The Evolution of Modern Sex Therapy


March/April 1999


Twenty years after the sexual revolution, in the most sexually explicit culture in the world, a surprisingly large number of people continue to have difficulties with the sexual basics. The Social Organization of Sexuality, a statistically balanced 1994 survey of the sexual habits of 3,432 Americans, found that 24 percent of the women questioned had been unable to have an orgasm for at least several months of the previous year. Another 18.8 percent of the women (24 percent of those over 55) reported trouble lubricating; 14 percent had had physical pain during intercourse; and 11 percent were anxious about their sexual performance. Equally high proportions of men reported interlocking difficulties: 28 percent said they climaxed too quickly, 17 percent had performance anxiety and 10.4 percent (20 percent of those over 50) said they'd had trouble maintaining an erection.

Before the 1950s, people with these sorts of problems were given pejorative labels like "impotent" and "frigid." Psychoanalytic therapy had little to offer them beyond symbolic explorations of their upbringings and "Oedipal" conflicts. Things got slightly better in the 1950s, when Joseph Wolpe and other behaviorists taught people to reduce their fear by breathing deeply and relaxing while imagining sexual situations that had made them tense. This was of some help, but things only really changed in the 1970s, after gynecologist William Masters and his research associate Virginia Johnson began studying…

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