Every Wednesday The CSPH highlights a Sexuality Professional you should keep your eye on. Their backgrounds are very diverse in order to bring attention to the wide variety of amazing people working in the field. This week we bring you Dr. William Henkin!
1. What do you do in the field of sexuality?
I am a licensed psychotherapist and a board certified sex therapist.
2. Where are you based out of?
I conduct my private practice in San Francisco, California
3. What is your focus and what are your particular goals and passions in the field?
I do psychotherapy and counseling for individuals, couples, and occasional menages, with special attention to people living alternative sexual lives.
Once upon a time “alternative” included gay, lesbian, and bisexual people, all of whom have always made up a notable proportion of my clientele, though in San Francisco I think we have a general understanding that these orientations are no more “alternative” than heterosexuality. People with gender variant identities or concerns are also frequently thought to be living alternative sexual lives even though gender identity is, as the term implies, far more often an identity issue than a sexual one. Similarly, some people in the BDSM/ leather/ fetish communities are concerned with power, control, trust, intimacy, and intense sensation as these dynamics can be expressed erotically, as much as or more than with sexuality itself, which is why at mixed play parties you can often see lesbians and gay men playing together: as we used to say, “leather transcends gender.” People involved with age regression are sometimes much more sharply focused on comfort and bonding than they are on erotic pleasures, though erotic pleasures can certainly arise. And many people active in the poly communities look for varieties of interpersonal, as well as sexual, experience in their multiple relationships. Indeed, something like this can be said for every form of sexual expression I have encountered in my life and in nearly 30 years of clinical practice: where sex matters for human beings, beginning with the basic pleasures of fantasy and friction, it engages with human psychology like the strands of the double helix. Insofar as human sexuality and human psychology are inextricably intertwined, I like to work at their nexus.
While I surely see my share of vanilla heterosexual adults, and no less surely a lot of what takes place in my office does not concern sex or sexuality, nonetheless: many of my clients have found me when they wanted to feel safe discussing sex and sexuality in general, and their sexualities in particular; when communication or trust had become problematic in one or more of their intimate relationships; and/or when they wanted to expand to new levels of awareness in the process of defining or searching for themselves, whatever each individual has meant by such a construction.
In short, like most psychotherapists I seek to assist people as they free themselves from outmoded patterns of behavior and develop more successful ones: as they become increasingly whole and integrated as individuals in the existing circumstances of their lives, or increasingly whole and integrated as partners in their relationships. Because of my professional training and my own life experiences, I generally work not only through the channels of sexuality, but also through intra-, as well as inter-personal communication — what and how we communicate with ourselves, and what and how we communicate with others.
4. Why did you choose to work in this field?
As a psychotherapist? Or as a sex therapist?
When I was in my mid-30s, engaged in a successful career as a writer and editor, I became ill enough to stop working for a couple of weeks, which gave me time to ponder anew my own place in my own life. During these weeks a magazine containing an article I had written arrived in my mailbox. The issue also contained an essay by Ronald Reagan, who had recently become President and who, from my vantage, threatened the freedoms, well-being, and safety of me and many people I held dear. As I reviewed the platform we shared — that issue of the magazine — I realized I had not cared especially for a great deal of what I’d written for money over the preceding half-dozen years, and began to consider my options.
One option that held a special appeal was the work of clinical psychology. I’d been a client in therapy most of my adult life and saw it more as a path to self-awareness and an understanding of human life and the human mind than as a medical intervention for disease. I’d been deeply involved with the Human Potential Movement in the 1960s and 1970s, when I’d done a lot of writing and dreamwork in therapy with a Buddhist and a couple of Jungians. I’d studied psychic and transpersonal meditation, worked in groups on the dynamics of teamwork, done EST a couple of times, been through marathon encounter groups on both coasts, completed courses of several different forms of bodywork, and so forth. So, after interviewing graduate schools in the San Francisco Bay Area, where I lived, I enrolled in my chosen school and then I took just one course. I wanted to know if I liked being back in school and liked studying psychology.
