Let’s talk about sex
Reno sexologist Dr. Tory Clark gives the lowdown on getting down
Dr. Tory Clark, 34, is a University of Nevada lecturer, a blogger and a columnist for Healthy Beginnings magazine and Reno Tahoe Tonight. But most importantly, she’s a clinical sexologist, which means she studies what people do sexually and their ideas about it. She opened her practice in Reno in July 2010. Just in time for Valentine’s Day, she sat down to have a frank discussion about the things she experiences in her practice, and what people can do to keep the sex spark alive in their relationships. And guess what? It really is about talking about it.
Do sex and love always go hand in hand?
[Laughs.] Love is what’s left after all the endorphins and all the good hormones from the sex when we first get together wears off.
My friends and I were theorizing last night that those endorphins are for reproduction, that’s why you have them early in a relationship.
That is a biological fact. Helen Fisher, she’s an anthropologist, and she’s done a lot of studies of the brain and love. Her work is amazing. They use magnetic resonance imaging to look at the brain when it’s in love, and that’s what goes on so that you have an attachment to somebody, and you can reproduce.
That’s chemistry. Why does it seem so frequently that we have intense levels of that chemistry, but we don’t have anything else in common?
I think most people in their lifetime might experience that. It’s just when all the stars align to come together, and you end up with that person, and all that [chemistry] wears off. Then you have a lot in common, and you go through a lot together, and then you have the appreciation and the attachment. Those fireworks and the lust are a whole other ballgame with somebody, and sometimes the obstacles that come with the attraction to that person have a naughtiness factor, and it heightens your attraction to them, and it’s more erotic, and that comes into play.
Yes, but why is it so frequently seem like you get that with the wrong person, someone you can’t really build a life with, but you have that intense chemistry?
Are you talking about a person you know is wrong for you?
Yes, I guess.
That goes with what I was saying with the obstacles, and knowing that person. It’s a mental game. It heightens the arousal for a lot of people. It really does. If you can look back on yourself, and really go into your head about why that person turns you on, you might be able to trace it to having some of those obstacles.
So that’s why it’s a cliché that opposites attract? You would tend to have more of that lust factor with people who aren’t necessarily good for you?
That’s what happens a lot of times to people. I mean, I can relate to it. I’m teaching from a book called The Erotic Mind that Jack Morin wrote, and it talks about this kind of stuff. I have my students read it because I think early on in life, it’s important to understand what your turn-ons are.
How old are your typical clients?
I’ve seen a 15-year-old kid all the way up to 72-year-old woman. There’s a great range, and such a variety of issues. To be honest, when I opened my practice, I didn’t think I’d see what I see here in Reno. I went to school in San Francisco [the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality], and it’s so diverse there and whatnot. I was kind of timid about Reno, and this taking off, but people with these issues are everywhere.
How can couples keep sexual love vibrant?
It really does take work. When I see my clients, and they’re having issues about keeping that spark alive, it’s because they are so wrapped up in their work, their kids, and they stop spending that time together, going on dates, making time to explore things together. It takes work to keep that fire alive; it really does because it can get a little stagnant when you’re with somebody 10, 20, 30 years.
Is there a biological imperative, is there are reason people stay together 20 years?
A lot of people ask the question of marriage, is it a dying institution? I think there’s always going to be a need for people to have that ceremony and that bond. But we’re living twice as long as we were before. For people to stay together that long, and having the societal expectations to do so, it’s tough. That is tough to do.
Do you feel that maybe there’s a natural finite time that people should spend together?
I don’t think so. I just think that some people are OK with not getting married or serial monogamy or just dating, and if they’re comfortable with that, that’s great. It’s just those societal pressures, you get married, you have kids, you stay together or get divorced. I think people are less and less associating with that guilt and shame who don’t want to stay in a marriage or a relationship for their entire life.
Do you think that some people stay together just because of the social pressure to stay together?
Social pressure, and it also depends on their religious beliefs. And if they can do it with help from their church or counseling, more power to them, but sometimes it’s not for the right reasons. Like sometimes staying together for the kids.
But they’re not happy. And is pursuit of happiness the higher calling?
Yes, the pursuit of happiness is, but at the same time, my own personal feeling is people are more apt to check out without putting any work into anything. I think sometimes it’s a lot easier to just walk away and not put the effort into it. It just doesn’t happen naturally. When you’re first together it does—all those hormones. You’re on a high, an endorphin high, most definitely. When that wears off, you have to decide if that’s a person you want to build a relationship, build a life around. For some people, those endorphins stay with them, and there’s a real sense of effort and attachment that takes hold.
