Desire Discrepancy

     No single argument, short of physical or verbal abuse, should end a relationship. And arguing in a relationship is seen by a modern couples therapist as a positive way to resolve a difference in perspective. How a couple argues, how a couple respectfully approaches difference, and how a couple stays away from negative, unhealthy interactions, makes the difference.

     So, for a couples therapist, a relationship ending disagreement is not a single event, but rather a series of failures over time about a single unresolvable topic. Most chroniclers of relationship point to sex and money as primary problems. As a sex therapist, a couple’s sexuality is seen as a metaphor for the emotional and psychological health of a relationship.

     In every couple, there is a desire discrepancy, with one person in the relationship wanting either more frequent or more adventurous sex. When that gap between distancer and pursuer is wide enough, then this constitutes a kind of ongoing disagreement that can end a relationship.

     If a desire discrepancy cannot be resolved, then both partners feel continuously hurt, become anxious in the relationship, and with this relational anxiety avoid both their partner and their own sexuality. If this goes on long enough unchecked, or unmediated by a good couple/sex therapist, then one or the other partner will leave.

     A relationship is not about what happens, but what processes a couple has to resolve difference. Processes can be learned and can be taught. If a couple feels that they have a way to resolve whatever happens, big or small, then disagreements are not relationship ending.

     Let’s look at sexual initiation as part of the difficulty of desire discrepancy. If one partner initiates 99% of the time, then this pursuing partner will feel unwanted and frustrated, and also continuously set up for rejection, which leads to anxiety and avoidance. If this balance is reduced even marginally, say to 80%, both partners will feel dramatically more engaged in the relationship.

     The bottom line is that couples need to feel that they have a process for quickly resolving any kind of conflict in a respectful and timely manner, and that no relational topic, such as a mutual sex life, is off limits.

Stephen Duclos, Licensed Family Therapist, AASECT Certified Sex Therapist and Supervisor

A Historical Relationship Apart

The Danish Girl (2015)  |  Directed by Tom Hooper  |  Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander, Matthias Schoenaerts

Tom Hooper’s The Danish Girl was presented in Roy Thompson Hall at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival. My wife and I were among the 2,630 in the audience. For some time now, cinema has become a primary art form in every country on earth. The visual word has now taken it’s place beside the written word. Even the machines we use to read a book are the same machines we use to view a film. 

One of the things that we have lost along the way is the power of watching a film as a community. Millions of people will watch this astonishing movie at home alone, or maybe with a partner, and will miss the drama of being in a theatre with thousands of others experiencing a unique and groundbreaking story for the first time. This is a political loss, as well as an aesthetic and emotional one. Talking about the transgender community is a very different conversation once this film is seen, and talking about it with a community of strangers is even more politically powerful. From my seat, what I observed was the emotional reaction of the men around me. We had spent some time, 90 minutes or more, in the long queue for this movie, complaining about standing in line, talking about Boston and Toronto, and even about children and grandchildren. I do not think that the men in this diverse multicultural audience were anticipating, while waiting in line on a Sunday morning, what they would be experiencing a few hours later.

A young man in the seat in front of me hid his face at the end of the film when the lights came up, unable to control his emotions, still crying as the credits swept by. He quickly found his baseball cap and pulled it tight over his forehead. The man beside me, whose wife did not like watching films and was not present, and who two hours before had been happy to talk about the festival and its films, shook off my own muted look and sigh, still unable to process what had just happened. More than the women in the audience, men’s reactions seemed to have caught them unawares. An Indian man was being comforted by his wife two rows down, his head down, and an older man simply left the theatre to be alone. None of this is possible watching a film on your MacBook. Even the director, Tom Hooper, entering the theatre to begin a discussion of the film, was not immune. He bowed to the standing audience, put his head in his hands, and asked for a minute to compose himself. One almost felt the women in the audience surge to his aid, as their combined voices emitted a soundscape of encouragement. The men felt relieved, as one of their own had exhibited a public acknowledgement of their own grief. We need to start watching films in large cinemas again. 

