Silva Neves

Silva Neves
Psychosexual, Relationship and Couples Therapist

Sunday, 29 March 2020

Re-thinking sex since COVID-19

This week the deputy chief medical officer Dr Jenny Harries has announced that the UK lockdown could last six months. As we are currently in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, there isn’t any scientific data yet on how this might impact people’s sexual and relational lives, but we already have plenty of anecdotal information that can help us make some hypothesis. Sexologists debate whether there will be an increase in sexual activity and therefore create a new baby boom, or if the opposite will occur as the acute anxiety about the uncertainty of life is going to be an erotic killer and produce more depression and less sex. 

What we do know at this moment in time is that pornography viewing has increased, which is not surprising. Pornography and masturbation are good and efficient ways to soothe unpleasant emotions and it can also be a good distraction when people suddenly have more time. Dr Justin Lehmiller, a psychologist and sex researcher has previously noticed that the use of pornography reflects the events of the time, for example, there is more views of Christmas-themed porn around Christmas time. Lehmiller observes the same phenomenon applies to COVID time with many people searching for coronavirus-themed porn. Lehmiller explains that it can be an eroticisation of fear as it is common for strong emotions to be perceived as sexual desire or sexual arousal. Our ability to do so may be a mechanism to own and process the fear rather than being overwhelmed by it. COVID-related sexual fantasies can also be a way to process our fears. 

Sexologist Jack Morin writes that one of the emotional aphrodisiacs is anxiety and one of the cornerstones of eroticism is what he calls ‘overcoming ambivalence’. A well-documented psychological process informs us that we tend to feel more sexual when faced with death in a subconscious drive for survival. It will therefore make perfect sense that sexual arousal and activity become more prominent in COVID times. 

However, I wonder if there is a threshold in which the eroticization of COVID stops. It is now obvious that it will take a long time for the world to recover from this pandemic. As the death toll rises and more people become distressed at losing loved ones, careers and finances, our fear will turn into crisis survival with a fight, flight and freeze position which inhibits the erotic system. 

Our nation is being hit by a wave of grief because of the loss of the life and freedom we used to enjoy. There are different facets of grief. We can see denial every day with people not respecting social distancing. Bargaining is another aspect of grief when people think it won’t be that bad. They are perhaps the ones who find it easier to be erotic in these challenging times. Anger is also a common emotion of grief; and there is depression, one facet of grief that is anti-erotic. People will respond differently to their grief, and they will fluctuate between different states from one moment to the next. It is therefore not possible to predict the impact of people’s sexual and relational lives. Will there be a baby boom or not? Who knows? 

The Government has enforced a lockdown when it is only permitted to leave our house for essential things such as food shopping or exercising. Having sex is not one of them. Couples living together can continue to have sex with each other if they have no symptoms. If there are symptoms, the recommendation is to refrain from sex and not leave the house at all for two weeks. As the rules of self-isolation apply to household, the same goes with people who aren’t couples and sharing a home. I wonder if flatmates might develop a ‘new way’ of living together, where cuddling each other could become a form of ‘friendly comfort’. Human touch is so central to our well-being. 

However, for people who are single, this can bring complications. Not having sexual contacts for six months can be a big ask. This is when technology is a great resource: consensual sexting and webcam sex are good alternatives. 

Dr Markie Twist writes extensively about digisexuality as an emerging sexuality. It is a term to describe people being primarily sexual through the use of technology. I think that COVID-19 is going to bring forth this sexuality as a legitimate one rather than an ‘alternative’ one. 

