Sex Educator Interview #6: Dr Liz Powell

Today’s interview is with Dr Liz Powell, who co-hosts Life on the Swingset the podcast as well as doing tonnes of other awesome work. Let’s dive in to what she had to say…

Tell us a little bit about you and the work you do?

I’m Dr. Liz from sexpositivepsych.com. I’m a sex educator, speaker, co-host of the Life on the Swingset podcast, and regular guest on several other podcasts as part of my mission to help people have more meaningful, pleasurable relationships in life and work, as well as the bedroom. I’m also a coach and licensed psychologist (CA 27871)  that works with thruples, couples, and singles to help folks be more of who they really are and communicate more effectively with their partners. Because being confident in who you are is the gateway to great relationships and great sex – and great sex can change the world.

Can you tell us (in brief) your “sex educator origin story?”

I’ve been out as queer since I was 17, had my first non-monogamous relationship at 17 (dating quad), and have been involved in kink since I was in college. I was always the person my friends came to for questions about sex or to take them shopping at the adult store. Once I was getting ready to leave the Army in 2015, I decided to transition to full time work with my favorite populations – sexual and gender minorities (SGM) – and issues – sexual problems, relationship issues, trauma. I then started presenting at different conferences and from there went into teaching at venues like sex shops and the Armory here in San Francisco. I love the work I do and I feel really lucky that I get to devote my time to topics I’m passionate about!

What came first: sex education or psychotherapy? How do they inform each other?

I’ve wanted to be a therapist since middle school because I loved figuring out how people work and helping people grow and heal and thrive, so I guess in some ways the therapy part came first. However, I did my first informal sex education work in college when I was president of my school Gay Straight Alliance, long before I ever saw any therapy clients, so maybe it’s that therapy was first in my heart, but education was first in practice. Regardless, I love them both and I think they go hand in hand really nicely.

Why do you think it’s so important for psychs and other medical professionals to be sex positive, and how would you like to see the medical community change in this regard?

In graduate school, the entirety of my training in sexuality was a one weekend class. 10 hours. That’s it. When I worked in multidisciplinary teams in the Army as a psychologist, I saw first hand how little education in sexuality and non-mainstream relationship/sexual practices most medical professionals have. In the field of therapy, most therapists never ask their clients about sex, even though most psychiatric conditions impact a person’s sex life. Medical professionals have often balked at the STI testing I request from them, and some of them haven’t had current information about STIs at all. When we, as those holding a position of power in a provider-client relationship, don’t address sex, we reinforce that sex is shameful and not welcome in our room. We prevent our clients and patients from sharing important information with us that is impacting their lives in deep ways.

I think most professionals shy away from sex because they’re worried that a client will view questions about sex as a come on or something inappropriate, but research shows again and again that our clients follow our lead when determining what they can and cannot talk about. If you bring your own shame or judgments about sexuality into your practice, you are harming your clients and patients.

For instance, I recently saw a Facebook post by a psychologist I knew in the Army outright stating that they would never approve someone’s request for gender confirmation surgery because they think trans people are mentally ill. The American Psychological Association has clearly stated that the research indicates that gender dysphoria is a medical concern, not a mental illness, and that the harm is in denying treatment, but this person, because of his own judgments, is comfortable publicly stating his intention to shame and harm any trans clients he works with.

Without sex positivity in our practices, we violate the first principle of almost every code of ethics in our fields – that we do no harm, and maximize benefit. We as providers must unpack our own issues so that we can serve those who entrust us with their well being.

What’s the best thing about being a sex educator, in your opinion? The worst?

I’ll start with the worst because I like to end on high notes. The worst part of being a sex educator, for me, has been how hard you have to hustle to just start getting paid. I did a panel last year with Dirty Lola of sexedagogo.com and Rebecca Hiles, The Frisky Fairy, of friskyfairy.com, called Sex Positive and Poor where we all talked about how broke most sex educators are. Most of my friends who do sex education for their main income are constantly worried about paying their bills. Being a therapist helps with this some, as I can make a decent income from individual client sessions, but building up a private practice is slow and I went into a lot of credit card debt to get my business going. It looks way more glamorous on the outside than it feels on the inside.