It may be that the grief of the men in the theatre was attached to the possibility of moving from the masculine to the feminine, which might finally allow us to move away from our collective alexithymia. Or it may have been the idea that we would have a partner that would still love and respect us if we actually expressed what we were feeling. Or it may be our own surprise at our empathic and respectful support for a man willing to undergo a risky physical change to become the woman that she surely is. 

The film itself starred a cisgendered male actor. This is a general problem in theatre and cinema. Why not have a blind actor play a blind character? Why not have a transgendered actor play a transgendered character? Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman (1992) was lauded for his performance, which I thought paled in comparison to a blind actor playing a blind person in the Iranian film Color of Paradise (1999), directed by Majid Majidi.  With Scent of a Woman and Rain Man, those of us familiar with blindness or autism found the characterization awkward and incorrect, spoiling the films. And this may be true here as well. Mr. Hooper, responding to a question from the audience on this point, did refer to his research with a trans man who is also an actor. This seemed a small sample size. One of the specific problems with the film is a lack of a cultural context. How did Einar and Gerda’s 1925-1930 Amsterdam community react to this movement from a man to a woman? Other than one gratuitously violent scene in a park, there was nothing that suggested a broader social awareness.

And yet the film (and its acting) is powerful despite its flaws. The relationship of the couple, two painters, represents our own historic misperceptions of gender, and what that produces in art and in life. Einar (Eddie Redmayne) is publicly lionized (and paid) when male for basically a minimalist landscape repeated over and over again, while his wife Gerda (Alicia Vikander, recently of Ex Machina) paints more complicated portraits that are scorned. When Gerda begins her series of paintings of her husband as a provocative female (Lili), the male hierarchy pays notice, and she is given exhibitions. As Einar slowly moves toward becoming Lili, he gives up painting altogether, preferring to work on becoming a woman as an end in itself. The power struggles of the opposite sex couple give way to acceptance and love, as the deconstruction of Einar leads Gerda toward another kind of relationship with Lili, as well as with her own art and life. 

Alicia Vikander is ferocious from her first appearance at the beginning of this film, which is as much a story of her changes as Lili’s. There is a great deal of nuance to her performance, which may be hard to notice in the face of Eddie Redmayne’s Noh-like gesture acquisitions, trying to act as a female acts while acting as a male trying to become a female. Ms. Vikander has to break apart herself with each of her partner’s decisions to move forward to find her authentic self. Gerda's own complicity in Einar’s movement from chrysalis to butterfly haunts her until she begins seeing her actions as a positive and inevitable initiation. Gerda is Einar’s chrysalis. Playing a part well in reaction to another actor seems difficult, more difficult perhaps than playing the part of the central character in the drama. 

There is a part of the story involving Einar’s friend, Hans, who becomes Gerda’s friend as well, played by Matthias Schoenaerts, that does not work, except for one brief comic moment. I kept wishing that Hans, always dressed in a series of immaculate suits of the period, would sit down and loosen his tie every once in a while. It was a false note that allowed for logistics of plot development, but detracted from the primary narrative of the couples (Gerda/Einar; Gerda/Lili). 

And Mr. Redmayne. What was it about this story that made us weep? Was it the painful process of difference? Was it the embodiment of male and female made manifest? Was it about the courage to take the psychological and physiological risk? Or was it about human possibility?

We all, men and women in the theatre, were able to join in the process. This is acting skill. Whether Einar is posing as a man in a dress, his legs angled out, his neck at an angle, or whether it is Lili as voyeur and student watching behind a glass as a woman moves erotically, Mr. Redmayne draws us to her. We lose our critical factors of judgement. Our neurobiology shifts from that part of our brain that is rational to that part of our brain that feels, that is not rational. This vulnerability, long denied to men, opens us up, exposes us. This is the pain of empathy.  And it hurts. 