I am starting to hear many anecdotal stories of what is happening amongst the single people who self-identify as gay men. They report their hook up apps going off the charts with people wanting to meet for sex. Most of these are an attempt to fantasise about meeting but not interested in acting on it for safety. Another cornerstone of eroticism according to Morin is ‘violating prohibition’. The fantasy may be to violate the Government’s prohibition and meet others for the ‘non-essential’ sex. That particular fantasy has taken shape with a specific sexual practice called ‘gloryhole sex’. According to gay men using hook up apps, the invitation for ‘gloryhole sex’ is on the rise. This sexual practice previously belonged to a gay sub-culture of ‘anonymous sex’, but now it may become more mainstream. We know that the virus is primarily transmitted through respiratory droplets and touching contaminated surface. There isn’t any evidence at this stage that the virus can be transmitted sexually with intercourse. Kissing is obviously a major pathway of transmission. Technically, if we stay away from one’s mouth and we wash our hands properly it is possible to have sexual intercourse safely. As long as there is no oral sex, and it is only intercourse, separated by a door or a sheet, not breathing into each other’s face, ‘gloryhole sex’ may indeed be a form of safe sex from coronavirus. The ‘gloryhole sex’ fantasy that currently appear on apps has some grounding in reality thus making it even more titillating: ‘we can really do it if we wanted to’. 

I do not condone breaking the Government lockdown rules. I do not recommend people leaving their house to meet strangers for sex. But as gay hook-up apps seem to be currently very active, we can take a moment to try to understand this phenomenon. The LGBTQ+ community has a trauma history as it was a population that was pathologized by authorities prohibiting sexual practices that were normative and natural for them. In the UK, gay people can now live with good human rights, but homophobia is still rife. It is therefore easy to understand that this particular community is more inclined to rebel against Government’s sexual prohibition because of past ostracization. Having said that, from the anecdotes I hear, the hook up app users have good common sense, they don’t act on their fantasies and don’t put themselves and others at risk. But the ‘gloryhole sex’ fantasy is going to become more arousing for gay men now, perhaps. 

It is worth noting here that masturbation has always been and will always remain a wonderful way to find sexual fulfilment in solo sex for heterosexual people and members of the LGBTQ+ community, across all genders, and is the safest form of sex for single people in coronavirus time. 

As a psychosexual and relationship psychotherapist pondering on all of this, I’m concerned about how we, as a profession, should listen, understand and assess people’s sexual behaviours during and post-COVID. 

The psychotherapy world pre-COVID was already divided between psychotherapists pathologizing some sexual behaviours that other psychotherapists believed to be normative. It is now more important than ever to re-think sexual behaviours because it will change and it will have different meanings. Some therapists judged some sexual behaviours like watching pornography, sexting, webcam sex as ‘problematic’ because they were perceived to be anti-intimacy. These behaviours now have become more mainstream and normalised as they are more popular ways of being intimate and sexual with others. As people become more comfortable with technology, these behaviours may remain some people’s primary way to be sexual post-COVID, thus seeing a growing population who may self-identify as digisexuals. Some sexual practices and fantasies such as ‘gloryhole sex’ may also be more mainstream after the pandemic. 

The crisis of COVID-19 will pass, but the world will somewhat be different. I invite practitioners, especially psychosexual psychotherapists and those of work with people who have compulsive sexual behaviours to find different ways to assess clients and be even more careful not to pathologise them unnecessarily. 

As a psychosexual and relationship psychotherapist practicing with a sex positive framework, I cannot ignore the observable new ‘trends’ in sexuality through anecdotes, so far, and I remain open to think of human sexuality with a different lens in a COVID world, and post-COVID world. I also encourage my colleagues to think of their clients’ sexuality in broader ways and with an open mind. Nobody knows the lasting impact of the virus on our world and our lives, but we need to prepare ourselves for understanding our human sexuality differently and supporting our clients the best we can through their grief, loss, trauma, relationships and sexual behaviours. 

Silva Neves 

Sunday, 8 March 2020

How to look after your mental hygiene

I was interviewed a few times about the coronavirus anxiety. People have been asking me how to manage their anxiety about it. 

We’re told that things will get worse, numbers of infections and death rates will rise. It is all very alarming. And it is anxiety provoking. 

Obviously, it is normal to be anxious but it is also important to look after our mental health in this anxiety provoking period. 

As well as good physical hygiene such as washing your hands, it’s important to look after your mind hygiene. 