The best part of being a sex educator, at least in my experience, is the amazing community of people I get to be a part of. I’ve got people in my life who I can send a message to about the crazy sex I had and they’re there to cheer me on. Or I can message them to talk about the grief I’ve been working through about my lover who died. The folks I’m lucky to call friends are some of the most kind, loving, smart, perverted, funny people I’ve ever met and I am thankful every day to have them in my life.

What’s your favourite project that you’ve done/been involved with?

My favorite is one I’m currently working on! Cooper Beckett, one of my Life on the Swingset co-hosts, and I are writing a book called Building Open Relationships. It’s a practical, hands on, nuts and bolts guide for how to actually DO non-monogamy. There are so many great theory-based resources out there (More Than Two by Franklin Veaux and Eve Rickert, Opening Up by Tristan Taormino, The Ethical Slut by Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy), but both he and I felt like some of the nitty gritty was missing. We’re creating worksheets, conversation starters, checklists, all kinds of nerdy goodness to help people learn from our mistakes and success.

Tell us about a book that completely changed your life/perspective?

I think this would have to be something by Brené Brown, probably Daring Greatly. Something most folks don’t know about therapists in general, and me in particular, is that we can seem super open and vulnerable, but most of us (or especially me) often suck at being really vulnerable. It’s like I’ve got this great facade of openness that keeps folks outside of the REAL walls. In the last couple of years, I’ve been working really hard on moving past perfectionism and self-judgment and developing my skills at vulnerability and honesty. It’s been a really really REALLY hard journey, but I feel like a much better human, leader, therapist, educator, friend, and partner because of it.

What’s something you used to believe about sex/relationships but don’t believe any more, and what changed your mind?

I used to believe that you could use rules in a relationship in a way that could be healthy. Before I go further, I want to clarify that I’ll be using the terms Boundaries, Agreements, and Rules the way they are defined in More Than Two – boundaries are about myself, agreements are renegotiable by any involved party, rules affect parties that do not have renegotiation power.

Back when I first did some non-monogamy, I almost always had rules with my partners about what I would “allow” them to do with others or what I was “allowed” to do. Many of these rules involved sex acts, time spent together, or levels of emotional involvement. I think that most of the time these rules came from a place of feeling afraid or insecure and wanting to create an external structure to prevent those feelings from happening. What changed this for me was lots of failing in relationships to live up to rules I had agreed to or failing of partners to live up to rules they had agreed to. I also think that reading More Than Two and their clear ethically rooted explanations about rules made it really clear why using rules wasn’t within my values.

What’s the one thing that you wish everyone in the world could understand about sex/relationships?  

There is no “right” way to do anything in the sex or relationship realm, only ways that work better or worse for you and those you’re doing it with. Trying to do things by someone else’s rules or standards will only make you miserable. You have to do things the way that fits for you.

What do you think is the most toxic myth that our society perpetuates about sex/relationships?

There are so many! I think the most toxic myth is that there’s one right way to do things, and you know you’ve found it when your relationship lasts until death. By that standard, I recently had the perfect relationship – we never fought, we were smitten with each other, and after dating for 10 days he died. We lived out ’til death do us part thanks to his sudden, unexpected heart attack. We need to find the success and lessons in relationships that don’t end in death (and those that do) and stop saying a relationship “failed” because it ended or because it was different.

What’s the best sex advice anyone ever gave you?

Never fake it, tell them what to do to help you actually cum.

What’s one question that you wish people would stop asking you?

“Are you analyzing me right now?” As soon as folks find out I’m a therapist, I get this one or its companion “Oh, well I’m not going to talk anymore.” People think they’re being funny, but really, this is just silly. 1) Analyzing folks takes work and you’re not paying me. If you want to shell out some money then I’ll be happy to tell you about yourself, but otherwise, unless it’s flagrant, I’m just trying to be a regular human in the world. 2) Your discomfort around a therapist says WAY MORE than anything else that would’ve come out of your mouth. 3) These are probably the least original things you could say to a therapist. They tell me you’re paranoid, boring, and prone to subtle attempts at manipulation. So if you don’t want me to know things about you, don’t say these things.

And just for fun, because it is “Coffee and Kink”: do you like coffee and how do you take it?

I’m generally more into tea, but I do like coffee on occasion, generally either sweet and light or a nice blended butter coffee (I know, I know, super hipster).

