested in and passionate about?

Jane Ryan: My first interest came when two things happened simultaneously in my career. I knew I wanted my practice to focus on couples and I was asked to teach the one course on Sex Therapy offered in the graduate program in which I was a faculty member.

Just to clarify, I do not have a certification in Sex Therapy. And I am very clear with clients that I am not a certified sex therapist. My license and training is in couples therapy. I am a couples therapist who talks to my clients a lot about sex because how can you not when you are dealing with people in their intimate relationships.

Unfortunately, the graduate training programs for couples therapy and sex therapy are kept separate, which, in my perspective, is just an extension of the low quality of sex education overall in our country, starting for our children. Mostly sex education is ignored, presented from a moralistic perspective, or given lip service in our schools and healthcare systems. It is no different for students who are studying to be therapists. Even though sex is such a vital and important part of humans’ wellbeing and health, it is minimized in couples therapy graduate programs.

As a couples therapist, I did not want to ignore or minimize sex or lack confidence in talking to my clients about their sexuality. Also, while I have my own experience of sex and understand my own sexuality, the area of human sexuality is so vast and so diverse I knew I wanted to be extremely well informed about sex and all the ways human beings experience this aspect of life. So I did my own research, and read and read and read to teach myself, and I reached out to certified sex therapists for mentoring, consultation, and learning. My training in sex therapy will be an ongoing, lifelong pursuit.

AC: What is one of the biggest misconceptions about sex therapy, and what do you wish people better understood about this kind of therapy? How do you describe what you do to others?

JR: I think the biggest misconception about sex therapy is the assumption that there are “normal” ways for people to have sex and then there are “abnormal” ways. This is a very judgmental and harmful stance. Many people believe that if they talk about sex with a therapist, they will be told what is normal and what they “should” do. I think most people feel relieved when they learn that there is no normal; sex is whatever people want to create. That’s the beauty of it: it is a creation between people of how to express their love, themselves, and their engagement in life. What I emphasize with my clients is as long as it is consensual and no one is being harmed, anything goes. This is freeing for people. Especially for those of us raised in countries like ours, where sex is associated with a lot of shame and fear.

I describe my work by saying that I help people understand and explore their own eroticism while helping them to be more comfortable with being vulnerable. We are never more vulnerable then when we are allowing space for our own erotic nature to be revealed and be expressed. This is the power of sex; it provides us all with an opportunity to be vulnerable, and then hopefully, to find acceptance, security, and a sense of belonging within ourselves and with our partner(s).

So much of our eroticism is our responsibility, not the responsibility of a partner. But people want others to “just know” what is erotic or a turn on for them without even knowing that themselves. When we take responsibility for our own sexual pleasure, it is very empowering.

AC: What do you think are some of the most positive and the most negative ways that American culture talks about and portrays sex today?

JR: Well, for sure our culture is way more negative about sex than positive. The negative portrayals mostly come through a lens of moralism, fear and shame, and a lack of information. We are taught to fear and restrict our body’s experience of pleasure from a very early age. Sensuality and sexuality both are feared. We are taught to fear diversity in sexuality; the things that are not understood by the majority are now labeled as a disease, like the use of the term sex addiction. This is a very damaging term that creates even more shame. I think we are overloaded with contradictory messages about sex. Sex is not understood as a fluid, evolving, positive, loving organic energy; it is understood as something to brag about while also being ashamed for.

I hold onto the positive message that there is both dark side of sexuality that needs to be acknowledged and understood, but not feared or judged, and there is the positive, loving, joyful side of sexuality that helps humans express themselves in the most unique and vulnerably open way. One of my mentors introduced me to the phrase, “sex as a positive loving force.” I love this because we tend to focus on so much of the negativity around sex.

AC: Could you talk about this idea of sex addiction a bit more? What do you think about the disease or term “sex addiction”? Are people still diagnosed with sex addictions? Why do you think that this is an unhelpful term/diagnosis? 

JR: So I will try to be succinct about sex addiction, but this is a complex topic. First, I believe we are a culture of diagnosing, meaning as soon as something does not fit with the mainstream or one worldview, our culture likes to make it a “problem,” or diagnose it as if this misunderstood, foreign thing is wrong. The research around sex addiction has been done by those who created the label, mostly in inpatient settings for sex addictions. So it is research that is biased, unreliable, and invalid.

Unfortunately, “sex addiction” is a very popular label in the world of therapy now, mostly by therapists who do not have a comprehensive education in sexuality and by chemical dependency counselors. Clinical sexologists and sex therapists typically do not use this term at all.