1- Feel the anxiety. Breathe through it. Tell yourself that it is normal to be anxious, and breathe more. You can count your breathing as it helps reduce anxiety. Do Not attach stories to the anxiety feeling such as ‘what if…?’. The worst case scenario thoughts that we attach to the anxiety feeling make the anxiety worse and then it is easy to become really distressed. Breathing through anxiety without adding stressful thoughts is actually hard to do, but with practice, it gets easier. 

2 - Limit your exposure to social media and news stories. Perhaps you can allocate a couple of minutes to update yourself on the progress of the virus, but after that, think of other things. Watch other things, like a comedy film, for example, or engage in your favourite hobby. 

3- Covid-19 is a serious illness. But we don’t need to be gloomy about it all the time. Even though it is a killer virus, we can still try to bring some lightness to our lives. Laughing does help our mental health. You might want to take the opportunity to introduce fun ways to greet people that replaces a hand shake, how about jazz hands? 

4- Sleep. Switch off. In this period of high stress and anxiety, our brain needs more rest. Try to get your 8 hours a night. 

5- Develop a practice such as yoga or Thai Chi. These practices are very good for helping us stay in the here and now. During that time, you can give your brain and body a rest from stress and anxiety. 

6- Use your common sense. Do wash your hands. Do be careful with social distancing. All of these things will help you feel in control. Keep doing these things. But don’t panic buy. Think of the elderly person who couldn’t get to the shop on time. I’m sure supermarkets will continue to provide toilet rolls for everybody as they have always done if we stay sensible. 

7- Let’s be kind to each other. We can all empathise with each other with our different levels of anxiety and fear. We can all respect each other with our different opinions. We can all accept each other whether we come from China or Italy. It is a global problem now. We all own it, so let’s be friends with each other and smile to each other. 

8- If your level of distress is so high that it stops you from living your life, please see a therapist. There are many things that can be done to treat anxiety. 

I wish you all a safe week. 

Thursday, 12 December 2019

Beware of 'sex addiction' online tests

Are you worried about your sexual behaviours? Do you think you might be watching too much pornography? Do you keep being unfaithful even though you love your partner? Do you promise yourself not to repeat an unwanted sexual behaviour, and find yourself doing it again? 

If so, you might be worried that you’re a ‘sex addict’. It is easy to worry about it. There are so many books and online forums that discuss people suffering from the ‘illness’ known as ‘sex addiction’. Those forums might make you feel even more shame about your unwanted sexual behaviours and increase your fear that you’re ‘one of them’. At that point, it is common for people to leap onto an online test to check if they are indeed a ‘sex addict’. There are various online tests you can take, an American one and a British one.  

If you scored high enough to be in the category of ‘sex addiction’, don’t panic. Don’t call a ‘sex addiction’ therapist straight away. Keep reading this blog. 

The diagnosis of ‘sex addiction’
Firstly, let me reassure you: ‘sex addiction’ is not a recognised mental health diagnosis. The correct term currently is Compulsive Sexual Behaviour Disorder (CSBD). The CSBD diagnosis is under the Impulse Control category, not addiction. If an online test uses the term ‘sex addiction’ it will not be testing with the clinically endorsed diagnostic framework. Similarly, if a therapist uses the term ‘sex addiction’, they may not be up to date with the latest diagnostic criteria. 

To be diagnosed with CSBD, you have to meet a set of criteria which most people don’t meet. Many people have sexual behaviour problems with a range of sexual compulsivity elements that can be examined in therapy, but to have the actual disorder is pretty difficult. Yet, those tests diagnose many people with ‘sex addiction’ every day. 

