Let’s talk sex with Natalie Benway, sex therapist pursuing licensure

Natalie Benway at the Seva Center for Healing Arts in Coralville. — photo by Jordan Sellergren

Natalie Benway, a therapist at Seva Healing Center in Coralville, incorporates sex therapy into her practice and is currently pursuing licensure through the American Association of Sex Educators, joining only one other licensed practitioner in the state of Iowa.

Hi, Natalie! So, tell me about your practice.

Well, I’m interested in talking about and having a safe space for people to talk about their sexual health. I chose to focus my research when I was in social work on working with kids who’d been sexually abused. In my career so far, I’ve done a lot of work with trauma and incorporating yoga. For a number of years I did a yoga group with RVAP, and then also did a group at the VA, specifically for women who had been through sexual trauma. I also did a yoga group for people who were in recovery for drug and alcohol addiction. That’s not sexuality-focused, but it’s a part of the sexual health discussion. What’s your relationship with your body? What’s your experience with trauma?

So… what is sex therapy?

There was an article that I just read, “Forbidden Words” from Psychology Today. In trying to set the record straight, the author says that sexual therapy is talk therapy, not, like, having sex in the office. Sometimes people have the idea that sex therapy is “I’m going to observe you having sex.” And, you know, there are definitely folks out there who are exploring therapies that involve meditation and exploring tantra and orgasm. But in my practice, we’re exploring issues relating to identity. It might be physical issues like erectile dysfunction, exploration of mental health issues that might be related to problems in the sexual experience. It can also be trauma and how trauma is impacting your sex life. I think sex therapy incorporates desire, erotic intelligence. What turns me on? What doesn’t work for me? How do I communicate that to my partner? How do I even explore that with myself? How do I give myself permission? Is religion and spirituality a part of my sexual exploration?

Do you find that people feel conflicted about their sexuality or desire because of religious upbringing?

Absolutely. I see that come up a lot, and it’s not specific to any religion, but there can be a lot of shame for having certain feelings that are perfectly natural. Helping people work through that and be right within themselves about how they can integrate that can be really, really hard, because people will build an entire life upon what they believe they should do and not what they feel.

So, on that, and on the heteronormative society that we’ve been led to believe is the standard, do you see that changing in your practice even among your more heteronormative clients?

In my experience, we have a long way to go in understanding trans issues. I am committed to opening up my understanding of particular sexuality issues — and I’ve worked with multiple trans folks — and I’ve really had to do my homework. There’s a long way to go, similar to any disenfranchised groups.

Is an education on the trans experience somewhat new?

I think it’s definitely getting more developed. I mean, I took a Lesbian Lives United States class in 1999 and it was the first time I understood that sexuality is on a continuum. It’s not just like, you’re gay or straight. I remember the first class I took in high school was a sociology of gender class, but it was gay, lesbian and bi issues. In my educational experience, I haven’t run into trans issues until the last several years.

What would you say is the most common reason a client comes to you?

Anxiety and depression is a huge part of my practice. And that certainly affects sexuality. In order to, most times, have a sexual experience, you need to be relaxed. If you have an anxiety disorder, that’s a tall order. In my experience, mindfulness, yoga, meditation, breathing techniques, thought challenging and reframing and also learning how to communicate with your partner [are crucial]. Like, how the hell do I even create a safe space?

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When you get past the contextual background reasons, do you think that people’s issues with sexuality are kind of universal?

No. I mean, there’s such a wide range. Is there trauma or not? Are there substance abuse issues in there? What ideas did you learn … in your past about sex and sexuality? There are a lot of contributing factors in there. If there’s anything universal, I really think what a lot of people want is to connect — learning to connect with themselves so they can connect with other people, with their higher power, greater understanding, whatever. I just learned about the power of vulnerability in a very real way. I have this spiritual teacher, a monk, who was talking to me and a group of women and shared this deeply personal thing — the kind of thing you don’t even want to admit to yourself. I was stunned by his willingness to be vulnerable with us. I felt like he was giving me permission to be vulnerable myself, which made me feel connected to myself and to everybody in the room — this sort of universal connection. Whenever I’m feeling that fear come up — and I talk to clients about this, about being vulnerable or admitting something shameful—once I’m willing to meet and acknowledge the fear and share anyway, I almost always feel connected.

And that transfers right over to sex therapy.

Big time.

Are clients pretty bashful at first?

Depends. Totally depends. Some people are way overt, in open relationships, open marriages. Some people have never had sex and don’t want anything to do with it. Some people initially start off kind of bashful and then it’s a joy to watch them become more confident in who they are.

Do you give homework assignments?

Yes, I absolutely do. One that I’ll often do is called Sensate Focus. It’s an intimacy-building exercise, so it’s not about doin’ it, it’s not about the actual act of sex. Each person gets to experience being the giver and the receiver of touch. For the first few days, you’re the receiver and you get to experience what it’s like. A lot of people will talk about being really uncomfortable being the receiver, you know? And so breasts and genitals are left out for the first part of it. It can also be kind of hot to build to eventually having sex, but for couples for whom that’s not the end goal, it’s really just about building communication. So you’re communicating afterwards, like, “I really liked it when you were touching my thigh, but I felt really uncomfortable when your hands were on my neck,” or something like that. Then, in the next few days or the next week, you add the ol’ genitals and the breasts, see how that feels and discuss it.

Do people go at different rates based on their personal experience?

No, I’ll actually be pretty clear about what they should do, just so they have boundaries built in. And we’ll discuss it, like, “Does this feel ok to you?” And so they don’t have to question what the method is. Yeah, so I’ll just send them this and say, “Try this; see what happens.”

Do you accept insurance?

Yes, I’m a Wellmark provider. And I also have a sliding scale.

If somebody wants to make an appointment, what should they do?

They can call the Seva Center at 319-351-7382 and make an appointment with me.

Jordan Sellergren is Little Village’s art director. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 236.