Stephen Duclos, Licensed Family Therapist, AASECT Certified Sex Therapist and Supervisor

Touching and Intimate


The Sessions (2012)  |  Directed by Ben Lewin  |  Cast: Helen Hunt, John Hawkes, William Macy

(On September 9th, 2012, I was able to preview The Sessions at the Toronto International Film Festival. Both the Director, Ben Lewin, and the cast were available after the film for questions and answers. This review includes and makes reference to their commentary.)

Based on the life and writings of Mark O’Brien, a writer and poet, Director Ben Lewin has crafted a story of love and sex, disability and possibility. At once a comedy and a heartbreaking portrayal, this film catapults sex therapy and sexual surrogacy out of the shadows. John Hawkes, playing Mr. O’Brien, is filmed exclusively from the waist up. Even when sipping mouthfuls of air (when not confined to his iron lung), he figures out a way of delivering complexity with his voice and eyes alone. And his comic timing keeps the audience surprised, over and over again. Helen Hunt, playing his sexual surrogate, Cheryl, inhabits her nudity with such natural grace that the social constructions around sexuality and disability disappear. What is left is entirely normal, lacking only logistical technique and education. In a more comic role, William Macy, as a Catholic priest and Mark’s religious advisor, struggles with the teachings of his church amidst the sexual yearnings of this unique parishioner.

Although much will be made of the sexual aspects of this film, and the nudity of Ms. Hunt, its power rests on the humanity of Mr. O’Brien, who has a legendary status in the disability community, and is beautifully played by John Hawkes, who won an Oscar for his work in Winter’s Bone (2010). The opening scenes of the movie include Mr. O’Brien’s graduation from the University of California at Berkeley on a gurney, and his attempts at powering the gurney backwards as a kind of wheelchair with mirrors, an experiment that did not work. A documentary film has previously been made of Mr. O’Brien’s life, Breathing Lessons (1997), which won an academy award. Mr. O’Brien happened to live in Berkeley during a critical time in the disability rights movement. The first center for independent living in the United States was established here through the efforts of Judy Heumann and her associates around 1972. (The second center was established a year later in a section of a dormitory at Boston University by a group that included this writer.) Living in Berkeley amidst disability rights activists was a perfect place for Mr. O’Brien, whose journalistic missives are included in his book, How I Became a Human Being (2003). A flavor of this is presented in this film, although Mr. Lewin has focused less on the political than on the personal.

Mr. Lewin makes it clear that he based this film on Mr. O’Brien’s article, “The Sex Surrogate”. He includes Mr. O’Brien’s own words and dialogue from this piece, which are wry and darkly comic. Mr. Lewin chose not to incorporate Mr. O’Brien’s attraction to men, or to introduce his unrequited love for certain men, or his internal struggles with orientation, which are part of his writing. This is a quibble in a film that is trying to get at a more universal theme, that is, the need for reciprocal human touch and intimacy. This need is as critically important for a man with a disability as it is for his sexual surrogate, and the needs of these two collide from opposite ends of the touch spectrum in a way that alters both.

Although Mr. Lewin and Ms. Hunt both describe this film as a comedy, there is a pathos at work that avoids the sentimental while including the difficulties in Mr. O’Brien’s life. For example, there is a scene in the film where the power goes out in his neighborhood, and the pump for the iron lung stops working. This is a reminder that, in Mr. O’Brien’s position, even breathing cannot be assumed. For most of the film, John Hawkes renders this life in a comical tone; the audience begins to anticipate the quip that will arise from a situation. Certainly around sexuality, aspects of premature ejaculation and first intercourse are easy comic foils And in these moves toward the comic, the acting is considerably different from Daniel Day Lewis’ performance in My Left Foot, with which this film will inevitably be compared.

