At parties women hold their men closer when they see her approach; men either shy off or go huge to impress her. But in her consulting room, couples air their most intimate secrets with her. She is Dr Eve, South Africa’s leading sex therapist.
Original publication: Tiscali World Online, 2000.
WORLD ONLINE: Dr Eve, you've been hailed as South Africa's leading clinical sexologist; you're a Couple and Sex Therapist, a Doctor in Human Sexuality, and a guest speaker at conferences; your writing is featured in numerous leading magazines, and you host weekly phone-in shows on Radio Metro and East Coast Radio. But tell me: what are your less well-known, yet perhaps more astonishing, claims to fame?
DR EVE: The achievement that I'm most proud of is raising three wonderful children, mostly alone. I am a living example of the ‘single-mother-career-woman’. Yes, perhaps that's it – being a juggler is my unknown claim to fame! Like so many women, I juggle time daily – time for what has to be done, time for pleasures with my children, with my friends and colleagues, and time for myself. I practice what I preach, so I attempt to live life fully and responsibly. I am quite a hedonist and really do want to embrace life completely, so juggling becomes part of my daily challenge.
WORLD ONLINE: Just so that readers can have a better idea of whom to picture in their minds, I'd like to ask you this: It's been said that in terms of looks you're a million miles away from Dr Ruth, the diminutive Teuton-American sexologist who popularised the field in the 1980s. More to the point, I understand that you are in fact drop-dead gorgeous. Is my information correct?
DR EVE: I am laughing and feel very flattered by your comment! True fact: in no way do I resemble Dr. Ruth. I would like to think, however, that what people see when they see me is someone who is glowing with passion, sensuality, intelligence, goodness and an abundance of caring for others. But, hey, the gym gives me a good feeling about my body, no caffeine makes me feel alert, and being an almost full on vegetarian reflects my commitment to a healthy lifestyle.
WORLD ONLINE: As a sex therapist, you are, I'm sure, likely to the object of a great deal of fascination, not to mention wild surmise, for people who meet or hear about you. What are some of the most widespread misconceptions that people have, firstly about you, and secondly about your profession? I imagine, for instance, that you've been asked often enough whether patients are encouraged to get physical with one another – or perhaps just themselves – in a therapist's consulting room.
DR EVE: Whew – this is the constant challenge of my life! One of my goals in life is to live authentically by being true to myself. My truth is that I cannot separate my profession from who I am as a person – to be a sexologist the most important criteria is that one has to be comfortable with her own sexuality in order to be able to work with other people's sexuality. This I am, BUT this does not mean that I am a ‘nymphomaniac’ (I do so hate this word!) nor that I score my lover's ‘performance’ (another one of my taboo words!) on a score board that people surmise I have in my bedroom! I take my life-work very seriously and soon enough people understand from my reaction that they cannot play with this all-important area of my as well as their lives.
At a couple or person's first session with me I lay down the rules, namely that there is no self-touching, touching of me or of their partner in my rooms. I have to admit that I have on occasion had to tell men that I really do not have to see whether their penises are too small as they eagerly begin to unbutton their pants, nor do I want to go down on them so that they can show me just how quickly they are ejaculating!
WORLD ONLINE: So what, then, actually takes place in the course of a typical session of sex therapy, if indeed there is such a thing as a ‘typical’ session?
DR EVE: I need to correct this misconception – all my therapy is relationship-based which means that relationship work is an integral part of all my couple and sex therapy. A ‘typical’ first session is always a couple session since it is essential that right from the start both people take responsibility for whatever they are concerned about. Thereafter I do an individual session with each partner in order to get a full sexual and relationship history from each of them. One partner may need a few individual sessions, but always the majority of the work is with the couple. I always invite women to enter my Sexual Growth Groups, which are six-week programmes designed for women to explore and examine their sexuality – very powerful work.
Relationship work is tough for couples, and once they are in a better place with this, the fun part can start. Sex therapy consists of a lot of sexuality education – it never ceases to amaze me what ignorance still exists! My challenge, and where I believe my skill lies, is helping couples to create an individual sexual relationship that is going to be totally exciting and satisfying for them. I want people to expand their sexuality safely, sanely and consensually. But then again this is the formula – the reality is that every person is a package that I eagerly look forward to unwrapping as he/she walks into my rooms, and I will individualise my therapy accordingly.
WORLD ONLINE: What are the most common problems for which clients seek assistance – what tend to be the most common dysfunctions among the different genders, and what, in broad outline, are the kinds of remedies you suggest?
