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Move over Dr. Ruth
Sex therapist Laura Berman ’90 is smart,
media savvy, and on a mission to help more
women achieve the pleasure they deserve.

by Elizabeth Starr Miller, photograph by Matthew Gilson

Laura berman ’90 visited times square repeatedly at the height of the district’s 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 master’s degree in human sexuality from New York University, but it wasn’t just that. Berman felt that she had to see it all. To pursue her life’s 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 women’s sexual health with her sister (another will come out next January), serves on the clinical faculty of Northwestern University’s 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 women’s sexuality farther out of the closet, Berman’s 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 York’s 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 it’s consensual and doesn’t involve animals or children, it’s 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 women’s 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.

If that sounds brash, it’s 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 Berman’s graduate mentors, asserts that she saw Berman’s success coming very early. “Most of the sex educators that you see don’t 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 doesn’t just play an expert on television. She still counsels private clients, taking an approach that examines the medical component involved in women’s sexual dysfunction and how the problem affects the “whole self,” a term Berman uses to encompass emotional, developmental, and relationship issues.
“It’s a facet of a woman’s life that needs attention,” Berman says.

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, ‘You’ve opened up a Pandora’s box,’ ” says Laura Berman. “Doctors have started to come on board with us because women aren’t taking no for an answer anymore.”

The Berman sisters haven’t let up, either. They’re pushing to get women’s 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 that’s intellectual and interesting is opening up a lot of doors,” says Jennifer Berman, explaining the pair’s success. “Dr. Ruth has done a lot, but in a more humorous way.”

Laura Berman’s take on sex is more serious than her jokey Germanic predecessor’s, but that doesn’t make it humorless. “There’s 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. “She’s not overly formal, she’s not prying, and she’s got a wonderful sense of humor about a subject that most Americans are uptight about.”

Laura’s 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.

Berman’s private role as a devoted mother is complemented by her long-standing professional interest in children. In graduate school, as she contributed to Cydelle Berlin’s research, she also began helping out with Berlin’s 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, Berman’s 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 will come.”

Berman’s 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 it’s important to her that the center is a comfortable place, a welcoming place, a place to heal. That desire doesn’t surprise Jennifer Gilbert ’90, a close friend of Berman’s since the two studied at UVM together.

“She’s sympathetic and tangible,” Gilbert says. “She’s 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.”

Everything 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 it’s 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 isn’t happening, emotional intimacy goes out the window and a vicious cycle emerges. “Once both partners recognize that, it’s 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 doesn’t always work because everyone is different. So why not take out the guess work and talk frankly with a partner about your desires?