SSL Interview: Dr. Lonnie Barbach (part 1)

On April 7th, I had a fantastic opportunity to interview Dr. Lonnie Barbach. Dr. Barbach was extremely gracious during the hour phone interview, and I’m excited to share her story. I am hoping this will be the first of several interviews with people who I feel have positively contributed to a realistic perspective of female sexuality. Dr. Barbach is currently a working therapist and writer on the west coast. She has appeared on Oprah, Good Morning America, CBS Morning News, and Charlie Rose, and has written advice columns for Playgirl Magazine, New Woman Magazine, eternelle Magazine and McCall’s. You can find information about her and about her books, CD’s, videos, and psychotherapy practice at http://www.lonniebarbach.com/.

I recorded our interview with the hopes of simply transcribing the majority of it for this blog. However, during the transfer of the recording, the file was corrupted, and I only have my notes and a few select transcribed quotes left. I won’t lie, this was highly depressing, but I learned an important lesson about data back-up. So…this blog will have less of a transcribed interview feel and more of a “profile” feel – which I actually think I like better. Enjoy.

Dr. Lonnie Barbach was kind enough to write me back after she received an unsolicited letter I had written her about my movie, Science Sex and the Ladies, and the influence her book, For Yourself: The Fulfillment of Female Sexuality had on it. For Yourself was her first book, published in 1975, and it began a long and respected career in sexual therapy. I asked why she decided to go into this field.

Lonnie: “Well, I got into it kind of serendipitously. I never really meant to go into sexuality – not that I had any negative feelings toward it. I just hadn’t considered it.”

Lonnie, you see, was a poor grad student and had just worked on a seminar with Planned Parenthood, when someone suggested she try for a job at UC Berkley as a Masters and Johnson sex therapist. It was a paying position, and she was, to say the least, all for a paying job. So, she did a lot of studying and found 2 male students who were interested in working with her (the Masters and Johnson therapy style necessitates that a male and a female therapist work as a team). They were accepted, but unfortunately, both men found that it would take up too much of their time. They dropped out, leaving Barbach high and dry.

I think this just might have been a lucky twist of fate though, because it left her open to pursue something even more interesting. You see, M&J sex therapy was only for couples. Men could go through it with a surrogate female in some cases, but women were out of luck if they had no man willing to go. Yet, there were several females who had come to the clinic and didn’t have a male partner - because they were single or homosexual or just didn’t want to involve the one they had just yet. So Barbach ended up designing a group therapy method for women. She did her research. She took some parts of the M&J techniques, modeled some aspects after the 9 step masturbation program of Lobitz and LoPiccolo, and took a cue from the consciousness raising groups at the time. She ran her first preorgasmic group for 10 sessions over 5 weeks, and by the end all the women were all able to orgasm. She brought in a bottle of Champagne to her first group in celebration.

At this point, it was clear that this therapy was working, and so she looked into getting some space for the therapy with the University of California San Francisco Human Sexuality Program because she needed some sort of umbrella to do this work under and she didn’t want to be limited to college students. UCSF Sex and Counseling Unit told her it was fine as long as she paid for the space. At the time there was this sort of ground-breaking sex-talk radio program called California Girls, http://www.bayarearadio.org/people/don-chamberlain_obit.shtml. It was super popular, and when women called in about orgasm problems, the host would send them to Lonnie. She soon had a waiting list of over 100 women, and the umbrella she was working under decided it was more lucrative to hire her than just have her pay rent for the room. So Lonnie eventually became the head of the women’s side of the human sexuality program there. These therapy groups worked, and a colleague told her she should write a book about them. I kinda liked her response to this. I think a lot of people feel this way. She said, “I spent my whole college career avoiding classes with final papers. Tests I’m fine with, but papers…” Besides, she sorta felt like this stuff was obvious. It was not though, and if I might say so, it still isn’t. Let me digress for a second.

Talking to Lonnie, she is quite humble about these therapy groups, but I want to reiterate that her work here was and is important. First of all, let me point out that she and the women in these therapy groups were the ones that coined the term pre-orgasmic, which is the term used now for people (usually women, of course) who have not had an orgasm. Previously the professional terms were things like anorgasmic, but turns out that’s an incorrect assessment. People are not, as these women demonstrated, physically unable to orgasm. They simply haven’t figured out how to orgasm yet. That’s a big deal, because then as now, around 10% of women fall into this category. That number for males is nowhere near that high.