DR EVE: This sounds way too medicalised for me! Can we reframe this question, please? I talk to ‘difficulties’ since for too long people have labelled themselves as ill when they believe they are ejaculating too quickly or not having an orgasm and have sought medical solutions to situations that are completely explainable. For example, would you as a woman have an orgasm if you had your five-year-old child sleeping in your bed every night, including times when sexual play was happening? Do you as a man always get an erection when seeing your partner irrespective if you are angry, tired, drunk or ill? It’s important to contextualize all situations before labelling them as ‘dysfunctions’.
Men mostly present with early ejaculation – since Viagra [was introduced] fewer men present with erectile concerns, which used to be the primary problem. Many more men come in today with loss of sexual desire, and of course I see many men who are paraphilics (voyeurs, exhibitionists, fetishists).
Women continue to present primarily with loss of desire and pre-orgasmia, and of course vaginismus. I am excited to see many more ageing women coming for therapy today as I have a particular interest in hormones and a firm belief in the importance of sexuality as an on-going pleasure for people as they age.
It's impossible to give you a list of remedies, as it ain't as easy as just writing out a prescription. I always see my treatment as unlayering an onion – there are so many levels to peel away until one gets to the core of the problem ... and miraculously the solution lies therein. I assess the biological/psychological/pharmacological/hormonal/relational/social aspects of each person. I suppose what is common to all people is that I always teach them communication and assertiveness skills, and everyone gets some form of sex education. I will also recommend my products at the appropriate time.
WORLD ONLINE: The dynamics in these counselling sessions must be tremendously interesting, particularly in view of the ‘transferential relationships’ I've read about – the emotional patterns that form between analyst and client as the client project his or her past relationships onto the person of the analyst. Do clients, both men and women, tend, for instance, to show signs of being attracted to you, and how do you respond to these developments? On the other hand, do any of them ever show less favourable attitudes towards you – I mean, given what I've heard of your beauty and charisma, do female and male patients ever show signs of being intimidated by you, each in their own way and for their own kinds of reasons?
DR EVE: Yes, patient attraction is an issue that I have to deal with. It is very easy for a man to believe he is ‘in love’ with me – I mean, all the ingredients for fantasy are there ... I listen well to him, he has my full professional attention for an hour, we talk about very intimate parts of his life, and he is faced with a woman who talks quite openly about sexuality. I have been offered great sums of money to ‘service’ some clients professionally as they believe that I know everything there is to know about sexuality and thus would make a great lover! I deal with these ‘fatal attractions’ therapeutically within my sessions. This is one of the reasons why I workshop frequently with my fellow sexologists in USA since it is essential for me to have a place where issues like this can be discussed and I am assured of professional support.
I don't want to believe that I intimidate people – yikes! I would prefer to be seen as a role model of healthy sexuality. I must say that I have had a banana thrust into my hands by a few females asking me to demonstrate how to perform fellatio! So I experience people wanting to learn from me, but the truth is that both men and women do see me as being really different and are consumed with curiosity about me – especially about my private life! I want to believe that by talking so easily about sexuality I give other people, especially women permission to do the same – this is a very important part of my work.
WORLD ONLINE: A simpler question, perhaps: How do you overcome clients' initial awkwardness about discussing their sexual lives?
DR EVE: I believe I am at an advantage here – because I am so visible, people who consult me know they are coming to me because I am a sexologist, and that means that I am going to talk to their sexuality. So I find that they are almost relieved to have found a place where they can talk about this most important and sensitive part of their lives and can jump into this conversation desperately. Also, because I am so relaxed about having this conversation, I believe that I immediately put people at ease, allowing them to open up in their own way and at their own pace. I want to believe that all my clients feel my non-judgmental and unconditional acceptance of their sexuality – we are there to understand it and manage it appropriately.
WORLD ONLINE: Do people in counselling sessions ever try to provoke you, or freak you out, or merely embarrass you, with odd or gross behaviour? Which, I suppose, in turn raises the question: Can anything at all under the sun embarrass Dr Eve?
DR EVE: Oh yes, and how! Especially on the radio when there is a group of young adult males together they certainly try hard to unsettle me. My take on this is that I reply to every question in a professional manner, as there is someone listening who will benefit from the information. But my jocks, Dave Guselli on East Coast Radio and Isaac Phaatla on Radio Metro, are very protective of me and quickly get rid of the ‘wankers’!
People will try to provoke me into sharing my own sexuality, which will never happen, but I always take my clients and their sexuality seriously, no matter what they share with me. I never judge sexuality as ‘gross’ or ‘odd’ but rather want to understand their behaviour.
Which leads me to this: no, I don't get embarrassed, nor am surprised by any stuff that I hear. This is thanks to my training at The Institute of Advanced Study in Human Sexuality in San Francisco. It was very experiential training, which included being exposed to whatever forms of human sexuality exist and spending hours processing through your own reactions and feelings.
