Dr. Holly Richmond is a Somatic Psychologist, Certified Sex Therapist (CST), and Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist (LMFT). Poppy Watt touches base with this acclaimed practitioner to understand a little more.
Holly is not just a sex therapist; her role and qualification go far beyond her title of Somatic Psychologist, Certified Sex Therapist, and Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist. This unique combination of credentials facilitates a focus on clients’ cognitive processes as well as mind-body health.
Holly works with a diverse client base including women, men, couples and gender-diverse individuals on relationship and sexuality issues. Her treatment specialities include recovery of sexual health after sexual assault/abuse, sexless marriages/relationships, compulsive sexuality (often called “addiction”) and non-traditional sexual expression including fetishes and redefining monogamy.
Firstly Holly, what is a sex therapist?
‘A sex therapist is a licensed mental health practitioner, whether that’s a marriage and family therapist, a social worker or a psychologist, who has 350 extra hours of training in sexual health. Getting certified as a sex therapist is a lengthy process that requires over a year of supervision alone (outside of the coursework), and covers topics on everything from anatomy to polyamory.
What made you pick this career path and what motivated you to become a sex therapist?
‘I always had an interest in psychology—and sex—for that matter, and after working for 15 years as a journalist, I knew it was time to make a career change. I didn’t have a well-defined idea of a therapeutic speciality right away, so started by getting a Master’s in Clinical Psychology. During that time in graduate school, I started my clinical career as an intern working with survivors of sexual abuse and assault, and after several years I realized I was competent in treating trauma, but lacked information and therapeutic strategies for addressing sexuality. It became clear that a mind/body-based approach with a focus on sexual health was necessary for the type of work I wanted to do. I also recognized what a critical role the body plays in these types of abuses, so it felt remiss for me not to encourage the body to heal as I supported the survivor’s mental healing process. Of course, sexual trauma leaves an enormous scar on survivors’ personal and relational sexual health, so I needed to understand how to treat sexuality effectively and in solidarity with emotional and somatic wellness. This leads me to pursue a PhD in Somatic Psychology (body psychology) and a certification in sex therapy.
How does a sex therapist help clients with problems?
‘We support clients in the same way any mental health practitioner does—by listening and helping to facilitate change. It just happens that our focus is on aspects of sexuality and relational health. What our job does not entail is touch. Again, we are mental health practitioners, not body workers. Even with my somatic focus, I only study the body by asking my clients questions and observing certain patterns of rigidity or laxity in how they sit or stand.
You cover an extensive amount of areas with your profession, is this forever evolving?
‘Yes, very much so. I never say, “I’ve seen it all,” because I have never seen it all! That’s what I love about sex. People are always coming up with interesting ideas about it and ways of doing it because we are all unique individuals. As our cultural lexicon expands to include terms like consensual non-monogamy, demi-sexuality, hentai, and cosplay, people become interested, and therefore I must become interested—and educated.
I have heard arguing helps couples in a relationship, how does this work?
Arguing is just another way of communicating. For some couples, it’s functional, for others it’s dysfunctional. It helps because, presumably, each partner is finding their voice and communicating their needs. I worry much more about a couple who never argues than a couple who argues frequently. With the couple that doesn’t argue, I wonder, “do they even still care?” If not, that can be a deal breaker. At least I know the couple who is actively arguing emphatically cares. Helping them argue less—responding instead of reacting—is the first step in helping them communicate without arguing. That said, some couples don’t mind that they frequently argue and don’t want it fixed. It works for them. It is certainly not my place to tell them to do things differently.
What is your advice to anyone who feels they should seek a sex therapist?
Be ready to set your old, perhaps reserved and shame-based ways of thinking and talking about sex aside. Sex therapy cannot work well without openness and honesty, which includes talking about sex in ways you’ve most likely never experienced before. For us to do our jobs well, we have to understand what’s happening for our clients emotionally and physiologically. There is a bridge between the body and mind that clients have to be willing to keep open if they want to feel better and experience optimal sexual and relational health.
