Jill Denton, a marriage and family therapist known for her work on sex and intimacy issues, has been lending her expertise to The Good Therapy Blog and Dear GoodTherapy.org since January 2010. She is the sixth in a series of GoodTherapy.org contributors to be featured in our “Meet the Topic Experts” column, designed to shine a spotlight on those who make the blog the trusted resource that it is.
Clients find Jill easy to talk to—sure, she’s available for therapeutic sessions by phone, not simply from her office in Los Osos, California, but it goes beyond that. Her openness about her past sexual trauma, and how she came to heal, is comforting to many coping with fears related to sex. Where others dare not go, Jill thrives: Her articles for GoodTherapy.org cover topics ranging from attraction to one’s therapist to loss of libido to polyamory to surrogate sex partners.
Like her clients, we find Jill’s honesty and candidness refreshing. We presented her with 10 questions we hope will help readers, fellow therapists, and potential clients get to know her better, as a person and as a therapist.
1. Why did you choose to become a therapist? What most appealed to you about the profession?
I didn’t grow up planning to be a therapist probably because I didn’t have any experience of therapy as a kid or teenager. Growing up with two alcoholic parents was crazy-making, and I remember begging my mom to let me talk to the counselor who came once a week to my grammar school. Mom was adamant that I was not going to “air our dirty laundry.” It gives me great joy to work with other people who come from difficult families, like I did.
As an undergraduate, I did love my part-time job fielding phone calls for one of the first hotlines in the country. The years after I graduated, I was violently attacked by a knife-wielding stranger in my home who threatened to kill me and then raped me. In the months following the assault, I tried unsuccessfully to find a therapist who could help with the overwhelming symptoms of posttraumatic stress that I was experiencing, so I decided to enter graduate school in psychology so I could help other people like myself to heal. I spent most of the 1980s training and supervising counselors for a local rape crisis center; it was glorious.
2. How did you arrive at sexuality/sex therapy as your area of focus?
I did a lot of work with individuals and couples who struggled with behavioral addictions—pathological attachments to mood-altering experiences such as sex, romance, or relationships. I was sobered to realize that my years of training as a marriage and relationship therapist had not provided adequately for the work I was doing to help people heal relationships shattered by sex and love addictions.
So I entered postgraduate studies at the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality in San Francisco and learned a lot that was not included in my initial graduate studies. Before that, I also tied myself to the proverbial coattails of sex addiction guru Patrick Carnes and became one of the first sexual addiction therapists to be certified (CSAT) in 2000.
3. If you were to add a second specialty, what might it be and why?
I actually have a second specialty, which is anxiety treatment. In more than 30 years of doing this work, I see that most everyone who comes to work with me shares some degree of fear, although they might label it worry, trepidation, stress, nerves, or anxiety. And, certainly, many have significant fear about sex!
I have sometimes considered getting training in equine-assisted therapy, using horses to help humans heal.
4. What would you change, if anything, about the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) or your profession in general?
I am loath to pay too much attention to the DSM because I believe that too much diagnosis leads to reducing viable human beings to a diagnostic category or pathology. There is one aspect of the new DSM-V that I do support, however. It is the change from “gender identity disorder” to “gender dysphoria.” Over the years, I’ve worked with many clients whose identity doesn’t match the gender they were assigned at birth. And I don’t view them as having a “disorder”!
5. As you know, self-care is as important for therapists as it is for their clients. What do you do to unwind? To play?
My primary unwinding is my loving kindness meditation practice and study of A Course in Miracles (ACIM). This self-study program in “spiritual psychotherapy” has contributed vastly to my equanimity and peace of mind over the past 25 years. So daily meditation and yoga are important to me.
My spouse and I share our home with two parrots, five cats, and a wild young rescue mongrel named Shadow Maria Rilke (after my favorite poet, Rainer Maria Rilke). They all keep us laughing and well exercised. I also love to read, kayak our local estuary, hike, and twitch (British for bird watching!).
6. How does your approach to sex therapy differ from that of some other therapists?
Many sex therapists follow in the footsteps of Masters and Johnson, who put great emphasis on performance or physiology of (heterosexual-only) sex. They observed people having sex and tried to “teach” them how to have more orgasms—“better quality” sex. I’m very uncomfortable with this approach.
I focus on helping people to release attachment to outcome/orgasm (both start with “O”!). I believe most of us have a lot of fears and beliefs about what we should be doing with our sexual partner in bed (or wherever!), which only complicates the experience and definitely detracts from the fun; this theme shows up again and again in my blog posts.
7. If you had to do something else with your life, what would it be?
I truly love my work but imagine that if I had to switch professions I’d move to work with nonhuman animals or the anawim (voiceless ones) with one of my favorite nonprofits, maybe Best Friends Animal Sanctuary or Dogs for the Deaf. Another possibility would be working with the rescued female elephants that live in Tennessee’s Elephant Sanctuary.
8. What are the biggest myths or misconceptions you encounter regarding your work?
I think the biggest myth or misconception I encounter is the fear that therapy will be like one of Woody Allen’s movies, where therapy goes on and on and on for year after year. This isn’t necessarily so! Many folks also seem to view therapy as being heavy, serious, and solemn. In my office, we do a lot of laughing!
9. Although the media often sensationalize sex, we live in a culture that, socially at least, largely tries to sweep it under the rug. People often are ashamed of their sexual feelings and inclinations. Should sex be so taboo?
I see a huge part of my work as debunking the big taboos about sex. I love helping people lighten up about sex.
10. What might a potential client be pleasantly surprised to learn about you?
I think potential clients would be pleasantly surprised to learn that I’m not interested in being an expert (sexpert?) or dragging them after me or shoving them ahead. I see myself walking beside them and sometimes coaching from the sidelines. They might also be pleased to learn that they don’t have to come to my office in California—I work with more distant clients by phone. They can have sessions with me in their pajamas!