Those online tests are designed to score you as a ‘sex addict’ because they are made by clinicians who offer expensive ‘sex addiction’ treatments. They have a financial interest in making you fear you’re a ‘sex addict’. Some of my sexologist colleagues and I took the American test several times and we all scored as ‘sex addicts’ every time, although none of us have sexual behaviour problems. So what do those tests really assess? I believe they test for a breach in heteronormative monogamy. In other words, ‘sex addiction’ is another term for sexual oppression. It seems that all you need to qualify as ‘sex addict’ is to enjoy masturbation more than the creators of the tests, or you might have a high sex drive; or perhaps you might be sexually adventurous or maybe you are polyamorous. None of these things are a disease or wrong, but they might not fit in your current monogamous arrangement.

How are those tests design to diagnose so many people as a ‘sex addict’?  
Any good psychometrics need to have a time period in which to report a behavioural problem. The diagnostic criteria of CSBD has a time period of six months. The American test doesn’t mention any time period, so the way that the questions are phrased are confusing as they are formulated as an absolute. For example, if you cheated on your partner when you were a teenager (not all that uncommon behaviour) but haven’t done so in years, the phrasing of the question enquiring about infidelity will encourage you to tick ‘yes’ even though it is actually irrelevant to your sexual problems today.

The British test is milder. When I took the British test titled: ‘Am I a Sex Addict?’  I didn’t score as a ‘sex addict’. At least, it does have a time window of ‘more than two years’ to report sexual behaviour problems rather than the absolute reporting of the American test, which means that your normal frequent masturbation as a teenager won’t be taken into consideration.

However, the phrasing of the British test is questionable too. The second question on the test is: ‘Do you regularly view pornography for more than 11 hours a week?’. The threshold of eleven hours is arbitrary as there are no solid studies, clinical evidence nor any diagnostics that support that more than eleven-hour use is a problem. Some people masturbate to pornography for over one hour a day without any negative consequences to their lives at all. This eleven-hour threshold seems to be more of a moral bias of the clinicians who constructed the test rather than any clinically sound studies. 

Both the American and British tests fail to ask important questions in order to assess someone’s sexual behaviours: there are no questions about sexual pleasure, which is an important component of the diagnostic for sexual compulsivity. They don’t ask the questions about why you think your behaviours are unwanted. Is it because of feeling sexual shame that watching pornography ‘should’ be wrong? Is it because of a partner’s disapproval? Is it because of a particular society or faith prohibiting a sexual behaviour that one is turned on by? These are crucial questions because people can’t actually be assessed without those answers, according to the ICD-11 diagnostic. 

The phrasing of the questions in the American and British tests covertly imply that the best way to be sexual and relational is in heteronormative monogamy. Having multiple partners is wrong. Watching pornography is wrong. Choosing to be a sex worker is wrong. Buying the services of a sex worker is wrong. All of those reflect a lack of knowledge in sexology and a lack of understanding of sexuality and relationship diversity. 

After the tests, meet the ‘sex addiction’ therapists. 
The clinicians creating those tests believe in the unrecognised addiction model. It means that they are likely to offer an addiction treatment, which is not clinically endorsed. The World Health Organisation recently released their clear statement: 
“… although the term ‘sex addiction’ has been taken up by the popular media, the Working Group concluded that available evidence did not support this conceptualization… materials related to the ICD-11 make very clear that CSBD is not intended to be interchangeable with sex addiction, but rather is a substancially different diagnostic framework.”

In summary, I suggest you stay away from online ‘sex addiction’ tests as they are not clinically sound. You are more likely to be assessed by someone’s moral bias rather than someone informed by the science of sexology.  

The treatment for sexual compulsivity is not focused on stopping the behaviours, which are only symptoms of an underlying disturbance, but to treat those disturbances underneath with psychosexual therapy, integrative and humanistic psychotherapy and CBT. 

It is totally ok to ask a therapist before you meet them how they think and work with sexual compulsivity and if they offer an addiction treatment or not. Beware of the ‘one-size fits all’ type of treatment programmes. 

A proper assessment is enquiring about what works in your sexual behaviours, what you find pleasurable, what turns you on, what your relationship(s) are like, what are the functions of the unwanted sexual behaviours, why you don’t want those sexual behaviours, and so on. The therapist’s questioning should be open and curious about your entire life rather than only enquiring about the problems in leading questions that imply ‘wrongness’. 