As the film develops, however, the complexity of the relationship between Mr. O’Brien and his sexual surrogate becomes increasingly poignant in an unexpected way that left me, and at least the Toronto audience around me, sobbing. Helen Hunt manages to convey every good therapist’s experience with that one person that transcends the clinical nature of the work. The facade of boundaries, transference, and protocol drop to reveal two humans in the midst of a profound relationship. And here the necessary mutual decision to part ways is presented viscerally. The crux of the movie is contained in Ms. Hunt’s breakdown. And then this comedy transforms into something else, a gloss on the vagaries of human life, a commentary on touch, intimacy, sexuality and relationship. A new paradigm emerges on the ineluctable universality of sexuality in all its relationships.

Once this film engages a larger audience, the dialogue around sexuality, and sexuality and disability, is likely to shift. And the profession of sex therapist will become more a part of the dominant cultural narrative. It was surrogacy that destroyed Masters and Johnson, and it is now a film about surrogacy that may allow sexual science to enter the public frame as a widely accepted discipline.

Stephen Duclos, Licensed Family Therapist, AASECT Certified Sex Therapist and Supervisor

Ian Kerner: Your wife's best friend

She Comes First takes a no-nonsense, but thorough and psycho-educational approach to teaching men, not only about women’s sexuality, but about their own.  The vast majority of the book’s focus is on the art of cunnilingus and oral pleasure, but it is through this lens that an exploration other major areas and ideas around sexuality are explored or touched upon.

Kerner implodes any myths regarding sexual functioning that have received air over the course of our sexual history. For example, the existence of the “G spot,” a distinct target, or a magic area whereby stimulation produces the female ejaculatory response. After clarifying, repeatedly, that all female orgasms are clitoral, and spending several chapters examining the inner and outer parts of the clitoris (head, shaft, base); Kerner explains that, “For all its hype, the G spot…may simply be nothing more than the roots of the clitoris crisscrossing the urethral sponge” (pg.51).  And although the urethral sponge is attached to the vaginal ceiling, it is still a member of the clitoral network and therefore, technically, a clitoral orgasm. This in mind, Kerner renames the “G-spot” the “clitoral cluster” to more accurately portray its role in the female sexual response cycle. 

Illustrations guide the reader through detailed descriptions of sexual anatomy and play for each stage of arousal (eg, coreplay, foreplay, preorgasm, orgasm, and moreplay). Breath, rhythm, kissing and the first kiss, hygiene, fantasy, and body position are all considered as Kerner teaches his audience of the nuances that can “make” a sexy encounter. He spares no detail in his approach to the material, leaving no guess work for his male (or female) audience. The reader leaves with a multitude of approaches to the art of cunnilingus, including the use of teeth/gums (albeit VERY delicately) against the female partner’s clitoris and clitoral hood to achieve orgasm. 

The chapter “Scent and Sensibility” was particularly refreshing as Kerner essentially tells his male audience to turn their fishy whines into enthusiasm. This is not without basis, of course, given the time and attention spent dispelling the myth that vaginas can have an odor and are, therefore, full of bacteria, germs, or just plain filthy. As Ian states, “All this fuss and hullaballoo over hygiene; and yet, in reality, a woman’s genitals are a self-cleaning system-more sanitary than many other parts of the body, including the mouth” (pg.68). No woman tastes or smells exactly like another, a point driven home by the comparison of women to wine, so, as Kerner concludes, “Enjoy and savor her unique cassolette… theres an idea worth raising a glass to and toasting” (pg. 69)!

What I find most helpful about the work, is that it really breaks down the modern sexual script, with penetration being paramount and the ultimate pathway to female orgasm. Too often I see how this script harms not only men, but neglects the basic sexual needs of women; ultimately placing unnecessary strain on the couple. Kerner takes a great deal of pressure off of the penis, punctuating pleasure in all its avenues.

Paula Leech, Licensed Family Therapist, AASECT Certified Sex Therapist and Supervisor