When I asked her why she thought that the amount of pre-orgasmic women has not budged over the years, she mentioned that she wonders if it has to do with the fact that young people are always around - constantly replenishing themselves, if you will, and that young women are generally less orgasmic than older women. They haven’t discovered orgasm yet. I had never thought of it in those terms, and she may have a point. However, I would argue that it has at least a little something to do with our culture’s ignorance about something she found so obvious. There is a significant cultural element for females that inhibits our ability to orgasm or to orgasm regularly in partnered situations. Once those cultural elements are identified, female orgasms are no more mysterious than male orgasms. Lonnie learned this while creating and engaging in therapy to help pre-orgasmic women learn to orgasm, and other visionaries of the time, like Shere Hite, found this out through listening to many women speak about their experiences with sex and sexuality. I would argue that the number has not budged because the wisdom of people like Lonnie Barbach has not made it into the greater public knowledge on this issue. Of course, she would never say that, but I will.

The truth is, the therapy she founded works. I mean it works so well, she even got bored with it eventually. Later in the interview she told me that her work with helping pre-orgasmic women had become a little too easy and she wanted to delve into more complex areas, and like I said before, when someone suggested she write a book about her therapy groups, one of her first thoughts was that people wouldn’t be that interested because it’s too obvious. She had this stuff on lock, and now when women seek help in the right places they do too, but where the right places are has unfortunately not become obvious over the years. I think pop culture sex advice is more interested in sexual positions and how to give the perfect blow job than they are about how to legitimately help women navigate within the sexual landscape to a place where we can orgasm as easily as men do in partnered situations. The physical capacity is there. Anyway, my point is that I think Lonnie is somewhat modest and maybe doesn’t acknowledge what a visionary she is. I think she just enjoys what she does and continually craves challenges.

One can see her trend towards more complicated issues in the type of books she’s put out over the years. Her next book after For Yourself was For Each Other: Sharing Sexual Intimacy, which built upon many of the ideas in For Yourself but focused on creating satisfying sex together as a couple. She then co-wrote Shared Intimacies: Women’s Sexual Experiences and The Intimate Male: Candid Discussions About Women, Sex, and Relationships, in which she tackled the feelings men and women have about each other, sex and relationships. She later paired up with her partner, David Geisinger, Ph.D. to write Going the Distance: Finding and Keeping Lifelong Love which delved into how to understand, assess, and nurture a long-term monogamous relationship. The Pause: Positive Approaches to Premenopause and Menopause came out later where Lonnie tackled menopause. During all this she also began compiling erotic stories for women. She realized early on in her therapy career that women had a hard time finding erotica/porn that they liked. There simply wasn’t too much out there for and by women. She had been thinking of putting these books together for a long time, but wanted to make sure her career was well established, and that she wouldn’t be pigeon-holed. What I’m saying is that she enjoys a challenge, gearing her work towards more interesting and complicated subjects as her career grows.

Okay, I digressed heavily there. So…Back to Lonnie’s first attempt at writing and publishing a book. She did eventually see that writing For Yourself would be a good idea, but was seriously inexperienced when it came to this kind of endeavor. She headed to New York in a crazy heat wave and found a phone in an air-conditioned department store where she sat all day and called publishers. Telling this story, she kept reiterating how inexperienced and dumbfounded she was during this whole experience. The publishers were asking how long it would take to write? Would there be an index?...things she hadn’t really thought of before. Eventually through the help of Jay Mann and his friend, she published through Double Day, which she said turned out to be a fantastic thing.

The hardcover book sold something like 15,000 copies, which was nothing, but when the paperback came out, it exploded. It turned out to be a word of mouth thing, she told me, and I can completely see that. I imagine women who did read one of those original 15,000 books would have to have been blown away a bit. This was solid stuff, like I said before.

She told me a kind a fun story about the original hardcovers though, “When I took the hardcover copy out of the box it was just this white cover with off-centered type. I just put it back in the box. I was so upset.” It was so boring. However, Barbach was pleasantly surprised when the beautiful 1936 Edward Weston picture, “Nude,” graced the cover of the original paperback edition (which happens to be the copy I own), although she wasn’t exactly sure how they were able to get rights for that pic.

Check the 2nd installment of the Lonnie Barbach interview blog here!

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