It is currently challenging to find a therapist who is practicing a sex positive approach to their treatment of sexual compulsivity (many therapists will say that they’re sex-positive, but rarely practice it). If you’re in doubt, feel free to send me an e-mail and I will be happy to refer you to a trusted colleague who works beyond the addiction model. 

Saturday, 16 November 2019

The unhealed wounds of Parent and Adult Child

The nation felt uncomfortable watching the latest episode of RuPaul Drag Race UK when contestant Baga Chipz insulted her mother on the show. Understandably, many negative comments were made towards Baga Chipz on social media. 

However, it is important to pause and take a breath. It is so easy to throw immediate comments on social media from the safety of our living rooms and demonise Baga Chipz for what she has done without knowing any details of what got them both to that runway awkward moment. By doing so, we forget that on the receiving end of those comments are two people already wounded by each other. 

I do not condone the behaviour of Baga Chipz. It was harsh and it was humiliating for her mother. No matter how we feel about our mother or any other people in our lives, we still have to be respectful and not drag them in the mud in public.  What Baga Chipz did was wrong. But, as a psychotherapist, I could also see her pain and hurt behind the harsh defence. We don’t know her story with her mother, so we should not judge. 

Equally, Baga Chipz’ mother has her part to play. Was she not aware of their difficult relationship? Or did she hope that by doing this grand gesture of appearing on RuPaul Drag Race UK next to her son, it would somehow heal some unresolved issues between them, like a magic wand? Indeed, it is easier to think of one gesture that would patch everything up rather than doing the more effective, yet much harder task of sitting down and discussing in details what went wrong in their relationship. 

What Baga Chipz missed, though, is that her mother was actually willing to step outside of her comfort zone and come on the show for her. We can interpret it as an act of love. Many mothers will never have the courage to do so especially when there is a wound. For that, her mother should have been praised. 

What her mother missed, perhaps, was that it might not have been the right time or the right gesture to repair the relationship. Perhaps, she didn’t hear what Baga Chipz actually needed from her. 

Once again, let’s take a pause. We don’t know their story. Perhaps, it has nothing to do with the relationship between Baga Chipz and her mother. Perhaps, it is something to do with what the mother represents for Baga. Perhaps, her mother is a reminder of a difficult childhood that is independent from the relationship between them. 

Healing the wounds between parent and adult child is never easy. It takes a lot of courage and a lot of painful discussions. The goal of conflict resolutions is not always about arriving at a place of happiness between two people. Sometimes, it is about accepting what is. Accepting that the wounding will always leave a scar and that scar might sometimes itch. It is admitting to each other that they are different people and won’t be able to connect meaningfully. Sometimes, it is to recognise that love only thrives between parent and adult child when there is distance. Sometimes, it is about accepting that we don’t get to choose our parents and we have to live with the fact that they are not perfect, or inadequate or unskilled at being parents. Conflict resolution is not always about forgiving the other, but it is about forgiving ourselves for being unable to connect with our closest blood relations. There is too much pressure to be in harmony with our parents, our children, or other people in our family of origin; it is not always possible. Letting go of that pressure can improve mental health. 

What I saw on RuPaul Drag Race UK however, was two hurt people with unhealed wounds and either could forgive themselves for co-creating the relationship that they now have. It was painful to watch. But I hope that this terrible moment between them can be the next step into sitting down and talking properly with each other. I wish them both well. 

Silva Neves 

Monday, 11 November 2019

Being Single

Emma Watson coined ‘self-partnered’ to describe her singledom. When celebrities create new terms, it can be catching. Sometimes it is a good thing because their public influence can bring forth some important unspoken social issues.  

As a psychosexual and relationship specialist, I’m aware that there is so much myth about sex and relationships that really confuse people, precipitating and maintaining problems in their lives.  So, I think Emma Watson’s comment has brought forward a welcome dialogue. 