For example, when I started out I was really uncomfortable with BDSM (bondage, discipline, sado-masochism) – I couldn't get my head around this pain-for-pleasure concept. So I spent lots of time in bondage clubs, interviewing people involved in ‘the scene’, reading extensively, and being trained in many of the areas of this specialised area of sexuality. Now I am able to work confidently in this unique place of pleasure.
WORLD ONLINE: Looking at the interpersonal dynamics of the counselling session the other way around, do YOU ever find yourself being attracted to a client?
DR EVE: Honestly this hasn't happened to me – not in such a significant way that I would require consultation with a colleague. I believe it is because of my utterly professional attitude that I am able to maintain really good boundaries. I am aware of how precious, vulnerable and intimate this professional relationship is, and so I don't have a problem maintaining clarity on roles. It is such a responsibility to be in this position that I would never do anything to abuse it.
I often times wish that I could be friends with some of my clients, particularly the women whom I get to know very well in my groups, but I do not even allow this to happen.
WORLD ONLINE: On your website (www.dreve.co.za) you say that sex therapy is ‘directive’ whereas other forms of therapy are ‘non-directive’. This apparently means, amongst other things, that clients get set ‘homework assignments’. I'm sure these are more engaging than writing notes on the French Revolution or working through Exercises 1-15 in a trigonometry textbook. Pray, tell me more.
DR EVE: I prefer to use the term ‘home play’ rather than ‘homework’ as people are constantly being told that they have to ‘work’ on their relationships and I think this is pretty daunting – I mean, we have enough ‘work’ in our lives to do without this as an extra negative pressure. So I send people home to play!
Again, these are very personalised assignments. When consulting couples I always give them relationship tasks first and then integrate sex play. The sexual tasks could be something like this: a woman with loss of desire, or who is pre-orgasmic, is advised to do a vulva examination on herself, then caress her body with body cream and gradually I lead her to self stimulation of her genitals. Couples are encouraged to watch erotic and sexuality education videos, read erotic stories together, and do a lot of sensual caressing of each other.
All of this is done within a highly controlled and individualised environment – and with the emphasis on fun. Oh yes, I am a lubricant freak, so everyone is introduced to the sensual pleasure of using a lubricant. And the couple that you see ‘perving’ over underwear in your local lingerie department have been sent there by me.
WORLD ONLINE: Human sexuality is a diverse and polymorphous terrain, with many ways of achieving satisfaction (however defined), so that perhaps even something that appears to be dysfunctional may be a means of gaining a less-than obvious pleasure. Do you hold up a general norm of sexual well-being, the attainment of which signifies the point when someone has been cured – or are matters more complex than that?
DR EVE: At the beginning of therapy I contract with the person/couple as to what their goals are and what our time period together will be. However, this fluctuates but generally therapy is over once their goals are achieved. I don't see people as being ‘sick’ sexually so there is never talk of ‘cure.’ For example, if a man with a transvestic fetish consults with me the goal is not to get him out of his wife's panties whilst making love with her but rather [to find out] how he and his wife can best manage a relationship in which he has to wear panties or other kinds of female lingerie to bed.
WORLD ONLINE: We're leaving the counselling room and heading for the proverbial cocktail scenario, where the folks learn that you're a clinical sexologist. How do men and women tend to react to you personally when they're informed of the work you do? Do they inundate you with enquiries formulated along the lines of, ‘A close friend of mine – a relative, actually – my uncle Bob – has this, well, sensitive problem, and I, I mean, he was wondering ...’? Do they react warily, on the assumption that their well-disguised inadequacies won't stand a chance of staying hidden from your expert insight, or do they assume that because you're interested in sex professionally, you must be incessantly interested in it non-professionally as well?
DR EVE: Ha, ha, all of the above and more! I am constantly surprised by people's reactions to me socially – that's why I am called ‘Nai-eve’! I make a point of not talking about my work unless people inquire about something specific or my tongue is just about bitten off from being quiet when misinformation goes around so as not to intimidate people in this popular area of discussion. And, yes, when her teenage daughter's sex life comes up for discussion, I listen well and tell her to call me in the office.
Women hold on to their men a little tighter when they see me approaching – they all seem to forget that I like to choose with whom I relate intimately and definitely do not choose married /involved men. Men react in two ways – either they avoid me as they are afraid that they won't ‘perform’ well enough for me, or else they attempt to really impress me – the imaginary bedroom score board looms large for them!
WORLD ONLINE: On the subject of party talk, you've no doubt been asked enough what your views are on pornography? The traditional feminist critique of porn has been that it systematically degrades and objectifies women. Latterly, others have said that pornography – or erotica, as ‘softer’ versions of it have been called – is sexually empowering. How do you feel about the issue?
