In 1977, I began my counselling training with the, then Marriage Guidance Council, now Relate. It was a very thorough training, but there was one section I thought I had failed. It was a session, entitled, ‘Sexually Speaking’. Our group sat in a silent circle with no idea what to expect. The tutor sat down, introduced herself to us and asked me to begin by talking for 5 minutes on Male Arousal. My mind went instantly blank. My dry mouth attempted to mutter a few inane comments about things that might achieve an erection for a man. Then, I froze into four and a half minutes of silence. As we went around the circle, most people seemed to manage to find something to say about different sexual topics, men being asked about what happens for women and women being asked about what happens for men. I was convinced I would be failed on this section of the course. Near the end, someone was asked to speak about Impotence. After their allotted 5 minutes, I found my voice, saying, “I know exactly how that feels, because my fear of performance at the start, rendered me totally impotent”. This seemed to be enough to redeem my poor efforts earlier and I came to appreciate these sessions enormously throughout the three years of my training.
I believe it was important for us as counsellors to get used to hearing ourselves and others speak about all aspects of sex in a mixed group. We learnt a lot. I decided to create something similar, specifically for clients who acknowledged that they had never felt particularly comfortable about their sexuality and sexual relationships. It was such a valuable tool, especially for younger clients but many of us can feel inhibited about this, at any age!
This was not something I would do early on in the counselling until I assessed that it would be useful and that there was a high degree of trust in the client counsellor relationship. I would explain what would be involved and if the client wanted to go ahead, we would put aside a whole session to focus on sexuality. I don’t think there was anyone who approached it without some anxiety but rarely did anyone drop out.
I would begin by asking the client to tell me about how they learnt about sex, who from and what they had understood and felt about it. I checked out if there were any questions they still wanted to ask, anything they felt unsure about or wanted to discuss. We would move on to how they had felt about the relationships between their parents, other family members, what information and messages they had taken on board about sex, love, relationships, marriage, separation and divorce. The discussion would then focus on their own developing history, sexually, physically and emotionally, including their values. This would lead into what they wanted out of a relationship in the present; what might be holding them back; what their anxieties might be and most important of all what their strengths were.
I would never know how the session would develop and this would be led by what the client disclosed and discussed. There were some times we would get into a discussion of flirting, leading to a homework of watching how other people do it, for clients who were afraid to even look at people they were attracted to; other times it led to clients going shopping for clothes that felt more ‘sexy’ – one moving occasion was when an older client decided to buy some sexy underwear to express their sexuality to themselves, albeit that they had chosen a way of life that included celibacy; one young man asked what was meant by ‘the Change’, he’d heard his mother talk about it but hadn’t felt able to ask what it meant; another session resulted in a female client disclosing and accepting their erotic fantasies, about which they had been carrying an enormous amount of guilt – they ended up buying and enjoying Nancy Friday’s book, ‘My Secret Garden’, a book reissued several times since then. There were other sessions when clients talked about sexual abuse or even a sexual attack that they had never previously spoken about to anyone.
What felt important about these sessions were two things. The first was that this provided a space and permission to speak about an area about which some people feel inhibited. The second thing was that I noticed how clients became more confident and more comfortable from just using words about their sexuality, about every aspect of their body and about sex generally. I noticed how both their own use of sexual words and hearing me use the same language back to them gave permission and built an increased acceptance of sex as a natural part of life. I worked with clients from a variety of different cultures and backgrounds and for some of these clients, such sessions gave them an opportunity to talk about how they were affected by differences in sexual behaviour and sexual values living here in the UK.
Even in 2014, sex can be a daunting subject to talk about and I found these sessions helpful in my own training and most especially in my counselling. It was particularly helpful working with a young client group of university students who are not always as confident or informed sexually as we might assume.