Here is what I believe about sexual behaviors that are frequently labeled as sex addictions. When sexual behavior feels out of control, does not make sense, creates anxiety or causes pain either within an individual or within a relationship, an easy way to deal with the very painful and very real emotions and experiences that are part of the behavior is to label it as an addiction and therefore believe the person engaging in the behavior had no control over what they did. Immediately thinking of anything in terms of having no control means that we do not have to be accountable for our decisions, actions and behavior. Not having to be accountable is not a path that brings healing and empowerment. It only brings hopelessness, shame and a sense of disempowerment. And since sexual behavior carries so much shame especially when it falls on the extreme end of a continuum, thinking of the kind of behaviors that are very real and very damaging behavior as a disease relieves the person from having to look more deeply at the destructiveness of their decisions, actions, and behavior in a way that can foster growth, healing and repair within relationships and within one’s self.

Partners often buy into this label first because, ironically, it brings some comfort to know that whatever behavior our partner did that hurt us, it feels a bit less painful if I define it as a disease that the person had no control over rather a decision they made to engage in something so hurtful. When partners use this label, it is a coping strategy to deal with their own intense pain.

People do engage in sexual behavior in dysfunctional and out of control ways. For example, spending all day at work on porn sites, or choosing over and over again to look at porn rather than engage in real intimacy with others, or masturbating so much that one excludes socializing or tending to responsibilities; or going into debt and keeping financial secrets to pursue sex; or seeking out partners consistently outside of our intimate relationships and breaking our relational contracts but keeping it secret. All of these behaviors create deep pain and reflect deeper serious issues that need to be addressed to restore individual wellbeing and relational wellbeing.

Some underlying issues can be: anxiety, fear of intimacy with real people, social phobias, obsessive-compulsive disorders, or narcissism. And it is important to look at and treat the underlying behavior. But when we label something as a sex addiction, there is not much anyone can do except limit and restrict that person’s sexuality.

And who is to say what is “normal” when we are talking about frequency, actions, interactions, etc. The proponents of sexual addiction say that the only acceptable sex is within a marriage, between straight, cisgender people, never with more than one partner at a time, never involves BDSM. So, we can see from this how many other people are excluded and marginalized and made to feel as if there is something wrong with them if they do not share these kind of erotic templates.

AC: What do you wish more people understood about sex?

JR: I wish people first understood their own bodies more: how they function and their anatomy. I also wish people understood that sex is complex and happens within the complex contexts of one’s family background and history, life experiences, and relationships. Everything we experience from birth fuels our sexual nature and that if we are open to and aware of our own erotic energy, we can interact with our sexuality in a very energized, and life affirming way.

AC: What do you wish more people understood about relationships?

JR: I wish people understood that relationships are hard and require us to choose daily to be our best selves and be clear about the kind of partner we aspire to be. [If we’re not clear about the kind of partner we want to be], we have no map when things feel like they are falling apart. The “honeymoon” period is short and what follows requires us to be self-aware and self-accountable.

The myth of “happily ever after” keeps us stuck in unhelpful, immature expectations: for example, if we love someone, everything should always just flow and be easy. But this just prevents us from growing and creates barriers to being accountable for how we show up with our partner(s). What we do matters. How we act in big and small ways over time is what becomes our relationship.

AC: How do you maintain your own resilience/positive outlook when this job gets tough?

JR: During tough moments in sessions with clients, I remind myself that even the most angry, disengaged, and closed off clients want to feel understood, loved, and accepted And that pain is underneath all their loud, defensive, or offensive behavior. Outside of sessions, I do a lot of practicing what I ask of clients. I carve out time for myself. I try to honor my body by being present in it and being aware of and responsive to it. I try to pursue things that restore my own sense of peace and wellbeing.

AC: Who are some sex therapists and other individuals in this field that you look up to?

JR: My favorite sex therapist is Esther Perel. She has a very international, multicultural stance about sex. I learn so much from her perspective that humans and sex and love are all complex things and can’t be reduced to either/or, right/wrong. I also love Marty Klein because he is so brilliant about how sex is used by politicians and the moral majority to instill fear and shame and he is so clear about how this is not what will help us accept our sexuality.

 

Jane M. Ryan has a Masters Degree in Couple and Family Therapy from Pacific Lutheran University. She has post-graduate training in couples therapy through The Couples’ Institute in Menlo Park, California. She has been practicing for nearly 20 years and has an office in Tacoma, Washington. Her specialty is helping couples work through crises in their relationship, especially helping couples address the sexual and relational aspects of breast cancer and healing after infidelity. To learn more about her, visit her website at ryancouplestherapy.com.

 

Ansley Clark recently graduated with her MFA in poetry from the University of Colorado Boulder, where she currently teaches creative writing. She is the author of the chapbook Geography (dancing girl press 2015). Her work has appeared in Typo, Sixth Finch, Black Warrior Review, inter|rupture, DIAGRAM, Denver Quarterly, the Volta Blog and elsewhere. She can be found here: http://ansley-clark.tumblr.com/

 

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