Hey, Tina! Why SEX?
People often ask how I ended up with a career in sexuality and intimacy.
The truth is, I was always preparing for it—and never planning on it.
I grew up in a big, Swedish immigrant family. My grandparents and four great aunts lived on a single, huge piece of property, near our home in the Pacific Northwest. My grandfather, Sander, had come to America in 1930 as a 17-year-old soccer player determined to bring his family over and find his American dream. Family and togetherness were among his central values, and by the time I came along, the family was big, boisterous, extremely loving, and tightly interconnected in healthy bonds of love and good humor.
While my ‘Papa’ (Swedish for Grandfather) loved America with all his heart, it was his Swedish cooking and Swedish love of the sensual that permeated the culture of how we did family. This included an ongoing and open conversation about bodies and sexuality that happened easily among all of the members of the family and could surface just about anytime. I grew up watching lots of open affection among the adult members of my family—seeing married people flirt, giggle, and sit on each other’s lap. Even sexual joking was part of the dialogue. But because family was central, so was respect. I didn’t know until I was well into my thirties that I grew up in what I came to call a “sound-bite sex home,” where we learned about sexuality and sensuality gradually over time through bits and pieces of shared, chuckled-over wisdom, rather than all at once in what many people call “The Talk.” I can’t remember one singular conversation about sex because sexuality education was an ongoing, open, age-appropriate conversation that I had with both of my parents, my grandparents, and my aunts and uncles along the way.
It’s really because of the comfort that my family had in sexual matters, and their sense of joy and play in their married lives, that I grew up comfortable with the field and study of sexuality and intimacy. I give all the credit to my Swedish heritage and especially my wild extended family. Their openness was such a gift to me.
My first job after college was as a science and Latin teacher at a private college prep school in La Jolla, California. I somehow ended up teaching their sex ed program, and I loved it—so much that I couldn’t figure out why more teachers weren’t jumping at the opportunity! At that time, of course, I hadn’t yet realized that I’d grown up in an “odd” family, one that was very comfortable with its own humanness. Plus, by that time I was married and a new mom, so I was getting my first shot at passing down my family’s heritage of open conversation to my first child over time, getting to help him to know, as my family had taught me, that sexuality is a woven-in part of life. In other words, I was getting to help students at school learn about their bodies, and I was getting to help my tiny son learn how to navigate the waters of being physical from a very early developmental stage. I was having a blast.
Teaching adolescents, and especially learning how a child’s home life can affect his or her ability to learn, led me to grad school to become a marriage and family therapist. After I graduated and started my practice, I was asked by one of my past professors if I would teach the human sexuality class in the degree program I had just finished. I jumped at the chance. “What could be more fun?” I thought.
That was 1991. Six years later, I found myself teaching full-time in the program, directing its medical family therapy program and continuing to love my human sexuality course. In 2000, I began to notice an increase in sexual dysfunction and religious sexual shame and trauma in the sexual autobiographies of students who came from a religiously conservative background. This concerned me greatly, and I started to keep research notes on what I was seeing.
In 2006, I wrote an article titled, “Christians Caught Between the Sheets: How an Abstinence-Only Ideology Hurts Us,” published in the online journal The Other Journal – An Intersection of Theology and Culture. The article went viral and I realized that I’d struck a nerve. I heard from people around the globe! I was seeing that there were so many people suffering under religious sexual shame and trauma, but that no one had begun to speak about it or name it for what it was.
That led me to pursue a Ph.D. in clinical sexology, do formal research on the effect of sexual shame on couples’ intimacy, start a blog, launch an online community called Thank God for Sex, design an intimacy retreat for couples, begin speaking at various venues, write articles, chapters, and books, and establish the Northwest Institute on Intimacy in order to encourage all therapists who treat couples to become proficient at improving intimacy and sexuality in the people they serve.
I want to see our culture come to a place where all people have access to solid information about sexual health and relational intimacy in all its various colors, so that each person can gain a glimpse into what is possible for them. I also want to see the field of psychotherapy “grow up” such that proficiency in sexual health and intimacy becomes a standard part of training, and to see loving, intimate touch as a viable avenue to healing attachment. I’m convinced that sexuality can be a powerful resource to nourish our human experience, and that even in our sex-saturated culture, we’re generally missing out on something beautiful, playful, and fun in the way we approach sexuality and commitment. I hope that my work can help us to reclaim it!