Mary Ann Leff: Therapist at the forefront of integrated sex therapy

SexTherapist_Gleason_Weekender
Jessica Gleason/Staff

Editor’s Note: The following interview has been edited for space and clarity.

The thought of a world without color hurts Mary Ann Leff.

Golden bulbs branch across the periwinkle carpet of her office, sharply juxtaposed with bright orange chairs. The warm cocoon yellow of the walls and dusky brown bookshelves brighten under sunlight entering through the small window on the roof. To the right of the room is an unavoidable, 3×3 rectangular painting — a hodgepodge of viridescent, orange and blue disparate shapes welded together. Lying next to the masterpiece, a red book with the words “Come as you are” on the spine.

Color has always been important to Leff — but not just in the way her tissue boxes match the grayish-blue hue of her couch cushions. She is drawn to the depth, pigment and texture of a person’s story. “What more could I ever want than to bring color into a person’s life?” she says.

With a career spanning more than 30 years, Leff, whose practice is located in North Berkeley, is one of few marriage and family therapists at the forefront of integrated sex therapy. This practice weaves together individual psychodynamics, attachment and developmental theories, and the culture and context of a person’s life with traditional sex therapy.

She strongly believes in “healing through relationships.” To her, relationships are like gem tumblers — you take two unpolished pieces of stone, and the process of them rubbing up against each other brings out the highest shine possible. Relying on her unique integrated rational approach, Mary Ann Leff confronts topics such as sexuality, young adults and women, and aging and menopause (some of her specialties).

The Daily Californian: How do you use your feminist perspective in your work?

Mary Ann Leff: I help people question their motivation and the roles they agree to play in relationships. I’m working with a couple where the female, she says, is completely uninterested in sex. The only reason she wants to come to therapy is because she strongly believes that it’s her job to keep her husband happy. But she also feels this intense underlying resentment. It’s my job to explore how to mediate between the two emotions.

DC: Can you explain why you see sexuality as an essential part of identity?

MAL: One of my not-so-hidden agendas for clients is to expand the idea of what sex is and to stop using the word to only describe intercourse. Sex is so much more than that. Sex and sexuality is something you experience yourself, in your body, everyday. It’s not necessarily something that has to be connected to a partner. It’s not necessarily something that even needs physical expression. It’s something you know is a part of being alive — part of your spirit. And you get to make choices about who you share that with.

There’s an acronym I raised my kids with: CERTS. It stands for consent, equality, respect, trust, safety. If you can go through that checklist, you can decide if you want to have that sexual connection with someone.

DC: Can you elaborate on what you believe is the nature of desire?

MAL: People limit desire by thinking of it only as a drive. Especially when people are young. That drive is strong and influenced by hormones, but it’s also something that can be generated and nurtured.

DC:  Do external factors like economics influence desire?

MAL: People tend to feel more turned on when they are in a fancy resort in Hawaii. There’s something about that ease. I have some old videotapes of tantric sex and really what’s most wonderful about them is the setting. When you watch, it’s like, give me a break, who would not be into it? The opposite of that is when you’re stressed, when you’re worried. When you have other things on your mind. Economics affects everything. It affects your health and physical well being, and those in turn affect how you feel sexually. I don’t know anyone who just lost their job and says, “Let’s go make love.”

“Sex and sexuality is something you experience yourself, in your body, everyday. It’s not necessarily something that has to be connected to a partner. It’s not necessarily something that even needs physical expression. It’s something you know is a part of being alive — part of your spirit.”

DC: What are misguided notions of sexuality you come across often in younger individuals? How would you explain sexual desire to college students?

MAL: I  think the conflation of sex and intercourse is a problem. … There’s a lot more to lovemaking than intercourse. The language (surrounding sex) is so misogynistic and anti-sexual. Nobody responds to “Fuck you” with “Oh, thanks I hope so!” To get fucked is the worst thing that can happen to you, and it always happens to the person on the receiving end getting fucked. You know a word I really don’t like? Foreplay, because of its implication that it’s the appetizer to the real thing. It’s seen as something that women “need” to get ready for the real event, as opposed to something that is pretty wonderful in itself.

The vagina is very active as is the uterus. If you think about a woman’s body opening, holding and taking in part of the male anatomy, from my perspective it sounds pretty wonderful.

I see intercourse as a great way to stimulate the most sensitive part of male anatomy. You take this part, you put it in here, and you move it back and forth. If you look at that same motion for the female, it’s not happening. The clitoris is hanging out saying, “What about me?” Intercourse by itself is not designed to be as physically stimulating for women unless you’re in certain kinds of positions.

And the clitoris is the only part of either male or female anatomy that is solely there for pleasure. It has no other purpose. Sometimes I talk to people with strong religious backgrounds, (and), well, if you have this strong belief in what God intended, what do you think that clitoris is there for?

DC: What do you think are the roots of negative sex image and heteronormative ideas of sexuality?

MAL: We just had Donald Trump say that it was disgusting for Hillary Clinton to go to the bathroom! There is so much — it’s the language, it’s the media, it’s male discomfort with female sexuality. Did you know when people talk about vaginas they’re usually using the word incorrectly? The vagina is an internal part of female anatomy and there’s a natural opening which is part of the vulva.

DC: What would you say to undergraduates facing existential crises or transitions in sexual identity?

MAL: I would want to be with them as they struggled through that — to give legitimacy to those questions. I remember the pain of not knowing what to do with myself, and that’s the right question to be asking right now in life.

The vagina is very active as is the uterus. If you think about a woman’s body opening, holding and taking in part of the male anatomy, from my perspective it sounds pretty wonderful.

DC:  There are conflicting schools of thought when considering porn: Some believe that it embraces sexual freedom and first amendment rights, while others feel it objectifies women and takes emotion out of the sexual experience. What do you think about this?

MAL: I saw a side-by-side of what a (porn) film editor does to edit female genitalia — trimming the inner labia and literally changing it to make it smaller, certainly hairless. What surgeons do to change the look of the vulva — they are identical. Straight women don’t know what other women look like, and the pictures they see are photoshopped, so women decide to instead get photoshopped under a knife. Then their lovers tell them, “You look kind of flappy.” My fear is that (this is) going to be more common with younger women, particularly because there’s this whole anti-hair thing. And similarly, menstrual blood has always been a taboo to a lot of people and cultures. It surprises me that women accept that. Have you heard of the mikvah? It’s a ritual bath that Orthodox Jewish women have to do once a month after their periods, and they do it before they’re married, which is obviously before they’ve had intercourse for the first time.

DC: For someone who is very busy, like all Berkeley students, what are some things we can do to develop ourselves so we are confident in our own sexuality?

MAL: Learn about your own body and experiences. Believe in the legitimacy of your own responses. I remember someone in a group I once ran told her partners the most sensitive part of her body was her scalp; when somebody rubbed her scalp in a particular way, she got very turned on. Her lover and her therapist would tell her the most stimulating part of her body was her clitoris, and she would say, “No, it’s my head.” So, if that’s what does it for you, that’s what does it for you.

 

Contact Sindhu Ravuri at [email protected]