Sex in the Suburbs

Sex in the Suburbs

What's happening in the bedrooms of today's over-stressed couples? Local therapists say the better question might be: What's not?

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They see each other no more than a few hours during the week. Usually it’s in the evenings, and even then there’s little downtime: She dives into dinner preparations while he catches up on email. Later, they ready the children for bed before collapsing in front of their respective laptops.

Weekends are spent doing chores and chauffeuring the kids. Alone time is rare; intimate encounters, rarer still. On the odd occasion when they do have sex, it’s not the playful, passionate, mutually satisfying activity they remember.

Welcome to Sex in the Suburbs. Or what passes for it these days.

“People say, ‘Sex was so great when we were first married,’ ” says Bethesda psychologist Carolyn Shaffer, who describes that couple as her prototypical clients—mid-40s, with parallel careers. “They don’t know how to transition into having sex play a long-term satisfying role, or how to relax together.”

Shaffer’s husband, therapist Lawrence Sank, sees it all the time in the Bethesda area.

“Usually, sexuality is something that’s aroused when there’s downtime,” he says. “I think one of the reasons why people like myself and my wife are so busy is an outgrowth of where we live. Low libido is at epidemic proportions in this area because of all the stress and time crunches, and everything that’s competing for our time and attention.”

Sank and Shaffer are among about two dozen sex therapists in the suburbs of lower Montgomery County. That’s more than are listed in either the District of Columbia or in Northern Virginia, according to Barry McCarthy, who retired recently after more than 30 years as a sex and marriage therapist in Friendship Heights.

On average, therapists in the area see 20 to 30 clients (or couples) a week. At least a quarter of their caseloads—and often more—involve relationship issues and sexual disorders. Many problems are related to anxiety, stress and simply being over-scheduled: men unable to sustain an erection because of performance pressures; women struggling with low libidos because they feel overwhelmed by work, child-rearing and social pressures.   

In a 2004 AARP survey, 20 percent of people 45 and older reported being dissatisfied with their sex lives, and 7 percent sought treatment from a specialist. Local therapists say the number of clients is growing. Part of that may be because of aggressive ad campaigns for erectile-dysfunction medications such as Viagra, which are provoking discussions and raising expectations with regard to sex.

“In the 1970s, there was a kind of pessimism that people couldn’t stay sexual throughout their lives,” McCarthy says. “Now there’s a lot more optimism.”

Smartphones, the Internet and social and dating websites such as Facebook and also are increasing sexual awareness and providing avenues for meeting companions. Ironically, these technologies simultaneously feed into intimacy issues, time-management challenges and compulsive sexual behaviors that can drive a wedge between couples, lead some people to cheat, and ultimately land many in therapy.

Modern sex therapy has its roots in William Masters’ and Virginia Johnson’s 1970 book, Human Sexual Inadequacy (Little, Brown and Company).

“It talked about a model for working with people that was a breakthrough approach,” says McCarthy, a professor of psychology at American University who has written several books on sex and relationships. “I think of them…as the grandparents in the field.”

Back then, the Masters & Johnson Institute in St. Louis was the axis of sex therapy. Couples would go there for two weeks, meet daily with a male-female co-therapy team, then return to their hotel room and engage in prescribed sensual exercises.

“These days, the daily sessions and the male-female team have dropped out of the equation,” McCarthy says. What hasn’t changed “is that there is never any nudity or touching in the therapist’s office, but the couple does go home and do these exercises.”

The secrecy surrounding sex therapy remains, too, as local therapists can attest. Few have offices in high-rises or in high-traffic areas.

“It’s easier if you are someone in the public eye to come into some suburban neighborhood,” says Sank, who, like his wife, practices out of the finished basement of their home off River Road. Clients park at the bottom of a sloped driveway near the rear of the house and slip through a side door into a waiting area.

Sex therapy is a subspecialty of psychotherapy, and in many ways its misunderstood stepchild. Therapists who regularly wade into the social scene attest to that: Mere mention of their job elicits sheepish grins and raised eyebrows, transforming well-mannered adults into snickering children.

“Strangers make jokes about it,” Shaffer says. “I’ll say that I’m going to attend a sex-therapy conference and they say, ‘Wow, I bet that’s fun,’ as though it’s a big orgy or something. The worst was when this guy said, ‘You need to treat my wife.’ He said it like a joke—but his wife was right there, and there were other people around, too.”    

Sank and Shaffer are certified as sex therapists by the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists (AASECT), which requires hours of instruction, supervision and continuing education.

The benefit of being married to a sex therapist is that “things I learn about men while sitting in my office help me with my husband,” Shaffer says. “And I feel that things that I learn with my husband…can help me with my clients.”

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