So this is it: my very first interview for this blog. I sit in a café in Surry Hills (Sydney) with my questions prepared and my phone set on recording. I am nervous but mainly looking forward to meeting Tanya: a degree qualified Sexologist and relationship counsellor. Is it wrong of me to still giggle a little inside, saying the word ‘Sexologist’ even though I regard myself as a fairly open minded, (almost) anything-goes type of girl?
I have been trying to meet her for a couple of weeks but this lady is not easy to catch, business is going well. And two minutes after her sitting down in front of me I can see why. She is bubbling with warmth and love for life and a curiosity about anyone and anything it seems. She makes me feel like I want to talk to her a lot more and a lot longer than the hour we have scheduled this meeting for.
We order breakfast and I try hard not to immediately throw all the questions I am most curious about at her. Instead I pull out my notebook and start going through the topics I wanted to talk to her about. Because it has been such a long and entertaining conversation, I have decided to put this up on the blog in two parts. The part you are reading here is how Tanya became a Sexologist and questions on her day to day life.
Make Love: Where are you from, Tanya, and how did you become a Sexologist?
Tanya: I’m from Sydney but I lived in Europe for 7 years too. A couple of years ago I was working in Marketing, so I did something very different. One day, living back in Sydney, I got made redundant and couldn’t find my way back into a position I would have really wanted. A friend said to me I should go into counselling as it was something I had always talked about but never done anything in that direction. The idea still had great appeal to me so I went back to University and obtained a graduate diploma in counselling and another in sexual health. I then had a placement at a men’s sexual health line and just thought ‘This is really interesting, I am not really embarrassed by anything, and people seem to find me easy to talk to on the phone.’ I also worked part time at a sexual assault crisis hotline for a while.
Make Love: That must have been quite difficult.
Tanya: It was, but in some way it is easier to counsel people in a crisis like this rather than working with people who expect to be ‘made better’ rather than doing the work themselves. But of course it is very different and yes, if I did only this it would kill me so I am glad I get to experience all sides of the story.
Make Love: Do any insurance companies cover the type of help that you provide?
Tanya: Publicly, not. Some private insurers might, when they offer certain additional things but not all of them. I do give people tax invoices and really hope they can claim but I couldn’t say it’s a given. The industry bodies are aware of it and it is coming, but I don’t know when. At the moment, only psychologists and social workers can provide services that are definitely covered by Medicare because these are government regulated. The problem with counselling is that everybody can hang a sign out their door claiming to be a counsellor. The term counsellor doesn’t necessarily mean that the person has the right qualifications so I urge people before deciding on a who to go to; please ask to see proof of their qualifications and what modalities they use. You want to ask your counsellor where they studied, how long they have been doing their jobs and whether they have any references or recommendations you can see.
Make Love: What is it that you like most about your job and what do you enjoy least?
Tanya: My favourite thing I have to say is that I get to meet fabulous people and can help them be fabulous. That’s really a good gig; I just love the connection with people. I meet people who I would never come across in my life otherwise. And it makes me joyous to see how when they are prepared to work on their relationships and on their lives. The bad thing: You can’t help everyone. Some people aren’t prepared to do the work. My heart breaks for people who are in pain but they can’t go out and open up about it.
Make Love: ‘Doing the work’ means..?
Tanya: It’s not only the talking, letting your defences down and discussing the issues. It is actually changing, monitoring your behaviour and trying to change it. Often patients have grown accustomed to destructive behaviour in response to frustrations they are experiencing. That is also part of the job I don’t enjoy much: people fighting. It is very tiring to have a day full of couples fighting. You have to be present and pick up on patterns, mentor and I do that but I have to say, it is exhausting.
Make Love: What do you do during these fights?
Tanya: I try and make them repeat to each other what the other one just said and meant by it. There are different models to work on a couple’s communication but it very often comes down to breaking the pattern of accusation and defensiveness. I then give them exercises to practice and use during their day to day life to improve their communication. That all happens before we even get to the sex. Then the first thing I try to make people understand is that your partner is not responsible for your sexual needs, because, believe it or not, that’s big news to some people. They think they can demand something from their partner but that’s just not the case. No matter what your relationship is, what might be right for you is not necessarily right for the other.
Make Love: What are the most common questions and challenges people face in their sex lives?
Tanya: By far the most are couples who are facing desire discrepancies. This can be a situation where one partner wants sex more than the other one or where one partner wants to try something the other one doesn’t, such as a threesome. We then need to try and negotiate a compromise. Now, in this situation the goal is to find something stimulating for both partners that will enhance their sex life without anybody having to do something they are not comfortable with. And since you can’t have half a threesome we try to find an alternative. The goal is not to have a win for one person, and the other one giving in. We are always shooting for a double win. For example, in one case it was enough for the couple (the man wanted a threesome, she didn’t) to start exploring their fantasies together, reading erotic stories to each other. For some couples this might not be enough and then we need to have a discussion to see whether it is a ‘deal breaker’ for the partner if he or she can’t have what they want. It often also helps for them to gain perspective and see, this thing (erotic fantasies) makes out maybe 20% of your relationship, if the other 80% are good, should it really be treated as the big issue that it sometimes grows into? There are also ways to negotiate an open relationship if this is something that they would like to explore.
Make Love: How do you negotiate an open relationship?
Tanya: You talk about it, talk about it and talk about it until you can’t hear it anymore. In this situation, good communication about how each other feels is essential, otherwise somebody will get hurt. Agreeing that the relationship is now open and then charge off is not going to work. You have to check in with each other. I also think that being in either an open relationship or even living in poly amorous relationship requires a lot of self reflection and intelligence and for me personally, that is very appealing in a human being.
People also have to understand that there isn’t a set of concepts and they just need to chose one and live by it. They have to invent their own concept, pick and choose elements that they are happy to live with, and that requires thoughtfulness and insight. One of my jobs it to get to a point where a couple can establish their own way or living the relationship. But both have to be on the same page. You can’t have a poly amorous partner and one who is not, because then it’s just someone who’s cheating. *laughs*
Make Love: Do you mostly see couples?
Tanya: No it is a fairly even split between couples, single men and single women.
Make Love: When you see couples, do you mostly see them together?
Tanya: Most of the times they come in together but then after the first session sometimes I see them separately for a while. It is often easier to talk without worrying about upsetting anyone. But what I always want to emphasize is that my patient in this case is the relationship. The relationship between those two people is my priority. So if one of them confides in me to have an affair, I can not keep that secret. I will of course not go to the partner and tell them about it, but I will raise it in the process of their therapy. I have to make both parties very aware about the fact that I will not take sides and help them hide things from one another.
Hello dear readers, this is me again! I’m giving you a break here because, after all, this is a blog which I’ve heard should be composed of short articles, quick, to read. But please do check back in as we will be updating part 2 of this interview soon.
PS: If you have a question for Tanya. or think that maybe seeing a sexologist would be a way for you of enhancing your sex life, check out her website (www.sydneytherapist.com) to get in touch.