And those are the couples that we see so few of, but we love to see them.
And like I said, you have to keep working after all that fun stuff burns off, that initial attraction and excitement.
Why do couples have such a hard time with sex? I read somewhere that the three main things couples break up over are sex, money and children.
I think it’s communication about these things, but at the same time, they’re taboo subjects. Maybe not the children, but you don’t really ever talk about your finances in detail. And we’re surely raised in this society to not talk about sex, and what we’re doing in the bedroom and be open. We’re told our whole lives that it’s dirty, and there’s a lot of shame and guilt associated with it, but save it for someone you love.
You talk about being “sex-positive.” is that something you can develop or all these societal negatives too much to overcome?
I think so. It takes being in a class or reading the right books. And going through your own stuff, personally, to come to that point of working through things that you associate a lot of guilt to, that have followed you through your life. And finding a partner who accepts you, and what you’re into sexually. Especially if you’re into bondage or BDSM play, and if your partner thinks you’re a mass murderer because of that, associating that because of what’s on TV. Or if you want to watch pornography, and your partner is absolutely against that, they might label you a sex addict.
Is there such a thing as a sex addict?
I knew you were going to ask me that. I just wrote an article about that on my blog. You know, it’s more of a compulsive behavior, and the word “addiction” has gotten slapped on it. And our society does not have a clear understanding of that word. It goes with an illness model. You have physical withdrawals from a substance or like delirium tremens when you’re withdrawing from alcohol. That’s addiction, that’s an addiction model. Someone who has a sex addict or has sexual compulsivity—more the proper term—isn’t going to have the DTs. They’re just going to have a lot of anxiety. And most of the time, people that are sexual compulsive, they’re trying to find the high from sex, in a sense, but also, they’re just trying to feel a lot better about themselves. Because of something that may be in their past, that happened to them. Or maybe it’s relieving their stress. But when it starts to interfere with their job, breaks their marriage up, they can lose a lot of money, sleep and time—that’s we could start looking at it. But to call somebody a sex addict, there’s no measure, no scientific criteria to define what normal sexual activity is. What’s normal? What’s normal for you might be abnormal for me.
So would you make a blanket statement that there is no such thing?
I think that the terminology is off. It’s more compulsive. Like someone who can’t stop shopping or gambling. It’s more like that. It’s just the way that term has been tossed around in society. Now there’s a term that has a ton of guilt and shame associated with it. How would you like to be called a sex addict? It’s a very tough term to define, and probably less than 6 percent of the population could be labeled a sex addict.
The compulsion is so much that it actually hurts their other life.
How many people do you really know? There’s Tiger Woods, that was out of control, and it ended up hurting his life, but I think we probably all do know somebody that has done that kind of stuff. It’s just that he’s a celebrity.
Exactly. If I did it, it would not be national news. So maybe his compulsion wasn’t so great, except that he’s Tiger Woods.
And maybe it’s holding up a mirror to America. It’s a reality, but people don’t like to see that—to be reminded of that.
It was like Bill Clinton with Monica Lewinski, that behavior seemed so kind of just stupid. And that is compulsive behavior. I don’t think if he were just a CEO or just a regular guy that would have ever happened in an office.
It comes down to role models and what they’re responsible for.
Would you say that his behavior was acceptable? It was between two consenting adults, but there was a huge power exchange going on.
Well, his wife didn’t know it was going on. That’s always a tough one. I think society had a hard time with him doing it on the job. But according to him, it wasn’t sex, either. That’s a whole other can of worms—and that’s a big deal today. If you were to ask your kid, “Are you having sex?” and he tells you no because they’re not having penis-vagina intercourse, but they’re having anal, and they’re having oral, and everything else in between. But that’s not what their definition of sex is, so you have to be very clear.
But that always seems to be just semantics. If they want to tell a lie, they just say, “It’s not sex,” just to hide the truth. But they know it’s sex. Once the pubies come out, it’s sex.
Yeah, yeah. But it’s just the question. When my college students talk about the issue, I say, “If you overheard someone saying at a table next to you say that they had sex the night before, what particular acts would you envision?” And nine times out of 10, it’s intercourse. And one of my students brought up a good point: That’s why the term “hooking up,” covers a broader spectrum of sexual acts.
Does it? That one to me refers specifically to vaginal-penis intercourse.