I loved the course. I liked the people, I liked the reading, I liked the lectures and the lecturers, and I had more fun writing my term paper than I’d had writing anything I’d been paid for in nearly a decade. With the intention of working with artists and the creative process I took more courses until I was closing in on a degree, then I applied and was accepted for an internship, and a few years later I had my license. I entered the doctoral program and soon thereafter fell in love with S, a professional and quite visible sex worker who was also involved with sex education. The relationship altogether changed my life — much, much, much for the better.
Early in my master’s program I had taken the one course in human sexuality that is required for licensure as a psychotherapist in the state of California. Although the professor and the school were both very good, the syllabus attended largely to physiology, anatomy, and heterosexual procreative behaviors. Because HIV was a very new menace at the time, we attended to safe, safer, and responsible behaviors; we examined cross-cultural views of sexuality; and we spent a small amount of time on those other forms of human sexuality then called “alternate.” But even when class discussions attended to forms of sexual activity everyone in the room must have encountered, such as masturbation, I noticed what seemed to me to be expressions of embarrassment among the majority of my classmates. I did not share that embarrassment. I already thought the importance of human sexuality was under-represented and under-recognized in all forms of clinical psychology, and my personal life was already deeply enough involved with sexuality that I had joined the Society for the Scientific Study of Sex (now Sexuality: SSSS), and in those pre-internet days I was writing about sex and psychology for a weekly newspaper.
With S as my partner everything amped up. I took the San Francisco Sex Information training and worked as a volunteer on their anonymous telephone resource line. People who knew I was a therapist and saw me with S began to ask me questions about sex, and to seek me out professionally. I began to teach and lecture a great deal, both in the alt.sex communities and in my professional communities. I served a term as president of the San Francisco chapter of SSSS, became a member of the ethics committee of the Harry Benjamin International Gender Dysphoria Association (now the World Professional Association for Transgender Health), wrote one advice column for gay men and another for BDSM players, wrote a monograph on erotic age regression, and at some point I changed schools to complete my doctorate in human sexuality as it became more and more apparent to me that clients in therapy were missing something important because the vast majority of psychotherapeutic clinicians lacked adequate training about sex.
5. Where did you go for school/training?
Along with an undergraduate degree in Speech and an early master’s degree in English literature, both from Northwestern University, I have a master’s degree in Counseling Psychology from the California Institute of Integral Studies. I did a lot of coursework toward a Ph.D. in Psychology from the same school, but eventually I transferred to the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality to complete my doctoral degree.
6. Do you have any literature out (websites, articles)?
I am author or co-author of more than a dozen books, but the only one that concerns sex in any direct way is Consensual Sadomasochism: How to Talk About It and How to Do It Safely, written with Sybil Holiday CCHT, published in paper by Daedalus Publishing Co. and online by Renaissance eBooks. I am editor or producer of a similar number of books, but the only one that concerns sex in any direct way is James Williams’s first collection of short stories, published in paper by Greenery Press as . . . But I Know What You Want and re-issued online as Red Nails In the Sunset, also by Renaissance eBooks. I am author of too many papers, reviews, and chapters to list here but some of those most relevant to my practice are named on my website .
7. What would you recommend to future professionals attempting to get into the field?
I think two kinds of knowledge are critical to work as a psychotherapist and/or a sex therapist. As in medicine, the first edict of psychotherapy should be do no harm. Obviously, a person must get training in the field: know the literature, know the history, know the laws, get experience as a client in therapy, get regular consultation from someone wiser and more experienced than you are, and in general know what you’re doing. But equally if not more important, know yourself. It is very easy to get triggered by another person’s psychological or sexological issues and react to them out of your own issues, if you have not explored, examined, and come to terms with those concerns more deeply than anyone is able to do at first. We can see the harm done to thousands of people simply by looking at all the therapists who thought and — some of them — still think that being gay is a mental disorder to be “cured” or a problem to be “fixed” by reparative therapy, chiefly because of their own unrecognized and unexamined homophobias. This is ongoing work that takes a lifetime of attention.
8. What is the most challenging aspect for you working in this career?
Perhaps the most challenging task I faced was learning how to be present, empathetic, compassionate, and deeply, truly caring with each client, without taking her or his pains and struggles home with me at the end of the work day.
9. One must read-what would you recommend? Why?
Your own heart, because you must be able to read yourself if you are to have any hope of reading others, and because you will get caught in your own unresolved issues if you do not and cannot read this book of yourself — repeatedly.