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Sex therapy Does it work?; THEY SAY IT'S GOOD TO TALK, BUT CAN TALKING ABOUT INTIMATE SEXUAL PROBLEMS REALLY IMPROVE YOUR LOVE LIFE? JILL TODD FINDS OUT.

Tracey Siever, 36, who works in a publishing office, has been married to David, a 41-year-old production line worker, for 15 years. The couple live in Aylesbury, Bucks and have three children, David, 14, Jason, 13, and Matthew, 11. Tracey says...

"David and I enjoyed a very healthy and active sex life for the first eight years of married life. But six months after Matthew was born I started losing interest. And by the time he was a year old, I'd completely gone off sex. I couldn't understand what had happened and I was very distressed. David and I had lost that closeness and intimacy that comes with a good sex life and we found ourselves rowing a lot. I felt so guilty. David thought I didn't love him any more, he even thought I might be having an affair. Neither was true. I still adored him, I just couldn't face sex. I was told that that's how life is when you have children and a job. I was convinced my sex life was over. I thought my hormones must have changed and I'd be like it for the rest of my life. I spent a lot of my time in tears, and felt constantly depressed. It actually felt like a bereavement. I was grieving for something that had been so special and I was convinced I'd never have again.

My GP thought I was depressed because I'd had a baby. I knew that wasn't it. I was even sterilised because the doctors thought I was worried about getting pregnant again.

David and I were so anxious to save our marriage and try and resurrect our sex life we went for counselling and sexual therapy with Relate. We had a session every week for almost a year. The counsellor took us right back to when we first met to try and ignite the spark that had been there at the beginning.

They also gave us `homework'. We had to set aside time every evening just to talk but not to discuss sex. They made us agree not to have sex for a while, just cuddles. They clearly thought my problem was all in my mind. I couldn't get it over to them that it wasn't an emotional issue. We tried so hard with the therapy but in the end realised we weren't getting anywhere, which made me even more depressed. We were having sex just once every six months - I made the effort for David's sake, but I didn't enjoy it.

For the next few years we just carried on as we were. All the time the tension between us led to more rows. It was horrible. Then three years ago a friend happened to mention some `happy' pills she was taking. They were herbal supplement called St John's Wort, which is supposed to boost your moods. I found them in my local supermarket and started taking them. Six weeks later David mentioned how cheerful and more energetic I'd become.

And then, a few months later, I started getting feelings I'd almost forgotten. I started flirting with David and found my sexual desire was coming back. David was thrilled. I started initiating sex, sometimes even during the day if David was on a late shift.

From being an exhausted, blubbering wreck who was always asleep when David came to bed, I suddenly had bags of energy, felt really happy and wanted sex four times a week. Obviously the pills suited my body chemistry. I've since discovered a lot of women have a biological problem which diminishes their sex drive. I always knew it wasn't in my mind."

Maggie McKenzie, 50, is a psychotherapist who runs a sexuality programme for Spectrum, a psychotherapy organisation. She is single and lives in London. She says...

"I was 31 when I finally decided to seek help for my sexual problems. Every relationship I'd had, including a marriage, had suffered because no matter how hard I tried I couldn't have an orgasm during intercourse.

It was a continual mystery why it should be like that. It not only made me feel bad about myself, but also in my heart I thought it was up to the other person and I kept asking myself why they were always letting me down.

I felt cheated and unhappy. I didn't know what to do or what to ask them to do to help me.

It wasn't good for the men either. They felt I was holding back.

But then I fell deeply in love. I found myself wanting a relationship which was far more intimate and open than anything I'd experienced. And I couldn't bear the relationship to be threatened because of my problems, so I was totally honest and told him I thought I needed help. Luckily he knew where I could get it. He'd been through a men's sexuality programme at Spectrum. So I signed up for the eight-week group therapy course, along with some girlfriends.

What happened was quite dramatic. I'd been sexually abused as a child and it was obviously something I'd never forgotten but I never imagined that the experience could have been the cause of my sexual dysfunction.

But I discovered quite quickly that was exactly what it was.