Thanks so much to Dr Liz for her time and expertise. Don’t forget to check out Life on the Swingset podcast and her business, Sex Positive Psych.

How to Find – and Work With – a Sex Positive Therapist

Mr CK and I have officially The Best Therapist In The World (According to Us.) We really landed on our feet – when we decided to explore joint counselling as a way to ease the transition to living together and deal with some past traumas, we thought it would be really difficult to find someone who would accept us in all our poly, kinky weirdness. Instead, the first person we contacted turned out to be the perfect therapist for us (and has an office a minute from our house, which doesn’t hurt.)

Most people, however, are not so lucky when trying to find a therapist – and the more ‘out of the mainstream’ traits one possesses, the harder it is. So I thought I’d put together a quick guide to help you find, and work with, a sex-positive therapist who’s a good fit for you.

1. Use an appropriate directory

There are directories of kink-aware (etc.) professionals. Try the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom (multiple countries, somewhat US centric,) the Open List (US only) or Pink Therapy (mainly UK,) or even just do a Google search with some keywords and see what comes up. If you can find someone who is already versed in working with sexual minorities, you’ll be on much better footing right from the beginning. But if this isn’t possible or you can’t find someone suitable from these resources…

2. Put everything on the table upfront.

By ‘upfront,’ I mean ‘ideally before the first appointment.’ Chances are you’ll talk to a potential therapist on the phone, or at least by email, before setting up your first appointment.

I listened hesitantly as Mr CK laid everything out on the phone to our potential therapist a year ago. Queerness? Check. Polyamory? Not an eyelash batted. Surely BDSM would be too much for her to deal with? Nope. (‘Consensual sadomasochism? Oh yes I know what that is.’) It was a difficult conversation to have with a total stranger we were potentially going to entrust with our innermost traumas and strains, but it was so, so worth having. Because when we walked into her office, we knew that none of the many facets of our unconventional sexual identities were used against us.

3. Make it clear your identities aren’t the problem.

The other piece of our success was making it clear that ‘we’re queer, polyamorous and kinky… and none of those things are at all problematic for us.’ It was context, not a statement that these things needed fixing. If your therapist pathologises your sexual identities or tries to convince you they need to change, fire them immediately and go to someone better.

4. Be unapologetic.

This applies in your initial disclosure of your identities and also any subsequent discussion in case they come up. If you act like your identities are something to be ashamed of, your therapist is more likely to react in kind or to perceive them as some kind of problem. If you’re matter of fact and unapologetic, they’re more likely to take the information on board as nothing more than useful background knowledge.

Say this: ‘Just so you know, for context, I’m queer, polyamorous and practice BDSM. Do you know what those things are?’

Not this: ‘Um, I know it’s weird, but… I do some unusual sexual stuff. Please don’t think I’m a freak but…’

5. Expect them to educate themselves

Unless you’re unbelievably lucky, your therapist will probably not be an expert on all the different facets of your identity. Educating them is not your job. Of course, you will need to talk about what words like ‘polyamorous’ or ‘kink’ or ‘sex positive’ mean to you, but you’re paying them to help you, and that includes educating themselves. If they’re asking you basic or 101 questions, suggest some resources and move the conversation on. If they make no effort to learn, they’re not a good therapist.

6. Don’t be afraid to steer the conversation

If things come back to aspects of your identity that aren’t relevant to the subject at hand, don’t feel afraid to steer the conversation back in the direction you want it to go. ‘I don’t think X is relevant here’ is a useful phrase. Again, if they insist that an aspect of your sexuality is a problem when it isn’t problematic for you, think about moving on. If they use any expression resembling, ‘you wouldn’t have this problem if you were [monogamous/vanilla/whatever,]’ I strongly suggest ditching them straight away.

7. Remember you deserve top quality care.

You’re probably paying a lot of money for therapy, but whether you are or not, you deserve the best care from your therapist. They work for you. You can end the therapist/client relationship any time you choose and there are amazing therapists out there, so please don’t settle for someone who doesn’t treat you – all facets of you – with the respect you deserve.

How has your experience of therapy been as a sex-positive, LGBTQ+, non-monogamous or kinky person? Tell me about it in the comments or drop me a line.