Really, and sex is the broader word?
Yeah, when somebody says to me, “We should hook up tonight,” I get these funny images. So maybe it’s more than semantics. Do people with less traditional roles—gay, transgender, whatever—have more problems with sex?
It’s just the same. We’re all human. When there is maybe a smaller community, like in Reno, of the gay population, maybe there are more issues, because everybody knows everybody, but more so. Maybe they’ve dated, but I can look at that and go, “Gosh, you’ve grown up in Reno your whole life, and that’s an issue there, too.” But for the most part, it is the same. But then if we’re going to talk very specifically, like if someone might be transgender, there are issues for that person. It might be disclosure, if they date someone, telling them, and hoping that person understands them.
My experience is that people are not generally that intimate when they start getting physically intimate. Maybe that’s just the way I grew up. But you develop that connection through the physicality, where you can be totally honest, but sometimes that happens after, so I can see how that would be very difficult for the transgender people.
Do you deal with sex offenders, actual criminals?
I haven’t had that. It would depend on the case and what was going on—if they were referred to me and then after the evaluation. I always do an evaluation with somebody, and whether it’s within my scope. And that goes with like someone who comes in with … someone who has some sex issues, and maybe they have a severe drug and alcohol problem. Well they can probably see me for the sexual issues, but I going to call one of my friends in town that specializes in drug and alcohol addiction.
Do you feel that criminals like pedophiles are fixable? Where do you come down on that argument?
The societal stigma is so huge for helping those people. They’d lock them away forever and not try rehabilitating those people. Some can be, it just depends. The rehabilitation is there. I’ve met different people who specialize in that field.
Steven Ing. I think he specializes.
And if someone came to my door, that sexual predator type person, that’s probably someone I would call to refer them to. Because I just don’t specialize in that area.
It would be a totally different interview if I were sitting here with Steven.
Oh, yeah, and he’s been doing it for 20-30 years. It’s amazing. I haven’t had that many conversations with him. Is it something that I’d like to learn more about and maybe specialize in one day? Maybe, but it’s a tough topic. I don’t know if I’d like to carry that around.
What do you tell couples where one partner has a higher sex drive than the other?
The desire discrepancies? We’ll talk about exactly what is going on, be specific as possible about how much time one expects sex from the other one. Try to have them come to agreement about how often they’ll have sex; and then if it’s OK for the other person to engage in self-pleasuring, and if the other person is OK with them to have that outlet. And some people are really not OK with that. And it depends on what sexual acts—like if someone is just not interested in the penetrative sex all the time. Again, it’s defining what sex is for each person. But we talk about expanding their options for the person who might have the higher sex drive.
So you wouldn’t expect the other person to rise in that. There’s no way to increase their desire somehow?
Again, it would depend on what one person’s desire is. It might be really hard to compare the two. Define what low desire is for that person. They might just be fine. You have to sit down and talk about what level each person is at.
It’s only the two of them. You can’t define low desire because you can’t define normal, because there is no normal.
Yeah. It’s really difficult. For the person who’s low desire, if they can create space for that other person to have—maybe it’s making out, self-pleasure masturbation, so that person doesn’t feel attacked all the time, sexually feeling that kind of pressure. The most important thing is for that person not to feel so pressured because the more that person feels pressured, the more pressure that person feels from the person with the higher sex drive—they’re just going to keep putting up more and more walls.
But it goes the other direction, too. I think it probably goes with people who confuse sex and love. That person who’s got the higher drive might have that belief that sex equals love, and if the other person doesn’t want to have sex, they don’t love them.
Yes. And that might be their love language, so to speak. Finding those connections through sex. A lot of times a common path with men is they connect through having sex, and women need the intimacy and the romance and more work put into wanting to have sex and time together. They’re speaking a completely different language.
How do you bring them together?
It’s sitting down and being very clear. It’s always about communication. If you can communicate about where you’re going to dinner, and what you’re going to do that evening, and how you’re going to pay your bills. If you can do that, you can certainly communicate and resolve what’s going on in the bedroom. It’s just a matter of coming to agreement about how you’re approaching your partner for sex all the time, and understanding more what they need—more communication, romance, not just sex all the time.
So, again, it takes work; it takes planning; it takes understanding.
It does take work. It does. It does. You just work with it. One of the partners thinks having sex once a week or so, that’s their connection, their time. And the other says, “That’s not connecting for me at all, I need more.” They’re speaking two different languages.
