Click, click, click. The sound of black high heels faded as Gloria walked down the hall away from my office. “I haven’t been laid in months,” she had cried just moments ago, “and I’m losing my mind.”
But she didn’t have time for my reply. She had budgeted exactly 50 minutes for our session, and now had to rush off to a sales meeting. No, gorgeous, talented, over-scheduled and overwhelmed Gloria probably wouldn’t be getting laid for a while longer. In her case the medium really was the message–but ironically, she was too busy to notice. One more casualty of our insane high-tech work ethic, I thought, slowly closing the door.
I’m a sex therapist. I spend most of my time in the private worlds of 25 patients a week. I treat undependable penises and vaginas, desires that trouble partners, orgasms that don’t please, and fantasies that frighten. Hour after hour in a comfortable chair listening to uncomfortable people, I sit in a sunlit room bearing witness to the darkest parts of people’s lives.
Doing this in Silicon Valley presents a sex therapist with some unusual challenges. For one thing, many people find their work so fascinating that personal relationships simply can’t compete. These folks hardly notice their partner’s sexuality (or their kids’ emotional needs, for that matter). Many channel their “libido”–their ch’i, their life force–into their work rather than their eroticism. People who work for survival, or just for money, don’t usually do that. But people whose existential meaning depends on their work do. Same for those who find their work the most interesting thing on earth. We get lots of that around here.
As a result, one of the most common predicaments I treat is desire discrepancies–one partner wanting sex much more than the other. The popular stereotype of these situations (if they’re heterosexual) is that the higher desire partner is the male. Whether that’s true anywhere else, it certainly isn’t true around here. The number of 40ish women complaining that their mates just don’t respond (much less initiate) anymore is staggering. These women are feeling frustrated, angry, unappreciated, and hopeless. Many of them are thinking about affairs. Some are having them.
Therapy with such couples is often arduous, pick-and-shovel work. Sometimes it ignites mutual desire and brings people together. Too often, however, therapy cannot reconcile such a couple. Valley corporations are filled with men and women who have left such marriages. With no mate to go home to, they work nights and weekends–just like their happily married colleagues.
We all know how creative Valley people are, but as a therapist I see the other side of creativity–depression. Creative people struggle to get access to the non-conscious parts of their brain: intuition, instinct, inspiration. But the mind resists this inner journey: going into that non-logical world is, on some level, terrifying. So consciousness defends itself in the form of depression. I also think of “normal” creativity as a mild bi-polar condition: the creativity is the manic part; in between the thrilling creative bursts is the depressed part.
So I wind up seeing a lot of depression. For most people, depression is the enemy of eroticism–they find themselves lacking imagination, creativity, or sensitivity as lovers or mates. That’s when their partners complain that they never initiate sex and have no passion for anything except work. The depressed engineer or entrepreneur often agrees; they just don’t notice their wives’ new underwear, or think to ask their husbands what they’d like in bed. And they’re not fun-oriented. The depressed person’s sexual style is often criticized as too business- like or not playful enough. “Oh, I have plenty of orgasms when we make love,” the wife of a venture capitalist told me recently. “It’s almost too predictable. Gerald goes about it efficiently, almost coldly. I feel more like a deal being consummated than a person being caressed.”
Nowadays, depressed people have an additional impediment to their eroticism: prozac. While not exactly Stepford Wives territory, our Valley gulps prozac like it was decaf latte. The modern anti-depressants are great for relieving depression, but they’re also well-known obstacles to both desire and orgasm. I face a frustrating dilemma with such patients, wanting to support their increased ability to connect with others emotionally, regretful at their decreased ability to connect with themselves sexually.
There’s a surprising amount of sadomasochism in this Valley –consensual, sexual S/M, that is (in contrast to the non-sexual, often non-consensual S/M that goes on at local corporations). From the City all the way down to San Jose, it’s easy to find bondage parties, bondage workshops, and people into bondage games. On Wednesday nights you can even head over to Bondage A GoGo, where newcomers and veterans alike discuss whips and websites. Any day now these folks will form a political bloc and swing an election.
