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 Heather Howard!
1. What do you do in the field of sexuality?
I am a sexologist, which means I am interested in what people do sexually and how they feel about what they do. I work in a clinical, educational and research capacity.
2. Where are you based out of?
I’m based out of San Francisco. I also see clients over Skype, and travel to domestic and international locations to teach.
3. What is your focus? What do you do?
As a clinician, I offer individuals and couples a place to discuss sexuality, and education and skills training to help them meet their goals. Skills may include ways to get in touch with or appreciate one’s body, to better communicate about sexuality, to pleasure oneself or a partner, to make sexual activity more comfortable or less painful, and so forth. My areas of interest are pelvic, sexual and chronic pain, disability, trauma, and maintaining intimacy from pre-conception through parenthood, particularly during fertility treatment.
As an educator, I teach clients about intimacy and pleasure, and teach medical students and professionals how to support and counsel their patients about sexual issues. I also teach medical students how to perform comfortable and effective breast and pelvic exams.
As a researcher and writer, I aim to improve the sexuality literature in areas of sexuality education and counseling, and sexual pain management. My dissertation research examined using sexual response to manage pelvic pain, and I am currently researching the effectiveness of a sex counseling course I created for health care professionals. I have just written an article for a nursing journal to help gynecological nurses to counsel patients about sexuality.
4. What are your particular goals and passions in the field?
My mission is to improve sexual healthcare for people with chronic health conditions.
My greatest passion at the moment is Ergœrotics™ [ur-guh-rot-iks] \ˌər-gə-ˈrä-tiks\, which is the science of designing the erotic environment and activity to fit the user. Proper ergœrotic™ design enables pleasure while preventing repetitive strain injuries.
I’m in the process of launching a website and video to support comfortable and pleasurable sexual activity. The website provides a community for people with health conditions to interact about their sexual needs and solutions, as well as a store to bring convenient solutions to community members. The video demonstrates approaches for comfortable intercourse, manual stimulation and oral stimulation.
5. Why did you choose to work in this field?
My career chose me, actually. I was debilitated by pelvic pain in 2001, a chronic health condition that affected all facets of my life, including sexuality. I was fortunate enough to have a collaborative, multidisciplinary team of health care providers to support my recovery, and with their help and guidance, was able to regain some basic functional capacity. Yet none was aware of adequate resources or research for my sexual adjustment needs. So I developed a way to function sexually that happened to further improve my pain levels. My providers began to ask me to speak with other patients about my approach to managing pain, and about creative sexual solutions and resources. A calling emerged to fill the unmet need of sexuality health care, especially as it relates to chronic health conditions.
I went back to school to study human sexuality and to research the intersection between pelvic pain and sexuality. I now have a formal role on the health care team. From my vantage point as a patient and provider, I know that sexual health is an integral part of health. I hope that as a result of continued advocacy by sexologists, health care providers will recognize this relationship and that sexual health will become a standard component of health care assessment and treatment.
I continue to manage pain and explore creative pain and sexuality management options for myself and my clients.
6. Where did you go for school/training?
I earned my PhD and MPH in human sexuality from the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality.
I am also a mind-body health facilitator and studied conscious embodiment techniques such as voice dialogue and body dialogue with the New York Voice Dialogue Institute and Voice Dialogue Australia. Being able to teach my sexology clients skills for conscious embodiment comes in handy, as being present and in the body are key components for experiencing pleasure.
7. Do you have any literature out (websites, articles)?
My websites are www.SexualRehab.com and I am just launching www.Ergoerotics.com, which contain lots of information on sexuality. On www.SexualRehab.com, there are 3 guides on reducing sexual pain that are available for free download in English, and Spanish is coming soon.
I also have an article in the Journal of Gynecologic and Neonatal Nursing entitled “Sexuality Adjustment Counseling for Women with Chronic Pelvic Pain.” There is a smattering of other articles all over the place.
8. What would you recommend to future professionals attempting to get into the field?
This field is fairly new and wide open, which is simultaneously the most exciting and daunting thing about it. To become a successful sexologist, you will need to have a vision / mission and be driven, independent, and entrepreneurial enough to achieve it.
Also, prepare to “come out” as a sexologist; whether you like it or not, when you work in the field, you become a role model and a resource for everyone you meet. So be proud of what you do and prepare to disclose your title to anyone, even your grandmother. She probably has questions for you!
9. What is the most challenging aspect for you working in this career?
Most of my challenges stem from the field of sexology having a small number of qualified practitioners. As a result, many people, including health care providers, have never heard of a sexologist or don’t know where to find resources for sexual health. In addition, many people (including sex therapists) confuse sex therapy with sexology.
Sexology is the scientific study of sexuality, which applies a broad, interdisciplinary perspective to the topic of human sexuality. It is the job of a sexologist to ensure that sexual matters not become the domain of any one discipline, such as medicine, psychology, or sociology, but rather, that all perspectives are maintained.
A clinical sexologist uses an educational approach to help clients achieve their sexual goals. Clients are offered nonjudgmental space, education, and skills training, which constitute the PLISS part of the Jack Annon’s PLISSIT model.
Though many clinical sexologists and sex therapists may work from the same clinical model and may often reach into the same toolbox, sexology and psychology are different disciplines and will dictate the lenses through which a therapist and sexologist view sexual concerns. This will ultimately impact the client’s experience and view of his or her own sexuality.
So the challenging aspect of this for me is that I spend a lot of my time educating the public as well as medical providers about what I do and how I work, before we can even begin to have a conversation about how we might work together.
10. One must read – what would you recommend? Why?
The Journal of Sexual Medicine.
Many recent advances in our knowledge about sexuality have been in the biological domain, driven in large part by pharmaceutical companies hoping to profit from a sexuality related product. New models of sexual function and “dysfunction” are being developed to support this research.
Sexuality is multifaceted and sexologists should be well versed in the current literature related to sexuality, especially in this biological domain. Approaches supported by the health care industry will drive our cultural views of sexuality. By monitoring the research, sexologists will better understand and prepare for the cultural shifts these advances are likely to bring about and have an opportunity to participate in the changes rather than exist on the fringe. It is our role to evaluate and influence emerging models of sexual dysfunction, to consider the latest treatment approaches in context of a broader bio-psycho-social approach and historical perspective, and to educate and support consumers and medical providers about these treatments and developments.
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