Talking with A sex and marriage therapist

Name: Marty Klein

Age: 63

Location: Palo Alto

Occupation: Marriage counselor and sex therapist


Marty Klein

J.: How did you get into this line of work?

Marty Klein: In the ’70s, I was a volunteer at Planned Parenthood in Southern California. I had this idea that family planning services were the way to reduce poverty and domestic violence, but what I discovered is there’s a limit to how much people take advantage of family planning services — it all depends on how comfortable they are with sexuality and with their bodies. So I realized … the first step should be helping people get more comfortable with their sexuality.

J.: You’ve written seven books in your 34 years as a therapist. What has changed in Americans’ attitudes toward sex and sexuality?

MK: The ferocity of the religious right’s opposition to anything having to do with sexuality. It’s way beyond where it was when I was starting out, and that goes further than abortion [rights], to contraception, sex education, censoring television. The country has taken a step backward in terms of public policy, and that’s a disservice to everyone.

J.: At the same time, it seems like sex is everywhere in American culture today, and people are comfortable talking about it in a way they might not have 30 years ago.

MK: When I travel — which I do a lot; I’ve now trained professionals in 30 countries — people ask “Are Americans becoming more conservative or more progressive sexually?” and the answer is “Yes.” In the bedroom, Americans are doing activities they didn’t used to, but politically Americans are more conservative sexually, and there are more restrictions on Americans expressing their sexuality than at any time in the last 30 years.

J.: What does training professionals in other countries entail?

MK: It varies. I set up the first sex therapy clinic in Vietnam. In India, I talked with officials about ideas for redefining the wedding night, because a lot of people there have never seen a nude body before they get married, and that makes things really complicated for two people who have no experience, with all this pressure on their wedding night. I talked to [officials] there about starting a new ritual where the aunt of the bride gives the couple a lamp, and beginning with the wedding night, that’s the light the couple uses to talk and touch first, to get to know each other’s bodies.

J.: What are some of the most common issues people come to you with?

MK: In terms of sexual issues, there are always questions about desire and shame — “I fantasize about X, am I normal?” That’s a really important question for people, and our culture is obsessed with the question of whether or not someone is normal, which is a terrible way to measure yourself. There’s such a clear cultural idea that sexuality is black and white, gay or straight, normal or not, sex is either dignified or it isn’t. And in real life, what makes sex so interesting is that it’s messy, it’s complicated and it’s nuanced.

J.: What about when people are grappling with how they were raised to think about sex?

MK: One thing I do is point out to people that every adult has to make choices about what they believe, and that’s true when it comes to money, men and women, does God exist, etc. What does it mean to be a Jew? My parents had very definite ideas about what it meant to be a Jew, and when I was 9, I believed what they believed. Now I decide what it means. Every adult has to do that with a variety of questions, and one of them is about sexuality.

J.: Any major misconceptions you’d like to correct?

MK: There are too many to name. Take your pick! [That] men feel threatened if women talk about what they like in bed — most men are happy to have the information. [That] orgasm is the most important part of sex — orgasms only last three to 10 seconds, whereas sexual encounters often last five, 10 or 20 minutes, so do the math! And if you ever hear that Jews in particular feel guilty about sex — we’re no more messed up than anyone else.

“Talking with …” is a j. feature that focuses on local Jews who are doing things we find interesting.

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.