Right. So your job at that point is to define terms.
Terms and having the variation of activities together. It’s not just about intercourse. I might start with something as simple as couples massaging each other. You know how important touch is. And not having dinner in front of the television, actually sitting across from each other and talking. Or scheduling times, once, twice, three times a week to have a talk about where you’re at in the relationship, and what’s going on—without the kids around, cell phones off.
All those normal things that everybody does.
All this social media and stuff, I don’t know if it’s that social for relationships. It’s no substitute for having a face-to-face. And texting your partner, breaking up through a text, that kind of stuff. I don’t know, I guess I’m old fashioned in that sense. How do you read body language? There’s no replacement for conversation, especially when it comes to sex.
Those are all the questions I had written down. What should we talk about? What don’t people talk about that they should talk about with regard to sex?
I’m doing a workshop on women’s orgasm Feb. 10. I think that talking about … first of all, knowing your body and what you like, exploring your own body and knowing how you like to be touched or how you come to orgasm. Taking responsibility and empowering yourself first, and not putting all that on your partner.
Is that more of an issue with women than men?
I think that it’s obviously a little more complicated with women’s orgasm. Men, their genitals are out there. You get to name it when you’re little, it’s just there, you hold it when you urinate. It’s a different message for girls: “It’s dirty, don’t touch down there.”
I know women who have never seen their own parts.
Yes, I know, when I was in human sexuality in college, that course, that was an assignment. To take a mirror and look at your own genitals. There are people that have never done that. Somebody who’s 60 might come in here and never have done that. But that disclosure that you can have with your partner is absolutely key. And it starts with your own responsibility for that. Especially for women. Probably 75 percent of women are not going to orgasm through penetration alone. That’s not what it’s going to take. And men at the same time have got to know a woman’s anatomy.
I don’t even know how to approach this. Did you get into this because it’s self-therapy? Is it therapeutic for sexologists to be living the life?
It is. I mean, the other night I got a video in the mail; it was on the G-spot for women. Well, I’m watching that with my husband. So it’s always on the forefront, and we’re talking about it. So it’s therapeutic in that sense. And then also for people who’ve had traumatic things happen to them. And understanding those things, in going through my training, and having better conversation with them, telling them things better. You’re definitely exposed to erotica, images, watching things and realizing the full spectrum of what people can do. There’s everything. So in school, they desensitize you.
You’re getting to it. Does it desensitize you toward sexuality or does it heighten that?
It ebbs and flows. Like when I was in school. I’d talk to my husband on the phone, I’d be like, “I don’t care if I never see another penis or vulva again.” That’s how it was getting down there, at that time. You go from being turned on—then you’re inundated for a long time—but now I’m back to a level state, and it’s fine.
So you can kind of compartmentalize in the way you can with any job. For example, I don’t bring journalism to bed with me. I do actually, but you can compartmentalize the weird and uncomfortable stuff.
But it’s not really weird or uncomfortable after you go through all your training and reading. There are things where you go, “Well, that’s obviously not for me,” but that’s the difference between a clinical sexologist and a marriage and family therapist. I’m in this space to give somebody permission to disclose. Even their deepest, darkest secrets, I’m not going to judge them.
Is that the primary skill?
It’s one of the primary skills. It’s a big one. And I know, personally, when I’ve had issues in the past, I’ve been like, “Wow, where would I go? I don’t know who I’d go to. Wow.” You have a fear of being judged, it’s your first thought sometimes, when you have issues come up in your life with sex.
Right, because we don’t talk about them, we don’t understand how common these sex issues are. That’s the reason for the …
The taboo. It starts with children, with things like the abstinence-only programs, and for what works.
No. If you look at the rates and statistics for abortion and pregnancy …
But they’re dropping, right? It seems to me I’ve read that those rates have dropped in the last couple of years.
They’ve dropped a little bit, but if you take a look at other countries, like The Netherlands, where they’re very open, and it’s more comprehensive sex [education], we’re double, triple their numbers.
America has kind of messed up sex values, anyway.
Yeah, I guess we still think we’re in an age of Leave it to Beaver, or the shows that were on. It’s not like that. It’s really not. I don’t think it was like that literally back then. When you consider the studies Alfred Kinsey did, people freaked out, but it was a representation of what was going on. And they just did another study—I believe it was 8,000 individuals at Indiana University—and the numbers were comparable. Again.
So they don’t really change.