The term ‘self-partnered’ is useful to remind us all that we need to be treating ourselves with love and kindness. It is a synonym to ‘self-love’ and ‘self-care’. I would go as far as it can encompass ‘self-pleasure’ as masturbation is a healthy sexual behaviour with self that can be an act of self-love. 

Being our own best friend first is actually important if we were to meet someone else. Typically, people who don’t like parts of themselves tend to project those onto others thus making a relationship with others difficult.  

Our society has bombarded us with messages of the word ‘partner’ means ‘another’ or a collaboration with someone outside of the self. ‘Self-partnered’ is therefore a helpful addition to our vocabulary and expanding the notion of singledom and taking care of the relationship with ourselves. 

However, I don’t think we should be colluding with the sense that ‘single’ is a bad word. ‘Self-partnered’ doesn’t have to be a replacement term for ‘single’. Our society has somehow made the word ‘single’ a sad status, an undesirable place to be. ‘Single’ has been made a bad word especially for women, perpetuating horrible ideas such as the ‘spinster’ stigma or the fairy tale stories where the woman waits to be picked by the handsome prince and wanting to marry her, only then, will she be happy! 

If we think about it, why does it have to be the man getting on his knees asking a woman to marry him? Can’t a woman decide for herself when and how she wants to propose a marriage? Could a woman decide not to ever marry (and have children) and still be seen as equal to other women making a different choice? 

Our society, so modern in many areas, remains old fashioned when thinking about women’s singledom. Our society is still invested in thinking that somehow it is wrong for a woman to choose to stay single. 

A colleague of mine who is a relationship specialist too, and above all a friend, posted a thought-provoking message on her social media. I asked for her permission to share some of it: 
‘I have read several articles questioning why Emma Watson is alone as if there is something wrong with her. I reflect on my own state of “alone” and, being away, it is in my face pretty much all the time. From the floating around in a king sized bed, to the two place settings at meal times where one is discreetly removed, double sets of towels, sun loungers placed in pairs, to the ‘oh you are alone’ comments from other guests with an air of superiority, pity or curiosity, the list goes on. At this moment in time, I am actually choosing to be single until I meet someone I choose to be in a couple with. I see so many people unable to be with themselves. It is as if society as brainwashed us, especially women, that we are not complete unless we are in a relationship. The idea of there being the “one” sets us up for unrealistic expectations. I feel so grateful for the life that I have. I am immensely privileged, but above all I feel proud that, at that moment, I am not in a relationship’. 

This social media post from my friend is an intimate and powerful account of a woman empowered with her ‘single’ status. She understands that ‘alone’ is a privilege of being comfortable with herself, and it is not the same as ‘lonely’. 

Let’s get together and challenge society’s reductive judgements of ‘single’. Let’s reclaim the word as a positive and empowering choice. Let’s remind ourselves that we don’t need another to be complete or successful. Let’s enjoy dinners for one and not confuse being alone with being lonely. 

We need connection and a sense of belonging for wellbeing but it doesn’t mean we need a spouse. We can find connection and belonging in our community, our work, our friendships, our hobbies, our families of choice or families of origin. We don’t need to find it in the eyes of someone who wants to marry us. 

Let’s embrace the status of ‘single’ and let’s make ‘Self-partnered’ the process by which being single is nourishing and flourishing. 

Silva Neves 

Saturday, 27 July 2019

YES, we need proper Relationship & Sex Education in schools

Whether we want to admit it or not, our children, from the moment they are born, are in relationships with others. First, with parents and primary care givers. Then, we other young children in nursery, then with older children and adults around them. 

Children have great skills at observing the world around them to start to build a sense of themselves. What they observe is only from their immature eyes, they don’t have anything else to compare what they see with other knowledge, so they make up their own conclusion. 

For example, a young girl who doesn’t see their parents touch or kiss, yet watches a Disney cartoon about a princess being rescued by her prince through a passionate embrace can be confusing. 

