Workshop Review: Psychology on Human Sexual Behaviour with Dr Caroline Burke – October 2009

Reviewed by Brenda Banks

On Sunday of 11th October last I visited All Hallows College in Drumcondra for a workshop entitled Psychology on Human Sexual Behaviour. This was organised by IAHIP and attended by 38 fellow therapists. The presenter, Dr Caroline Burke, is presently a faculty member in Counselling and Student Personnel Psychology at the University of Minnesota where she teaches and supervises both M.A and PhD students. With some beautiful photographs displaying her homeland, Caroline introduced herself and her background where she grew up, emphasising how her childhood environment has played such a huge part for her present life. By the end of this short and very interesting intro, I felt acquainted with the presenter, and wanted to go on a holiday to Minnesota! Then it was time to get down to the business at hand!

Caroline’s opening words for her lecture, “Sex on a Sunday, that can’t be a bad thing…..and in All Hallows College!” This brought laughter and further relaxed her audience in preparation for a topic that may have a strong air of seriousness and anxiety in our culture where sex is still quite a ‘taboo’ subject. We began by looking at the different meaning of two (often ‘mixed up’) words – ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ emphasising the importance of knowing how the internal and external worlds can be very different. So for example, someone that is biologically male may in fact be female in gender if that is how they feel in their inner world.

Caroline then outlined Freud’s theory on development from birth to puberty looking briefly at the impact success or failure of negotiating each stage can have on mental health and our sexuality. As she later went on to describe many of the paraphilias (atypical), it certainly made sense of Freud’s developmental theory even to those of us who may not fully agree with the ‘grandfather’ of our profession. But, as Caroline pointed out, we can also learn sexuality in our early sexual experiences and this too can be very powerful. As some of us may have already encountered, clients can bring their sexual problems into the therapeutic space. After discussing many of the sexual dysfunctions, for example;- disturbance in desire, arousal problems, sexual aversion or phobias, orgasmic disorders and sexual pain, Caroline then gave us some very clear and helpful guidelines for our therapeutic approach to the subject.

Firstly assess the problem. If it’s the couple who have concerns then is it a mutual problem. Whether anxiety is part of the problem and if this anxiety is not felt by both then it is a relationship problem. Finally whether information and education would help. Whatever the response to these questions may be, Caroline suggests that we initially get the G.P involved in case of any medical indications that may be relevant. She lists the goals of therapy as, Medication if necessary, Resolution of psychological factors/anxiety and Self help (with the renowned ‘Masters & Johnson’ literature coming highly recommended by our lecturer).  Caroline was careful to remind us of an important safety net, for those who are not specialists in this field and feel one may be needed – referral to a sex therapist!

Scattered throughout the talk, Caroline gave us many illuminating and surprising statistics, for example: 80% percent of transvestites are heterosexual. We also learned that, statistically, most men choose partners according to their attractiveness. And she suggested most women select according to the potential mates bank balance in order to provide for offspring.

I thoroughly enjoyed the day which included a walk during the lunch break in the beautiful grounds on this unseasonably warm and sunny Sunday. I liked the down-to-earth way Caroline presented the workshop, her style and approach was refreshing and at all times engaging and her power point presentation demonstrated both her expertise in this field and the vast expanse of this topic. It was impossible for all areas of this subject to be covered in the four hours we had. I hope this provides the opportunity for this warm and gifted lady to make a return visit in the not too distant future to these shores of her ancestors.

Brenda Banks is a Psychotherapist accredited with IACP who works in Private Practice in Dublin.