So that’s what goes on, but because we don’t talk about it, it’s taboo. It’s interesting. We have teenagers that are acting more responsible about sex. So yes, in a sense, it’s better rates of pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections because they know about condoms, but we have a whole generation of baby boomers who are getting divorced and getting out there and dating. They didn’t use condoms in the sexual revolution.
I saw something that said the fastest rising rate of syphilis is 50 and above. It’s just what you’re describing.
Where does sex education begin and end? It’s continuous, obviously. It’s just a matter of being willing to talk about it. When I opened practice here in Reno, it’s different. [San Francisco] is more obviously liberal, and then there’s a lot of people who are into a life sexology, per se.
In your practice, do you tend to see more heterosexual couples, by ratio?
I see more heterosexual couples, for sure. But then there’s like issues of people who come in, and they’re not sure if they’re gay or not. Or in a marriage there might be somebody who’s been married a long time, but they’re really gay.
So assume they’re out. They’re already dealing with society on a level that—like they have to deal with hatred, whereas most heterosexual couples don’t have to deal with that. So they’ve got to be more accepting, more knowledgeable, so do they tend to need less help? Because they’re already communicating more than your typical heterosexual couple?
But there can still be desire discrepancies with them. There can still be all those issues. They’re communicating more to society or their parents, if they’re having a voice for themselves and standing up for themselves, but their relationship stuff can still be the same.
So is there an easy answer to any common sex problem? If you were to give one piece of advice to any couple that would solve any issue, what would that be?
I’d say making time to be clear. To set aside that time to be clear and concise about what your wants and needs are. Because they change as we go through life. You can’t expect that person to stay the same. Sexuality is fluid, and it will change.
And that’s what probably makes a lot of couples split.
Yeah, if you don’t have that understanding and give that space.
I’ll bet you give homework. What is the first piece of homework?
It just all depends on the issue. A big one that I commonly assign, if it’s a couple, is to set some time aside and going on a date. You’d be amazed at how many people don’t go on dates anymore. “Oh, we did that when we were first together.” “Well, what do you do now?” “We come home and turn the TV on and eat and talk about what we did at work.” That’s really not the kind of communication you need, that’s going to save you along the road, when things blow up—where all that stuff blows up because you haven’t talked about it.
So your first piece of advice would be to go on a date.
Well, I’m not going to prescribe “just go have sex.” That’s not what is going to solve the issues in a couple. Maybe one wants it, and the other doesn’t. There’s a reason for that. There a breakdown in communication and understanding what’s going on.
Do you see more couples or more individuals?
I see more individuals where they want their partner to come in, and it’s a long struggle to get their partner to come in. Sometimes that other partner will never come in, and that says a lot.
Do those couples ever last? Can one person of a couple come in?
It’s very difficult. I think a lot of times you’re setting aside yourself because you love that person so much that you’re willing to sacrifice a piece of your happiness to stay—especially if you’ve been with that person for years and years. And it’s comfortable. Sometimes, through it, and getting more courage and being able to understanding what your wants and needs are, sometimes you walk away. But it takes some thought. My hope is always that the other person will come in. Sometimes, there’s some real sex negativity on their part that they’re not really seeing from that other person, whoever is describing what’s going on. Sometimes that person can go home and convey, but sometimes, [the negativity is] coming from your partner.
Is there anything else you feel should be contained in this article?
I think that you know, sex just needs to be discussed in order to avoid all the problems and issues. People can be more comfortable and empower themselves. You can’t give someone else the power to make you happy or to satisfy you sexually, to give that all over to them. It’s not fair to you or your partner or partners—whatever you want to do with your life. Having a greater understanding. That might be, for somebody who is older and an adult, that might be hard to break down the barriers.
Right, 50 years of not talking about it is hard to overcome.
Yes. And what kind of a wall do you want to put up? People have big walls up. I can see that still with 28-year-old college students.
And do you teach full time?
It’s just advanced sexuality. I have a hundred students, except in the summer. I wish they had more classes. That’s another goal of mine, to add more courses.
Top three books?
Oh gosh. OK, Jack Morin, The Erotic Mind. There’s a book called Opening Up by Tristan Taormino, and it’s about open relationships and polyamory. But the book … if you’re going to do that, if you’re going to be in an open relationship or be polyamorous, you can imagine what the communication must be like. It’s unbelievable the amount of communication you must have, and it’s a fascinating book, so it’s neat to read whether you are into that or not.
OK, third book.
Dr. Marty Klein’s America’s War on Sex.