Therapy is for the brave. Baring your soul to a stranger is not for the faint of heart. Sex therapy is often an even more emotionally vulnerable experience. Many people turn to sex therapy precisely because their urges, fantasies, or behaviors are so shameful that they can't bear to confide in their friends, family or partner. Now imagine putting all of that confusion and hurt on public display.
Chris Donaghue, sex therapist and host of Logo TV's Bad Sex, says his goal is to release people from the shame they experience. He gets emails from fans all over the world who respond to his pro-sex stance and long for his anti-shame message. Although he began his career as an addictions counselor, he says it never felt like a good fit. Sex addiction counselors are trained in addictions, but not sex. He believes the sex addiction model is "horribly shaming" and based not on health but on value judgments.
Though poised and articulate on camera, Donaghue told me that he never set out to become a television personality. "TV tends to bastardize anything of significance," he laments. He began his career in Philadelphia but followed a lover to the West Coast, where everyone is "one degree of separation from the industry." When people found out he was a sex therapist, he was encouraged to do a reality series. He said he chose to go with Logo because they agreed to focus on the people in therapy and their journey, not on his private life. It's a reality show about sex, so it is inherently titillating, but it's not exploitive.
"Bad Sex" follows a hodge-podge of sexual misfits (and I use that term endearingly) as they meet weekly for group therapy to work on their various sexual issues. Each participant also has a weekly individual session with Donaghue. In therapy and in their daily lives, they discuss their sexual struggles. For some it is compulsive use of Internet porn for hours a day, for others it is intense fear and anxiety about sexual intimacy. One young woman can only enjoy sex when it is rough and detached from emotional connection. Another woman wonders if she is truly polyamorous of if she's just afraid of monogamy. Although they previously felt isolated in their struggles, they quickly learn they are not alone.
"The goal is not 'normal,' the goal is to figure out what healthy is for us." He tells them, "I work from a sex-positive perspective. It's about having sex with whoever you want, where ever you want, whenever you want. But when it creates problems and negative consequences, that's when we want to look at it." I asked Donaghue how people can figure out if their sex life is causing them problems, or if it's simply their unique sexual style. He said it's important to start with reducing shame, whether sex is creating problems or not. He says, "You shouldn't have shame about what you're interested in or aroused by. It doesn't determine if you're a good person or not." He says people need to think through the impact and consequence that their sexual attitudes and behaviors are having on their life, because even if they're comfortable with their choices, it doesn't mean that they aren't negatively affecting them.
The next season of Bad Sex will air this spring. Donaghue says it will follow the same format as the first season, but will be even more diverse. He also has a book coming out. He told me the book has "an identity crisis of its own" and is part sociological exploration of what our ideas are about healthy and "right" sex, critically analyzing those ideas, and "calling bullshit" on other sex therapists who are continuing the "systems of oppression" on clients. Although somewhat reluctant to be in the limelight, he calls himself a pro-sex activist and is ready to promote a new way of doing sex therapy. His mentors are more likely to be sociologists and philosophers than therapists. He is ready to challenge old ideas. "It's about creating options," he says. "We could have it all if we can just get comfortable talking about it."
Follow Dr. Chris Donaghue on his blog The New Sex and on Twitter at @ChrisDonaghue.