Dr. Tina Sellers:
The Sex and Gender Feminist Psychotherapist Making Sex and Sexuality A Shameless Discussion
There is always that reminder of the separation of church and state, but what about church and sex? Is that a thing? Actually, it kind of is. Well, at least that is what was clearly defined by Dr. Tina Sellers, a sex and gender feminist psychotherapist and professor emerita, and founder and medical director of the Northwest Institute on Intimacy. Growing up in Swedish immigrant home where sexuality was healthy and positively regarded shaped the way Dr. Sellers not only related to intimacy but also became the way she saw the difference in the world.
It is quite interesting knowing the world is filled with shame surrounding sex and sexuality. But Dr. Tina Sellers had something else in mind that would change that...advocacy and education. Saddened and burdened by the negative effects of people who have faced shame when it comes to experiences and discussion (or lack thereof), she has pioneered creating books and programs to change the stigmas surrounding sex, even from the spiritual point of view.
I had the pleasure of speaking to Dr. Sellers to discuss her books surrounding sex, sexuality, and how it ties back to the conservatism of the church. Her openness educated me on things I never knew about. But isn't this why it is important to have these conversations. It is time she taught all of us a little history and science around sexual and body positivity in a really easy, encouraging way.
Dr. G.: You published the book Sex, God, and the Conservative Church. What inspired you to write this book and were you ever worried about any backlash from religious communities?
Dr. Sellers: What inspired me to write my first book-- I was concerned about backlash from religious communities. This is why I spent 11 years researching and writing that book, I took a lot of time and was very careful in my research. I wrote the book in a really compassionate way because I didn’t want to take on the Church just for the sake of taking on the Church. I wasn’t interested in causing trouble, but I had this question of “Had the Western Empire Church been sex-positive?” If it hadn’t, which it hadn’t because it developed the specific sexual ethic in the 4th century, then I asked the question “Had it ever been sex-positive on the Abrahamic line?” And it had! So, I went into Jewish History and found some beautiful Abrahamic stories, that are incredibly sex-positive, and it shows a relentless God that loves his creation, his people, and that sex and love-making, are one of the ways in which people experience how beloved they are the love of God. So, I brought these stories forward so people can see that sex and bodies and the desire for connection and pleasure are given on purpose- so they can know how beloved they are.
Then I put in the S, G, & CC an evidence-based model called Healing the Mess: Model for Erasing Sexual Shame, along with Touch/Non-Touch practices for how you integrate spirituality and sexuality for people who want to do that.
So, I took a long amount of time with that book. It’s filled with stories from people’s lives, compilations of people so it’s anonymous. It took time so it can both raise the cultural competency of professionals who need to understand this phenomenon in our culture and how it affects their client’s lives, and it’s written for the layperson who experiences this growing up with environment for them to know they’re not alone and helping them piece together how we got here.
Dr. G.: Sex, sexuality, and the human body is a very taboo discussion here in the United States. What kind of education and awareness do you think is needed to change the perception and open dialogue more freely around those topics?
Dr. Sellers: We know in N. European countries-- take Holland, Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Demark-- where they have comprehensive sex education that begins in kindergarten all the way through their development (what we would consider 12th grade), it is age-appropriate, and it runs every year. It’s not just sex ed, but it’s life and relationship education. What we know about all those countries, they have lower STI rates, teen pregnancy rates, kids get involved in sex later, they talk to their parents about their sexuality and relationships. Their first sexual experiences are often at “home”-- either theirs or their partner’s. It’s a very different kind of situation than America because sexuality is seen as a part of life. Where love and caring are a part of the equation early on.
A wonderful book that shows the difference in approach is Not Under My Roof by Amy Shallot who was born in Holland and came to the US and looked at US teens and parents and realized how different our experiences are as societies. So, she did research looking at 2 families in Holland vs. 2 families in the US and interviewed them about how they each did sexuality. This book stands as a qualitative piece of research and is an incredible look “Inside” developmental sex-ed in Holland vs. the US… if it’s hard for you to imagine what it looks like elsewhere in the world.
This book shows an example of what I experienced vs. what is typical in the US. When you grow up where this is what you talk about, it’s very different compared to the norm in the US. You grow up talking about what it’s like to be treated well & why you want to be treated well, what readiness looks like-- not just about sexual touch but, understanding the other factors and values that surround a relationship. This information and conversation starters in 1st grade and goes through appropriate stages until the conversations become more and more complex (around 15/16). When that time comes, you’ve been having aspects of those conversations for years and years beforehand, so it makes sense when it begins to unfold.
Dr. G.: Sexual health and body positivity often go hand-in-hand. What advice would you give to someone who believes they have to “look” a specific way to be sexy or sensual?
Dr. Sellers: I think this is a good question because it has to do with perspective-- whose perspective does it have to be sexual/sexy. Who’s doing the looking and who’s doing the determining. Imagine you’re walking into an art gallery and you’re going to go look at the paintings-- who determines if the paintings on the wall are beautiful? Are you determining as a viewer? Or is the painting determining? Who determines what’s beautiful? This is the same question when we are walking in the world. Who determines what is sexy/sensual? Are you going to let the outside world determine if you are sexy or are you going to? What is sexy to you? What do you like? What is sensual to you? Because when you’re in an art gallery and you see a painting on the wall, what you think is beautiful and striking to you may be very different than what the person next to you sees. When someone sees a piece of art, it tells you more about the viewer than the painting itself. It shows what the viewer thinks. So, we have to be the ones who determine what’s sexy/beautiful and not give so much power to the culture to determine it for us/ prescribe it to us. If we live our lives letting culture determine, we will be miserable. When the culture decides, they will target us to feel poorly about ourselves, so we spend money to keep the economy going. If we take back the power, we say I’m going to determine this for myself! That’s what sexual health is, and body positivity is-- we get to decide.
Dr. G: I love that and I agree it should be up to us to decide. What is next for you and how can people stay engaged and informed with everything you have going on?
Dr. Sellers: The reason I wrote this current book, is so that you can have in your hands everything that you need so that you can look back on your own life and ask, “What did I get in each of these stages?” Seeing where we got what we needed emotionally/sexually, or if we didn’t-- what do I need to reparent myself? If you have kids in your life, it shows you what you can give them.
What I want to do is continue to stay engaged, with people and parents in the parenting community set up on my website. So, we can continue to move forward as our culture and continue to face the challenges that unfold on social media and beyond-- things we haven’t even thought of. Our kids are going to have to face more challenges, and so I want to be there for parents and in my role as a Grandmother with my kids and grandkids- doing this work on the front lines. I’m going to keep writing and talking and updating the book in time.
So that’s what I hope to be doing- staying engaged so we raise a generation of kids/parents who are sexual health resources and experts of their own lives.
Dr. G.: I love all that you are doing and it is so needed. How can people stay engaged and informed with everything you have going on?
Dr. Sellers: People can connect with me on my website at www.tinaschermersellers.com and on IG @drtinashameless.