A girl who is dressed like a princess at a party and is being told by adults how pretty she looks comes with an unspoken implicit message, yet strong one based on children’s stories, that there will be a prince somewhere that will choose her and make her happy, all she needs to do is stay pretty. The Prince Charming might even come into her bedroom whilst she’s asleep and kiss her without her explicit consent – how romantic, not! 

Similarly, a boy dressed in a super hero outfit for the same birthday party is forced to act strong and powerful – it is even a permission to be a little aggressive, only because he’s Spiderman that day. The very same boy, from a very young age, is already conditioned to know that it is not acceptable to be curious about playing with dolls or want to wear a pink t-shirt. The worst toxic message for boys is being taught not to cry. 

Girls are conditioned to hold hands and kiss each other, but boys are told not to kiss other boys. Children are told to be careful when adults want to touch them and they are also forced to endure that horrible sloppy kiss from the smelly grandpa each time they visit him. This is another confusing message about consent, which children can find very difficult to understand properly without proper education. 

These are only a few reasons why it is crucial to have proper and thorough Relationship and Sex Education in primary schools and secondary schools and High Schools. Many people protest about it because I think there is a misunderstanding of what it actually means. I think people are hung up with the word ‘sex’ and they think teachers will go into schools telling inappropriate sexual content to their children. This is not the case. 

In Primary School, children need to be taught how to form friendships. Children will form relationships from the time they are born, so it is definitely not too early. Forming good friendships and making sense of what they observe is really important: they can gain a much greater sense of the world around them and understand properly what they see everywhere: in their parents relationship, in cartoons, children’s movies and stories. In primary schools, the teaching of friendships comes with accepting who is different (different colour skin, different cultural clothes, different bodies, different abilities, different types of families, and so on). Frankly, the world could do with a lot more kindness and acceptance, and if we can start teaching these in primary schools, perhaps the world could be a better place. Children of primary school age who come from a homophobic household will already be conditioned to be homophobic, even if they don’t know what it means, they simply imitate their parents (That’s the wrong kind of Relationship and Sex Education). It is not uncommon to see young children expressing racism, it is not them who have those views, they only repeat what they hear from parents. So, it is most definitely not too early to teach children of that age group some proper information about accepting difference. 

In Primary Schools, we have to teach our children about consent in a way that is age appropriate and relevant to their lives. It is in that age group that body exploration comes in the way of: ‘I’ll show you mine if you show me yours’. Although being curious about each other’s genitals and body parts is a normal process of our children’s development, we need to teach children that it is ok to be curious and it is ok to say ‘no’. 

It is also in Primary Schools that we need to teach children about what is coming next: puberty. Some many people go through a very confusing time at puberty when their bodies change so much and so fast and with very little conversations about it. There needs to be a lot more conversations about puberty before it happens, and throughout. 

Relationship and Sex Education in Primary School is not about sex and inappropriate content. It is about appropriate and relevant information that is crucial to the children’s well-being as well as the whole community. It is teaching about friendships, kindness, acceptance, love, their sense of self in the world, what is ok and what is not ok, and how they can say ‘no’ when it is important to say so. 

In Secondary and High Schools, Relationship and Sex Education also needs to be age appropriate, and that means more details about what is relevant in their lives. How to form peer relationships, romantic relationships and sexual relationships. There needs to be a lot of space to discuss consent properly: what it actually is, what it means and how it is done. There needs to be teachings on good sexual health to prevent STIs and unwanted pregnancy, but it needs to be done in a matter-of-fact way rather than in a scary way to put young people off. 

There needs to be a lot more conversations about sexual pleasure and how to enjoy their bodies. There needs to be conversations about recognising when sex stops becoming pleasurable and how they can stop it then rather than enduring it.

Relationship and Sex Education absolutely needs to include same-sex relationships and there must not be an option for opting out. Too many children and teenagers are harmed by homophobia. It is a matter of public health. Just as we can teach Primary School children about accepting the diversity of human beings, we need to reinforce this teaching in Secondary and High Schools: acceptance and kindness is key. Homophobia is not acceptable. Teachers much learn not to ignore homophobic language and behaviours that happen before their eyes. 