In my mind I'd said to myself, `I will never share myself with a man.' It was as if I was trying to take revenge for what had happened. Once I knew that I realised I could so something about it. It was the turning point. Just speaking and talking about sex, discovering what is possible with another person is a marvellous joy.

I didn't feel at all embarrassed discussing my problems in front of strangers. We were all there because we needed help. You soon bond.

One of the `homework' tasks we were given, which are designed to build your confidence, was to visit a sex shop. That was a big hurdle. I'd never been in a sex shop. It was scary but it turned out to be really empowering.

The programme was just the beginning. It helped me understand my own sexuality and I opened up a lot more. It taught me to share a lot more of myself, it was totally liberating. Even so, it didn't happen overnight. Although it definitely helped the relationship I was in at the time it was some years before I felt really in control. Therapy had planted the seed and I began reaping the harvest over the next few years. When I finally achieved an orgasm with my partner I called it Jubilation Day. It was so exciting. The knowledge I gained through therapy enriched subsequent relationships. They became much deeper, much easier sexually. I felt so much more fulfilled."

WHAT IS SEX THERAPY?

It involves talking about your problems with a qualified counsellor. You will not be asked to take off your clothes, but you may be asked to carry out sexual tasks at home.

The facts

Surveys suggest that one in five British women have lost all pleasure in love making and one in three experience real difficulties becoming aroused.

Female sexual dysfunction covers a wide range of sexual problems including lack of sexual drive, lack of sexual arousal, no feelings of sexual excitement, or pain with intercourse.

It is particularly common after childbirth, because of hormonal fluctuation and fatigue.

For men the most common problems are impotence, premature ejaculation, erectile dysfunction, and anxiety-related disorders.

The Verdicts

Margaret Ramage, an NHS psychosexual therapist, says: "We generally reckon that a third of people with sexual problems will not be helped by therapy, a third will be helped a bit and the remaining third will be helped a lot. But you do need to approach it with caution. Therapy can do harm. A sexual problem is very often a symptom of something else going on. People need to be aware that if you start talking about yourself you learn things that you might not want to know. Sometimes it is not really a sexual problem but one of unresolved grief. But just talking about things generally makes people feel better and if you work on the grief very often the sexual situation improves as well."

Catherine Kalamis, author of Women Without Sex, says: "Research has shown that around 30 per cent of women's sexual problems have a biological base. Until recently female sexual dysfunction was thought to be `all in the mind' and there is an enormous sense of relief that doctors are listening to what women are saying. Possible biological cases include hormonal imbalance, high blood pressure, diabetes, or thyroid disease. Lack of sexual desire tends to be more psychological. All the arousal mechanisms are in place but there is a mental block switching it off. It can be caused by things such as depression, exhaustion, stress or anxiety. Determining whether the problem is biological or psychological depends on the skill of the clinician. Finding a sympathetic GP is half the battle."

Virginia Ironside, the Sunday Mirror's Advice Columnist, says: "No amount of talking can overcome a physical problem. Once you know everything's okay physically, only then take the second route - because it can take a long time, and, if you go privately, it can be expensive. Never, ever, in a million years, see a sex therapist who isn't properly qualified. Ask to see their qualification, too, and preferably check with the organisation they say they're qualified with. Nine times out of ten you'll be asked to attend with your partner, since there is no such thing as a sex problem on its own. It always involves another person."

WHERE TO GET HELP

For a copy of the Family Planning Association "Sexware: Enhancing Your Sex Life" catalogue (over 18s only) write to: FP Sales Ltd, P.O. Box 883, Mail Order Dept, Oxford OX4 5NT.

The British Association For Counselling (01788 578328) has details of psycho-sexual clinics or counsellors near you.

Relate run clinics for couples with sexual problems (01788 573241).

The Impotence Association (0181 767 7791), for an info pack send an sae to PO Box 10296, London SW17 9WH.

The Spectrum Sexuality Programme. An eight-week course is from pounds 245. 0181 341 2277.

For a free leaflet write to Virginia Ironside, Freepost, "Sex Therapy", Personal Magazine, 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London, E14 5BR.
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Title Annotation:Features
Author:Todd, Jill
Publication:Sunday Mirror (London, England)
Date:Oct 24, 1999
Words:1723
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