Heather McPherson maintains a private practice Respark Therapy & Associates (respark.co) in Austin and San Marcos, Texas specializing in sexuality and relationships. She is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, Licensed Professional Counselor Supervisor and Sex Therapist.
Heather is the CEO and Founder of the Sexual Health Alliance (SHA), which now includes the Southwest Sexual Health Alliance and the Great Lakes Sexual Health Alliance. SHA is an ever-expanding organization providing high quality education in sexual health to all therapists, sexual health professionals and anyone wanting to learn more. Her credentials also include: AASECT Therapist – Texas Section Leader, American Association for Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists. Certified Sex Therapist, Licensed Professional Counselor Supervisor, and Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist Supervisor.
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NP: Couples and Sex Therapy is an exciting and dynamic field and takes traditional couples and sex therapy to another level. How did you arrive at the point where you knew you wanted to work as a couples and sex therapist? What are some the initial and continuing challenges and issues faced by couples and sex therapists today?
McPherson: I received my Master’s in Marriage, Couple and Family Therapy at Texas State University, which is a wonderful CACREP Accredited Program. I loved the work I did as a couple’s therapist and my clients noted that I was comfortable talking about sexuality when previous therapists ignored this area. This privilege, coupled with my own exploration, led me to specialize in Sex Therapy and pursue training through AASECT, which is the benchmark for certification in sexual health. The biggest challenge all general therapists face is the lack of education in sexual health.
It’s a serious ethical issue when you can go through all the training necessary to become a psychologist, therapist or marriage counselor and not have 1 hour of training in sexuality. The same issue applies to medical professionals as they receive 3-10 hours total, in sexual health training. This lack of training means that therapists and medical professionals are subject to the same sexual myths and misconceptions that permeate society. We created the Sexual Health Alliance to address these issues as well as provide collaboration for all sexual health professionals.
NP: What are some of the labeling issues you face today? Also, what is meant by monogamy continuum? What are the types or kinds of poly relationships that are in existence and are emerging?
McPherson: The soon to be outdated label that many sex therapists encounter is “Sex Addiction.” This “epidemic” is big business and there is an embedded moral and ethical issue in this pseudo disease. The reality is that “Sex Addiction” has never been recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders because there isn’t enough science to confirm that it does in fact exist. Other underlying mental health issues, like OCD or trauma are often the cause and those issues are what need to be addressed in therapy. And, luckily we now have many other valid and reputable options to treat Out of Control Sexual Behavior.
Like sexuality, sex therapy is an incredibly diverse and vast field full of hope and possibilities. Identity and orientation issues have been in the public discourse for some time now and what we’re learning is that there are millions of different labels one can choose when exploring or claiming their sexual identity. Monogamy is becoming a fluid term that often needs clarification and negotiation regardless of age or relationship.
With my work with clients, I find it helpful to ask where they might be on the continuum of monogamy. At one end of the continuum are couples that are completely monogamous to the strictest degree possible. For strictly monogamous couples it’s not okay to look at another person, watch porn or fantasize about anyone other than your partner, who by the way was your first and only partner for life.
This idea is often unrealistic as most people have more than one partner throughout their life. At the other end are polyamorous couples and relationship anarchy. This furthers the perspective that there is actually much to discuss and negotiate in terms of one’s relationship.
The umbrella term for those that do not identify at monogamous is open or open relationship structure. Open relationships can include everything from having friends with benefits, to being in a mono/poly relationship (one partner remains monogamous and the other is polyamorous), to polyfidelity, which is defined as all partners being equal and sexually exclusive to one another. There is an abundance of ways people engage in open relationships.
NP: The Internet spills over with a variety of sensationalized kinky relationships that people are exploring. It would seem that good information and communication is essential to exploring the possibilities and options a person or couple above stereotypes, labels, and boxed in thinking that doesn’t serve the person(s) exploring who they are. What are the options?
McPherson: Kink and BDSM has gained popularity in recent years due to Fifty Shades of Grey. Many therapists are confronting this trend, but as mentioned above, often their own biases come into play because of the lack of education. The good news is that there’s a bunch of research being conducted that not only normalizes kink, but also shows that BDSM much more common than we are led to believe. There are also a number of studies that have shown that kinky people are mentally healthy and often have better communication skills around sex than those that do not engage in kink.
NP: Based on your experience do you see greater movement towards becoming more open as a culture in developing our own lifestyles and partnerships? What are the trends in therapy and relationships? E.g., are female led relationships increasing in popularity, especially given the economy with more men working from the home?
McPherson: Yes, in the future we will have many relationship options that will be acceptable in our society. With our ever-expanding understanding of sexuality, the possibilities of relationship options will increase and technology will aid in this exploration. Mental health and medical providers are already seeing this increase in relationship diversity and it will only increase with time. We’ll learn how to engage in different relationships structures in a healthy way and thus more people will feel confident in exploring. Women are often leading this change with a good dose of sexual empowerment and freedom. Monogamy will most likely still be a popular and convenient option in the future, just not the only option.
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