over Dr. Ruth
therapist Laura Berman 90 is smart,
media savvy, and on a mission to help more
women achieve the pleasure they deserve.
Elizabeth Starr Miller, photograph by Matthew Gilson
berman 90 visited times square repeatedly at the height of the
districts notorious heyday, walking streets lit by blaring neon
to a soundtrack of music oozing out of open strip club doors. She went
there to observe a sadomasochism support group, and to spend hours talking
with prostitutes, nude dancers, and their customers. She went to Times
Square to learn.
The fieldwork was part of pursuing a masters degree in human sexuality
from New York University, but it wasnt just that. Berman felt
that she had to see it all. To pursue her lifes work, she thought,
she needed to fully understand her chosen subject.
It was an extremely intense experience, she says. We
were exposed to everything you could possibly imagine. I learned about
people I would have never met otherwise.Berman, now 34, went on
to a doctorate and a blossoming career as a sex therapist and media
personality, starring with her sister and fellow sex expert, urologist
Dr. Jennifer Berman, in the Discovery Health series Berman &
Berman. She helped launch and direct the pathbreaking UCLA Female
Sexual Medicine Center, co-wrote a best-selling book on womens
sexual health with her sister (another will come out next January),
serves on the clinical faculty of Northwestern Universitys medical
school, and is opening the Berman Center in Chicago, a spa-like facility
that she hopes will be the first of a number of sexual wellness centers.
Berman and her sister are part of a groundswell of doctors and therapists
trying to bring more scientific rigor and therapeutic sensitivity to
female sexual concerns once ignored by doctors or treated as being purely
mental in origin. In this effort to drag womens sexuality farther
out of the closet, Bermans ever-expanding and wildly diverse list
of projects share one quality: they are built on her compassion and
openness toward a tricky aspect of human experience, qualities she reinforced
during those research forays to New Yorks red-light district.
I had to look at my value system and see where I was judgmental
and where I was closed-minded, she says. Now, as long as
its consensual and doesnt involve animals or children, its
fine with me, she says, both laughing and serious.
Berman hopes that her accepting message and increasing public
profile will help lift the veil obscuring a hidden part of womens
lives. When the light pours in, she wants all women to feel entitled
to sexual pleasure and better understand the complex interplay between
physiology and psychology that regulates it.
AMERICA, DR. BERMAN IS READY TO SEE YOU NOW
If that sounds brash, its just the way Berman was raised. When
she was a little girl in New York City, her mother asked her to make
a promise every night before she went to sleep. One day,
Berman would repeat as she was tucked in, I will become President.
After the Times Square detour, a Pennsylvania Avenue move is looking
unlikely. But her work has nonetheless taken her a long way, from counseling
on the conservative Gibraltar coast of Spain to a directorship within
a top-ranked medical school to becoming an entrepreneur.
She is not the first, or even the dozenth, female sexual therapist (Dr.
Ruth, anyone?), but she is one of the first mainstream female-focused
experts. She is also accepting, warm, and more medically informed than
some of her predecessors. More than that, say her colleagues, she brings
a charismatic spark to her work and advocacy.
Cydelle Berlin, a psychologist at a major New York hospital and one
of Bermans graduate mentors, asserts that she saw Bermans
success coming very early. Most of the sex educators that you
see dont have that kind of charisma or personality, she
says. Laura was very young and ambitious, very focused, very smart,
and very eager to learn and soak up everything.
Berman doesnt just play an expert on television. She still counsels
private clients, taking an approach that examines the medical component
involved in womens sexual dysfunction and how the problem affects
the whole self, a term Berman uses to encompass emotional,
developmental, and relationship issues.
Its a facet of a womans life that needs attention,
The largely male medical establishment, while improving, has been relatively
slow to provide that attention. One small example: The www.newshe.com
Web site, which the Berman sisters created together, receives thousands
of messages from women seeking help. And another: After the Bermans
wrote their first book, For Women Only, A Revolutionary Guide to
Overcoming Sexual Dysfunction and Reclaiming Your Sex Life, doctors
began calling them.
They were telling us, Youve opened up a Pandoras
box, says Laura Berman. Doctors have started to come
on board with us because women arent taking no for an answer anymore.
The Berman sisters havent let up, either. Theyre pushing
to get womens sexual health out into the open for good. In addition
to their Discovery Health show, they have made numerous appearances
on Oprah, Good Morning America, and Larry
King Live. On screen, the pair are charismatic performers, playing
off each other effortlessly and using their attractiveness and intelligence
to best advantage.