The religious groups that oppose Relationship and Sex Education may be mis-informed. Good teaching on sexual health is teaching teenagers the importance of having sexual contacts that match their values. It means that if a young person does not want sex because of their religious or moral values, it is ok. Good relationship and sexual health is knowing that it is ok to want sex and it is also ok not to want sex. However it is not ok to impose one’s moral values or beliefs onto someone else and be sexist, racist or homophobic. Young people also need to know that it is ok to have same-sex attraction no matter what their religious or moral beliefs are, and to be given the right resources of who they can see to discuss these issues in a confidential and non-judgmental place.  

I urge the Government to put in place adequate resources to enable every single UK schools to have a well-trained relationship and sex educator because in my profession, I see many adults who have distressing problems as a consequence of poor relationship and sex education. 

Good relationship and sexual health is crucial to people’s overall health. By having a solid relationship and sex education system in all ages of schools, we can actually save lives by preventing too many tragedies like suicide. We can prevent so much physical and psychological pain, we can help people lead much happier lives, and we can start to create a new generation of people who will understand kindness, acceptance and love on a deeper level and shape a better world. 

Silva Neves 

Tuesday, 9 July 2019

‘Sex Addiction’ or compulsive sexual behaviours?

The debate on what is ‘sex addiction’ is still a hot topic in our field. Many people absolutely believe in treating sexual compulsivity with the addiction framework. However, a growing number of clinicians are moving away from the addiction model as there is now a large body of clinical evidence that supports sexual compulsivity to be quite a different phenomenon from addiction. Studies and research done in this area show a lack of scientific evidence that sexual compulsivity is an addiction. 

Many studies cited in support of the addiction model are conducted with confirmation bias, without enough critical thinking and ignoring the knowledge of the sexology field. 

So why do we still call Compulsive Sexual Behaviours ‘sex addiction’? 

‘Sex addiction’ is a term that was born in the 80’s in Mid-West America. The religiosity is strong in that part of the world and the term flourished at the time when people were scared of sex during the AIDS crisis. But now we have new knowledge on sexual functioning and sexual behaviours. We have more and more science on sex and the brain. Our understanding of the problem has evolved exponentially since the 80’s, yet the old-fashioned term remains. And the addiction-focused treatment remains. 

Isn’t it time to update our clinical language and treatment? 

As a field that continues to learn and evolve, we have changed many terms in the past. We have changed ‘impotence’ with erectile dysfunction. ‘Retarded ejaculation’ with delayed ejaculation. We challenge words like ‘frigid’. We fight against body shaming and female sexuality shaming. We are more mindful of pronouns. We changed the word ‘manic depressive’ for bipolar disorder and ‘hysteria’ to stop pathologising women. 

As psychosexual and relationship therapists, I believe it is time to finally embrace the field of sexology and offer clients the appropriate modern treatment. I believe it is time to leave the term ‘sex addiction’ behind, belonging to the list of old-fashioned words. 

At the very least, we should be calling it Compulsive Sexual Behaviours as there is now a diagnostic criteria for it. The diagnosis for the disorder is hard to meet, leaving many people without a word for their sexual behaviour struggles. I propose we call it problematic sexual health behaviour. Or as Doug Braun-Harvey and Michael Vigorito prefer to call it: Out-of-Control Sexual Behaviours. These modern terms seem to be more inclusive and less pathologising as they do not imply a disorder, but rather a sexual health problem. 

Psychosexual and relationship therapists should be the ones at the front of this new wave of clinicians treating this specialist presentation. The Contemporary Institute of Clinical Sexology is offering a unique 3-day training to update the knowledge of compulsive sexual behaviours to modern understanding. During this training, you will learn how to treat sexual compulsivity safely, efficiently with tools immediately applicable to your existing clinical practice.  

I’m looking forward to seeing you there. 

Silva Neves