The Grandfather of Sex Therapy in Today’s Sexual Landscape

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Among the tens of thousands of mental health professionals in Los Angeles, a staggering number of sex therapy specialists have been trained by Walter Brackelmann. As President and Co-Founder of the American Association of Couples and Sex Therapists (AACAST) and Director of the Sex and Couples Therapy Clinic, Brackelmanns has been teaching sex for over 50 years. Now 86, Brackelmanns has become a grandfather figure of a network of therapists, focused in various fields – kink-fetish conscious; LBGQT; sexual trauma; polyamory. Liz goldwyn recently spoke to the psychiatrist about his approach, his perspectives and how he was able to revolutionize the world of sex therapy.

Vanity Fair: Why did you decide to become a doctor?

Walter Brackelmann: I was born in Brooklyn in 1932 to an alcoholic con dad and a housewife mom. Everyone in my family, including myself, was an alcoholic; I hated our poverty and decided at a very young age that I would be successful, so I took a piece of paper and wrote down my favorite subjects: biology, anatomy, nature. The profession that jumped out was a doctor. Prestige, money, security. . . it was obvious.

When you started your career as a psychiatrist in 1962, sexual issues weren’t discussed, privately or culturally. Sex therapy was still in its infancy. Alfred Kinsey had laid the foundations of sexology and Masters and Johnson were just beginning to present their research.

It’s not that the problems weren’t there, but [that they] have not been identified. Kinsey was way ahead of himself, whatever sexual activity you wanted was fine; he took a very modern approach. And Masters and Johnson were revolutionary – they really started the whole sex therapy movement.

And then there was Dr. Ruth—

She has really been successful in openly discussing the many flavors of sexuality in the mainstream. [Mimicking her voice,] “Oh you like having sex in a canoe hanging from the ceiling with the chains, oh that’s so sweet.” I have to thank her for challenging myself and my colleagues to confront our sexual biases when she started her TV show. We were like old dogs who needed new tricks.

Fifty-six years after starting your career, you are teaching in a new frontier of sex education. Sex has moved online – easy to find, superfluous – but culturally we still don’t honestly talk about sex, even with our own partners.

Choose all topics in the world, atomic bomb, money, sex. Which one is the most difficult for people to talk about? Sex. Eighty-five percent of all marriages have some kind of sexual problem. Even after years of partnership, most people don’t discuss sex with each other. It is difficult for therapists to ask questions and difficult for patients to talk about them. Do you masturbate, do you like oral sex, do you like when your partner swallows? What do you fantasize about? . . . Can we get whips and chains and add them to our sex repertoire? It is a sin how little exposure most people are to sexuality and how much people are exposed to sexual problems. And how guilty we feel. It took me years and years to get to the point where I truly believe now that all sex is good sex.

– As long as it is consensual

Law. Non-consensual sex is out.

Liz and Walter pose for a photo after an interview.

Sex therapy is currently more prevalent on the West Coast. Why is that?

We are at the forefront. Seventy-five percent of all marriages in Southern California end in divorce. The divorce rate in my office is 5%. I can tell in the first two sessions with a couple whether the relationship is viable or not. Are you committed to each other? You like yourself ? Are you ready to do the work it takes to make things better? Both parties must be ready for therapy to be effective. It brings tears to my eyes when people aren’t ready to put in the effort. I give three choices to these couples: [One,] you are going to live miserable for the rest of your life. [Two,] you can divorce. I leave killing myself. The third choice is you can get the job done. As sex therapists, we have to work even harder on our own sexual boundaries and judgments if we are to treat successfully.


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