DR EVE: Let's call a spade a spade – porn is porn, and within porn there is a huge variety ranging from ‘soft’ to hard-core to ‘snuff’ movies. As a modern day feminist I appreciate the value of pornography; the issue of whether it is degrading or objectifying of women is a difficult call. Historically, pornography was made by men catering to what they believed turned men on, and, yes, many of those porn movies portrayed a fantasy model of female and male sexuality. This has proved very destructive to both genders, who continue to expect the ten-inch-long, can-go-all-night penis and women who love having men cum all over their faces.
I use porn therapeutically to educate couples to the variety of sexual expression that is available, and it's a very important tool (excuse the pun!) of arousal for people who lack fantasy images and for people who need arousal. I would rather a couple stay home and watch porn together than either one being turned on by another, if this is not their mutual choice.
Society has made us believe that if we watch certain porn we will want to copycat that behaviour. Well, to date no research shows that watching porn increases rape. It is good to remember that what turns us on is very unique, so when watching porn we will only get aroused by that which turns us on. As with all things sexual, this too must be done with consensuality and responsibility to oneself and to others.
WORLD ONLINE: Still on the subject of erotica, I should ask you this, seeing as we're conducting our interview on the Internet: In what way do you think the new phenomenon of cybersex – widely accessible porn, sex chat rooms, global e-communities oriented around particular sexual lifestyles and orientations – has affected sexual practice? And do you think this effect has been, on balance, for better or worse?
DR EVE: This aspect of sexuality fascinates me right now. There is no doubt that the Internet has made a huge difference to our way of being sexual and relating to others. I love it that people are given an opportunity to explore their sexuality safely here and that mostly there is now a place where like-minded people can meet and ‘normalise ‘ themselves. For example, one of my clients has a fetish for women in plaster casts, called ‘casting’. With the use of the Internet he now belongs to a community of people involved in casting, which in turn has had a positive effect on his marriage.
People who are obsessive-compulsive about porn will continue in the same vein on the Internet, but for the regular user the fascination soon seems to die down. I think that it is in the area of chat that the biggest changes are being made – for better and for worse. Issues like monogamy have to be re-evaluated in long-term relationships, and I think that that is wonderful as I am for anything that gets couples talking. People are challenging their sexual orientations and their preferences – I hope this will be to the good of people, yet I know there is a lot of pain that the Net brings too.
WORLD ONLINE: Is there an Adam in Dr Eve's life?
DR EVE: I have left my ‘Adams’ behind in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Israel (too expensive and heartbreaking), and with my very recent move to Cape Town I am hoping to sample the ‘local is lekker’ slogan! I hope this does not prove too challenging to our local menfolk – I mean, he has to have a sense of humour and a very strong sense of himself to withstand the looks, questions and nudge-nudge that comes to any man who is my partner. But, hey, I don't understand this curiosity ... I am, after all, just a woman!
WORLD ONLINE: What makes you angry? What gives you joy?
DR EVE: Firstly, abuse in any form makes me very angry, as does dishonesty in relationships, be they intimate, business or acquaintance-based. Then, I anger tremendously with people making judgements. I have learned through my work and own life experience that nothing is as it seems – deceptions of perceptions – so judging a person or their behaviour is incredibly painful and damaging.
Oh wow, so much gives me joy – primarily my children. Good times and conversations with the very special friends that I am blessed to have will do it too. I get tremendous joy from all things sensual, mainly music and dancing; reading something that talks to me (I am a voracious reader), being a part of nature – I am a naturalist and find lots of spiritual joy from this place of quiet. Travelling is joyous for me. And of course, what you've been waiting for – my sexuality in its many different forms, from dancing to seeing the sun set on the ocean – gives me my ultimate ecstasy in life. It provides me with the core passion that is who I am.
WORLD ONLINE: A last question, Dr Eve. What does it take to be a sex therapist? What drives you in what is clearly a calling, and what gives you your greatest rewards?
DR EVE: It takes passion and commitment to a, yes, calling that is forever evolving. It is an intellectual challenge, and requires creativity and lots of time as there are so many aspects to cover – clinical, educational and on-going research. But mostly it requires a constant self-journey: in order to work satisfactorily with people's relationships and sexuality I have to understand my own journey. And as we know sexuality is fluid, so my journey is constantly changing course, and it is incredibly exciting to keep flowing.
It also takes a lot of courage to do this work owing to the many myths that you have explored here. My children have had to journey with me, and even though we have integrated my world well into our everyday reality, public misconceptions can be a little awesome for all of us at times.
My greatest rewards are hearing a listener phone in (I LOVE my radio work!), having people mailing me to say how information received from me has made a difference to their lives, and of course seeing the difference in my clinical practice. Perhaps my greatest reward happens in my Women's Sexual Growth Groups, where I have the privilege of seeing women evolve into the sexual goddesses we all are.
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