Advice you didn’t know you needed from a sex therapist in the #MeToo era

Shirley Baron sits in her office. The bookshelves behind her are filled with studies, books and knowledge about all things sex and psychology.

By Hannah Farrow
Medill Reports

Free porn, internet dating and the hookup culture affects American’s sexual behavior a lot, says Shirley Baron, a Northwestern University clinical assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences who’s been a certified sex therapist for over 30 years. In her black and white office on the 27th floor of a highrise in the middle of Chicago, Baron discusses modern relationships and what to do when anxiety problems arise in the bedroom.

What’s a common problem?

For women, low desire. When we see couples, a common presentation is desire discrepancy — a disconnect between his desire and her desire. I see just as many men as women, and a lot of men have problems with performance anxiety.

Do you see performance anxiety in women?

Yes. Performance anxiety is sort of a buzz phrase for erection problems, but women also feel pressure to “perform.” A lot of what happens in sex therapy for sexual dysfunction is trying to take the pressure off sex, expand the definition of sex, help people to focus more on pleasure and relaxing and intimacy, and to undo some of that pressure that builds up anxiety.

How does free porn on the internet affect your patients?

The “hookup culture” puts a lot of focus on sex. First, you have sex, and then you decide if you want to get to know the person, rather than gradually getting to know each other, and then feeling comfortable getting more intimate, which may seem safer. Although for some people, avoiding the emotional part can feel safer. Some people will say it works better if it’s anonymous. I can’t tell you how many people say to me, “I feel like all women want is sex.” And women say the same thing. “If it doesn’t become sexual right away, he’s going to lose interest.” Both parties are feeling like they’re supposed to do something that they don’t know if they really want to, but what choice do they have?

What advice do you give when people present those problems to you?

I try to challenge the assumption that there’s only one way to go. If people have a better sense of what they really want, they’re more likely to find it, rather than just being responsive to whatever comes their way. As far as porn, some patients create this view of sex that isn’t realistic in real life. Porn is not all a bad thing; people can learn about sexuality, but they can also learn a distorted view of sexuality. It’s not good or bad; it’s how it’s used.

What do you think people should do to make sex more positive?

What does it mean to be in a relationship? What are you seeking through sex? What motivates them to have sex with a partner? Sometimes people just look at me like, “That’s a weird question.” There are all kinds of reasons why people have sex and what they seek through sex that really have nothing to do with sex necessarily. To feel desire, to feel wanted, to be loving, to feel loved, to feel accepted, to feel normal.

How has the #MeToo movement affected what you see in your practice?

I see women having more of a voice in saying, “This isn’t working for me,” or “I feel sort of used,” or “It’s not OK to just focus on his pleasure.” But I also see some fallout with men, and their confidence is hurt, and they sort of withdraw into, “I’m worried that I’m going to say the wrong thing,” or “I’m gonna go too far,” or “Something bad is going to happen.” That’s been a negative aspect to it. Women have said, “Yeah, you can’t treat me this way.” And men have said, “Well, I don’t know how to treat her then.” What needs to happen is the conversation.

Talk about the hookup culture and one-night stands.

What does a hookup mean? It doesn’t necessarily mean sex, and it can be a positive experience to feel free and to do what feels right. But it can also mess people up, feeling expectations to behave in a certain way that may inside not feel quite right or feel like you don’t have a choice. On the surface, it looks like freedom, but it may not really be freedom. It’s what people, particularly young people, have to learn to navigate these days. The good news is there are more choices. The bad news is that people can also miss out on a more intimate connection.

What would you say is a super positive sexual experience, and how would you advise your patients to experience it?

Realistic sex is a range, and there’s a variety of peak experiences for both people. Overall, it’s mutually enjoyable, relaxed, sensual, physically pleasurable, and emotionally intimate. To get there it helps to be comfortable and confident sexually, relaxed, be able to communicate your feelings, needs and desires, and be attuned to the feelings, needs and desires of your partner.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Photo at top: Shirley Baron sits in her office. The bookshelves behind her are filled with studies, books and knowledge about all things sex and psychology. (Hannah J. Farrow/MEDILL)