Can you see a big change in clients’ issues over the years?
The biggest changes I’ve noticed over the years are with technology and having access to more information about sexuality (technology being the impetus for this). First, instead of a couple telling me about an argument they had, they show me on their phones. Couples argue over text all the time—stop, it’s just making things worse! I love texting, don’t get me wrong, but there aren’t many arguments that can be solved this way. We lose intonation, intent and perhaps most importantly, body language when we text instead of talk. A phone call is good for resolving conflict, but an in-person sit-down is great. Another aspect where technology has changed clients’ issues is with cheating and infidelity. Nothing about the cheating itself has changed (it’s still one person hooking up with another without their partner knowing) it’s just that the possibilities for cheating and getting caught have increased astronomically. So, now I talk to couples about what constitutes cheating—a Facebook post to an ex, engaging in a chat room, webcam sex? It’s all open for debate.
Also, I have never had so many clients come into my office being so well-informed. Couples know if they are polyamorous; my job may just be helping them navigate their boundaries. Individuals know if they are kinky, asexual, pansexual, gay, bi, trans or any number of other sexually healthy alternatives. Often, now, my time isn’t spent explaining what something is—my clients know already—it’s helping them find healthy ways to express it.
How would you advise a couple to keep the spark in their relationship alive? This is very specific to each couple. How I advise a kinky couple versus how I advise a couple who practices traditional monogamy and has a fairly “vanilla” sex life is going to be vastly different. My job is to find out what each couple, through their individual expression, finds sexy and help them cultivate more of it. If they find novelty erotic, we go there. If they are craving a deeper connection, I’ll follow that lead. It almost always involves encouraging sexual autonomy and then bringing that fire into the relationship.
The whole world seems to be evolving with technology, how does this affect your profession?
In addition to the therapeutic issues I see surrounding technology and sexuality, how I practice is also changing because of technology. The main focus of my practice currently is teletherapy and telehealth coaching. Many people are busy, travel frequently or live in a place without access to a range of mental health practitioners (not to mention sex therapists), so I am filling a gap by allowing therapy or coaching to happen when and how my clients need it to. Also, my Hollywood clients love the teletherapy option based on their schedules and horrendous Southern California traffic. They can take a call or have a video session with me in their car, office or home. I come to them, virtually, so they do not need to come to me. It’s been a fantastic shift, and I think this is the direction many mental health practices will move toward. It’s a function of the world we live in now.
Has the internet changed your job?
The internet has changed my job because everyone is using it. That’s not going to change! People go online to meet many of their sexual needs, particularly self-pleasure. With this understanding, I think my responsibility, as a sex therapist is to do my part in making the content better and the use of technology more effective. Technology is great in the sense that it normalizes sexual behaviours and preferences, and can be a good source of information for sex education. The big piece for me is distinguishing between entertainment and education. Almost all porn is entertainment—it’s not real life and people are not supposed to take it, or do it, literally. If my clients like porn, I encourage them to watch it for the entertainment and pleasure it offers, but not to view it as education. The educational component is where the content needs to improve. With the emergence of VR, now is the time to make those changes.
What’s next for you? We hear you are writing a book.
I am very excited about the work I’m doing combining the worlds of sex and tech. I’m focused on bridging the gap between sexual health education and entertainment, and consult frequently with technology, health care and adult entertainment companies, as well as e-commerce sites. This work, which is facilitated through my Next-Sex platform is an exploration of the context of emerging technology on sexuality, and how to positively influence both sexual and technological development. And yes, this is also the subject of my forthcoming book! It is the culmination of my extensive research and involvement in the sex tech field. The book will have a therapeutic component as well, helping individuals and couples discover how to best use emerging technologies such as VR, teledildonics and even sexbots to enhance their sexual and relational health.