Being young, female, talking about sex, and having something to
say about it thats intellectual and interesting is opening up
a lot of doors, says Jennifer Berman, explaining the pairs
success. Dr. Ruth has done a lot, but in a more humorous way.
A FAMILY AFFAIR
Laura Bermans take on sex is more serious than her jokey Germanic
predecessors, but that doesnt make it humorless. Theres
nothing stuffy about her and nothing that frightens her off, says
Helen Fisher, a research professor at Rutgers University who met Berman
while she was in graduate school. Shes not overly formal,
shes not prying, and shes got a wonderful sense of humor
about a subject that most Americans are uptight about.
Lauras relaxed outlook is reinforced by her upbringing. After
all, not just any family can produce a pair of internationally known
sexuality experts. And indeed, Laura Berman maintains that her parents
openness to sexuality and discussing it with the sisters helped develop
their attitudes and ease with the subject.
My father enjoys shocking people and loves to be provocative,
she says. He is a colon and rectal surgeon and would always tell
us what he saw in his office.
She credits her parents for more than frankness and humor. During a
dark period at UVM, she called home, worried that her anthropology major
would never provide her a means to make a living. She says her father
repeated his mantra for her, Do what you love and
the money will come. During a far bleaker period after her son
was diagnosed with leukemia, her parents moved in with her for six months
to help her care for him. The boy, now six, recovered.
Bermans private role as a devoted mother is complemented by her
long-standing professional interest in children. In graduate school,
as she contributed to Cydelle Berlins research, she also began
helping out with Berlins theater-based sex education and HIV-prevention
program for adolescents at Mount Sinai Hospital. Berman went on to counsel
young people in those areas. Those experiences fostered her interest
in working with adolescents and developing seminars for parents on how
to raise children with appropriate attitudes towards sex, a project
she continues today at various schools.
I invite parents to get an idea of how they can raise kids in
a sexually healthy way so that they are aware of what the early negative
messages are, because those messages are hard to undo, Berman
says. So much of what I do today [with adults] is based on what
I learned about child development.
Berman is now working to condense all of her experience and personality
into the Berman Center, which, when completed in September, will be
an 8,500-square-foot facility located on Lake Shore Drive in the heart
of Chicago, near the famous Michigan Avenue shopping district.
The venture, Bermans first entrepreneurial enterprise, will be
a comprehensive sexual wellness center, with medical treatment and therapy
for women and couples, intensive intervention programs, and specialized
yoga and Pilates classes aimed at strengthening the pelvic floor muscles.
There will even be on-site babysitting for patients. The goal is to
treat the entire person: mind, body, and relationships. I am trying
to make it like a community center and spa, pretty, safe, and with lots
of light, says Berman. I think if I will build it, they
REFUGE FROM THE STORM
Bermans drive to create a clean, bright place for working on sexuality
gets at an essential aspect of her subject. Sex can be ecstatic, yes,
but it can also be explosive and emotionally wrenching. No one
goes through his or her sex life unscathed, she says.
So its important to her that the center is a comfortable place,
a welcoming place, a place to heal. That desire doesnt surprise
Jennifer Gilbert 90, a close friend of Bermans since the
two studied at UVM together.
Shes sympathetic and tangible, Gilbert says. Shes
not talking to you as if she were an 80-year-old woman. She is someone
who enables you to feel what you are feeling and be OK with it. She
becomes your safe place.
Laura Berman Wants You to Know About Sex
(without having to buy premium cable)
Laura Berman has built a small industry out of helping people learn
more about sex from her Berman & Berman television
show to her books to her private practice so its natural
that she answers quickly when asked what crucial things she wishes men
and women knew about intimacy. But while topics on her show tend toward
the flashy passion pills and sexual unmentionables
are two recent examples her thoughts for a Vermont Quarterly
reporter are simple and essential.
Women: You deserve sexual satisfaction. A first, crucial point:
Women need to know they deserve pleasure and they can seek help when
it is necessary.
Couples: Physical intimacy feeds emotional intimacy. People need
to understand that a key way that men feel close to a woman is through
sex, but the key reason women are inspired to be sexual is through feeling
close. When sex isnt happening, emotional intimacy goes out the
window and a vicious cycle emerges. Once both partners recognize
that, its a first step toward reconnecting, Berman says.
She also says that men should not blame themselves when women have a
sexual problem, whether it is medical or psychological.
Everyone: Talk. Men and women need to communicate specifics about
what they want from their sex lives. People tend to do to each
other what they like to have done to themselves, she says, but
that doesnt always work because everyone is different. So why
not take out the guess work and talk frankly with a partner about your