We’ve always viewed sex as a good thing — but we can’t be right all the time.
In the new docu-reality series “Bad Sex,” noted sex specialist Christopher Donaghue helps people from all walks of life reclaim control of their sex lives through intense individual and group therapy sessions.
The subjects’ sexual issues, ranging from extreme dysfunctional promiscuity and love addiction to sexual phobias, can have harmful and sometimes deadly consequences, and the show promises to offer a frank and shocking behind-the-scenes look at the process of healing those issues, both inside and outside the therapy room.
PGN talked to Donaghue, a Philly native, about the new series and what he hopes to accomplish with it.
PGN: What inspired you to specialize in sex therapy? CD: I guess the whole interest in sex was born out of having trained in mental health, psychology and social anthropology. Sex was always the one topic that wasn’t talked about, or when it was, it was talked about in this Puritanical taboo sort of way. That sort of pushed me into an interest in that. Also a lot of schooling doesn’t even teach it and the more I moved into this field, I wanted to do something interesting and cutting edge. That propelled me into the sex field.
PGN: Why group people with such different sexual issues together? CD: What happens a lot of times is people come in wanting to do work on diverse issues. And a lot of times, regardless of what the topic is, when you collapse it down and look at the real issue underneath, there’s a lot of commonality in that. When we’re working as a group, a lot of the issues we’re working on is self-esteem and shame about their sexual behavior, so that’s the commonality. Or just boundaries — whether or not they are OK with their use of sex and the role it plays in their lives and healthy relationships. They’re working on defining a healthy sex life for themselves. It’s more individualized, but as a group, we work on the common topics that we all have.
PGN: Are there any added benefits or negative effects to conducting this kind of therapy in front of TV cameras? CD: That was a concern I had going in because for me, it was always a project I had a real investment in. But it wasn’t [negative]. The clients we chose were so open to exploring the work and had a passion for what they were going to be doing that once we started doing the work and we started opening up the level of engagement, we had eclipsed any cameras or acknowledgement of that. Also for the production company, it was really important to them as well to make this an authentic process. They definitely stayed away as much as they could.
PGN: Is it difficult to balance the needs of the group with the expectations of a TV show? CD: For me, I had a platform. I had a mission. I had a message. The delivery of that was most important to me. The network was amazingly supportive and sensitive to all the things that come with putting together a package like this. I think from the get-go, there weren’t any concerns and I trusted that it was going to be done with a lot of integrity and it was. I think that the impact the show could possibly have would far outweigh any negative consequences that might happen.
PGN: Were there any issues or individuals that were more at risk than others in the group? CD: Although everyone’s issue was important to them and impacted them in a multitude of ways, I think you’ll see that some people had higher stakes than other people. Not that they were any more or less invested because of that. Some people’s issues had a bigger magnitude where some of them, their sex life was impacting their relationships, their health, their careers. For others, it was just specific and isolated to them. It was a personal struggle. But again, all of them showed up because there was some way that the negative consequences were big enough that they wanted to work on themselves. It was an intense process. It was weekly therapy and group therapy, sometimes biweekly. So it wasn’t a simplistic process.
PGN: Why include heterosexual individuals in the therapy group when the show is airing on a LGBT network? CD: Again, we’re working on a project and putting it together and developing it. We wanted to highlight the diversity that exists within sex and the commonality. I think that the beautiful thing about being on a gay network is starting to bridge the gay community and the straight community and highlighting the idea that, while there is vast diversity and differences, at the core there are a lot of similarities. And in a time with a lot of the bullying and homophobia — and with gay marriage on the table in a lot of states — I think that’s an important thing.
PGN: What is the opinion of your professional peers of a show like this? CD: As the project was being developed, I definitely spoke to my peers and my colleagues just to get a sense of how something like this is perceived, and I think it’s very new to everyone. The specialist on television is more common these days, but I think thus far it’s been done in an integrity-based way. I think we’re still getting used to it. I went into it saying as long as I was comfortable with the work that was being done and the integrity of the show, I was open to dealing with any impact around that. But I think that my colleagues and other professionals will be supportive. The work is good clinical work. The outcomes for the participants are pretty dramatic. Some of them have some setbacks. Not all of them walk away completely healed and better. But you definitely see a lot of movement and progress. I think that will speak for itself that work was done.
PGN: Based on your experience, do you think LGBT individuals are more or less likely to seek out sexual therapy than heterosexuals? CD: It depends on the area and the resources available. In Philadelphia, a place like the Mazzoni Center is highly accessible and visible. So people know that resources are available. If you’re living in a smaller area, it depends on the area. Heterosexual men are probably the least therapy-supported population. Gay men are more open. In my experience, I’ve dealt with both on an equal playing field. In my experience they are both pretty open to it. It depends on the issue. Sex in general is something people don’t really want to talk about or acknowledge they have an issue with. So they usually come in with a secondary issue; depression, anxiety, drug and alcohol addiction. And within that work you realize there’s a sexual issue underneath.
PGN: How much of the sexual issues you deal with are a result of the expectations society has on the individual as opposed to any internal issues that person might have? CD: Society’s impact is always there, period. Even if the issue is something that is accepted and normalized, it’s always there. We live in a culture — we can’t not be impacted by it. Our culture, the American culture, is one of the most sex-negative and sex-phobic cultures there are. So that’s always going to be prevalent and a problem. That is why the show is so important. The intent is to get dialog going and through that dialog give a voice to certain conditions and experiences and normalizing things that a lot of America would say “that’s not healthy.” It’s just getting people talking and comfortable hearing these words and concepts. It’s targeting the heavy-handed impact that culture has.
“Bad Sex” premieres 9 p.m. Nov. 4 on Logo.