There’s also, relatively speaking, lots of cross-dressing here, men who enjoy wearing women’s clothes and accessories. Some do it privately, while others like to go out and even “pass.” These men are not gay and almost never want sex-change surgery. They just find it very erotic and, most say, an emotional relief, to wear women’s things– sensuous, frilly, matronly, whatever. Unlike other places where cross-dressers are terribly isolated, Silicon Valley cross-dressers can join organizations, attend parties, get make-up tips, and advertise for friends or lovers. There are also resources available for their wives and families. Cross-dressing and S/M are so prevalent here, I think, for the same reasons. First, many of our neighbors are practically collapsing under the weight of their job responsibilities and sheer volume of work. Thus, explicitly surrendering, dominating, or dressing like Barbie can be quite a relief. Second, many Bay Area professionals live in their imagination–designing things that don’t exist, dwelling in the Virtual realm, working with artificial intelligence, etc. And that’s what both S/M and cross-dressing thrive on–imagination. The third ingredient is iconoclasm–a stubborn sense of contrariness, rule-bending, and mental independence. This is fertile ground for norm-breaking sexual expression. I deal with practitioners of S/M and cross-dressing just about every month. Some are troubled and want to stop; others are worried and want reassurance; many want permission to do more; and those in “straight” relationships want their partner to be more tolerant of it. I deal with this stuff the way I deal with other kinds of sexual expression. Is it honest, consensual, responsible? Do people have the information and communication skills they need to create what they want and keep in touch with their partner? Are they honest with themselves, or are they so invested in their drama that they can’t be?
Like enthusiasts of model railroading, volleyball, and quilting, most people into S/M and cross-dressing have bigger fish to fry than their hobby. Their problems may include the inability to keep a job, perhaps, or fear of getting too close to loved ones. That’s why they’re in therapy. These are the same big fish that humans are frying everywhere. Regardless of their hobbies, people who have worked out these issues have little need for therapy. People who haven’t often do.
Another part of being a Silicon Valley sex therapist is dealing with those who experiment with innovative relationship forms. There are the Human Awareness Institute programs, the polyamory community, (readers of Loving More magazine), weekends that focus on tantra, quodoshka, and other Eastern sexual practices, bisexuals’ configurations, and a variety of open and semi-open marriages that simply do not flourish in Chicago or Chattanooga. Bay Area residents with open marriages or other unusual arrangements now use the Net to find each other. No one with a modem needs to explore the mysteries of eroticism alone anymore.
Some of these people come to me wanting a non-judgmental ear. This they usually get: there’s nothing wrong with people wanting what they want. Sometimes they want me to change their spouse, make him or her more amenable to experimentation. If the partner wants to change, we have a chance (just a chance, mind you). If the partner doesn’t want to change, well, we have a different situation entirely, usually a messy one. I also get the opposite case: “Mary wants an open marriage,” her partner will say. “Isn’t that sick? Talk her out of it.” If only therapy were as easy as talking someone out of, or into, something.
So in addition to helping people discover and then explore alternate relationship forms, therapy also helps people deal with the consequences of doing so: jealousy, along with unwanted memories that will not fade easily; the need for high amounts of emotional processing that people are unwilling or unable to do; the shock when people discover that their primitive, reptilian emotions can’t keep up with their advanced thinking; and the occasional broken marriage, simply too battered to repair.
What have I learned sitting through 12,000 sessions in my comfortable brown leather chair? That men and women are more similar than different. That while sex is absolutely idiosyncratic for each person, there are important ways in which it is also the same for virtually everyone. That there are a lot of people in pain about sex, and many are terrified to talk about it.
And, speaking with colleagues around the country, I’ve learned that Silicon Valley is unique. Patients like the Roths keep reminding me. Roseanna kept complaining about Mickey forgetting the kids’ birthdays, his mind wandering during conversations, and his staying late at work, even the night before she was scheduled for surgery. Sex hadn’t been good for years–she was too angry, and he, in response, was too hurt. “You’d think somebody who could invent software could understand a simple thing like the importance of a hug, or the pain of being less important than your husband’s work,” she sobbed recently. “Oh, I can visualize a machine that doesn’t exist,” he replied simply. “What I can’t imagine is how somebody else feels.”