Bob (not his real name), a 30-year-old financial adviser in West Palm Beach, Florida, was having a hard time getting it up. Because of the limp economy, he worked long hours to pull in much-needed cash—and the routine was killing his sex life. When he was with his wife, he just couldn't perform. Masturbation came easy, however: He did the deed three times a week, sometimes with the aid of porn, saying it helped him "relieve stress." This went on for six months before Bob's wife suggested therapy.
The two agreed to see a 30-year-old psychologist named Rachel Needle, who specializes in sexual dysfunction and sexual compulsiveness. She diagnosed Bob with psychogenic erectile dysfunction, essentially ruling that his problem was between his ears, not his legs. The stress of work combined with guilt over his porn habit was making him anxious—and flaccid in bed with his wife.
Needle eased Bob's anxiety by telling him that looking at porn—even introducing porn-driven fantasies into the bedroom—is perfectly acceptable. She recommended homework—more specifically a regimen of "non-demand sensate focus exercises"—through which Bob and his wife proceeded from heavy petting to self-masturbation to oral sex without the pressure of intercourse. The strategy worked—Bob's erections returned after a few sessions—but talking openly about sex with his wife and Needle also played a big part in his recovery. It surely didn't hurt that Needle has wavy, sandy-blond hair, a beaming smile, and a perpetual tan. Putting it plainly, she's kind of hot, and sitting there with Needle and his wife, engaging in often explicit sexual conversation . . . Let's just say that a guy might not mind going to therapy. "Most people are anxious talking about stuff they've never talked about before," Needle says. "With Bob, I started using humor and then he used humor and the whole experience was nice and light."
Sexual dysfunction may not be the stuff of dinner conversation, but it's hardly a taboo subject any longer. A steady barrage of Viagra and Cialis advertising has seen to that. And when a celebrity like David Duchovny admits to sexual addiction and agrees to enter treatment, as he did in late August, it encourages others to open up about their bedroom nightmares. But don't discount the contribution of a bold generation of young female counselors who have succeeded in lifting the veil of shame, making it easier for young couples to seek help for their damaged love lives.
Equal parts sex kitten and sex therapist, Dr. Joy Davidson is the poster babe for this new breed of professional. Based in New York, she has become the go-to sexpert for cable news; her website, joydavidson.com, is a virtual candy store for self-help, offering clips such as "New Tricks for Better Sex: Cowgirl."
When it comes to improving a man's sex life, Davidson is all about open dialogue, and she's unabashed about being sexy herself. She cautions, however, that owning up to sexual dysfunction and getting your mojo back can be very difficult. "It's a long process that involves many different approaches," she says. "It requires a commitment to homework," and, for young men in particular, a shift in the way they "experience themselves sexually."
Men with debilitating performance issues can point to any number of environmental causes. Dr. Betsy Crane, director of the Human Sexuality Education Program at Widener University, in Chester, Pennsylvania, is concerned about Internet porn because she fears it can lure "normal" guys into measuring themselves against porn stars. The aforementioned Viagra and Cialis ads, which make erectile dysfunction seem like a bout of hay fever, may also foster anxiety, she says. And as if that weren't enough, average Joes have to contend with the advance of metrosexual culture and homoerotic imagery—chiseled bodies; above-average packages; exceptional good looks. Add to that a marked rise in the use of antidepressants and an economy on the skids, and you get "a lot of social changes that are affecting young men's sex lives," Crane says.
Chicago therapist Kimberly Sharky, 30, can also relate to her clients' problems, particularly those linked to the burdens of work. "There are things young professionals can do," she says, "like send a different text message—one that builds sexual energy, something like 'I'm in this meeting and all I can think about is getting my hands on you.'"
One of her patients, Don (not his real name), a 33-year-old physical trainer, was driven to therapy by tedium. He had dated his wife for a decade before they married. By the time he reached his honeymoon, his sex life was in the doldrums. Instead of newlywed bliss, he says, he was experiencing a lack of desire more often found in men in their forties. "It became the 600-pound gorilla masturbating in the living room," he says.
The sessions with Sharky provided the boost Don needed. He talked with her about looking for pointers at a tantric workshop, and even broached the idea of keeping a girlfriend on the side. Many experts would dismiss that notion instantly, but Sharky was more open-minded. "She was comforting, not judgmental," Don says. Instead of shooting the suggestion down, she explained the challenges of a polyamorous relationship, stressing the importance of setting clear limits and managing expectations with his wife.
And therein lies the allure of the thirtysomething sexpert: Not only is she pleasing to the eyes but she's also familiar with the social mores of her peers and the sexual vocabulary of the day. And therefore she's likely to greet you with a sympathetic ear.
So is it okay to lust after your therapist?
"It's extremely normal and expected," Needle says, "given the intimacy, safety, and comfort established in a therapeutic relationship. The therapist is warm, accepting, trusting, empathic. All of these are characteristics people desire in a partner."
Just don't expect reciprocation. That sort of thing is still off-limits.