Chris Donaghue is deep into an on-air discussion about Time magazine’s recent cover story on gender. “It seems like, right now, a lot of news outlets are covering gender,” he tells his podcast co-host, Amber Rose. “And it’s sooooo important. But part of me is always like, ‘Where ya been? Like, you’re late to the party.’”
Donaghue has good reason to feel that way. A Ph.D. in clinical sexology and certified sex therapist who shares the airwaves weekly with Rose on CBS Radio’s Loveline with Amber Rose podcast, he’s been working toward debunking the myth of two genders — as well as the myth of “normal” sexuality — for nearly a decade. The show itself is the millennial reincarnation of the iconic Loveline radio show with Dr. Drew Pinsky, which debuted in 1983 and later featured co-host Adam Carolla. As Rose’s co-host, Donaghue plays expert to her color commentary; the Pinsky to her Carolla.
The show, however, is vastly updated. In addition to featuring a woman and a man instead of two male hosts, Donaghue and Rose openly embrace gender fluidity, feminism, nonmonogamy and other nontraditional sex-and-relationship paradigms. It’s essentially Donaghue’s life work to help people understand that it’s fine to fuck however they want (provided, of course, they’re not hurting anyone else), and it’s what he covers in his book Sex Outside the Lines, in private practice and on TV shows such as The Doctors. It’s also the same message he gave us when we spoke recently about how watching porn alone can be good for relationships, whether sex really is addictive and why it’s okay for the best sex to be with yourself.
Dr. Drew and Adam Carolla joined forces on the original Loveline in the mid-1990s. What’s changed since then as far as educating people about sex?
On the original Loveline, it was just two dudes, and a lot of the information and counsel skewed heteronormative. Me and Amber are from a different generation. We try to answer questions and speak towards a full diversity of gender and sexual orientation. Similarly, Adam Carolla and Dr. Drew had a different generation calling in. Now, callers are encountering — and wanting to be part of — different relationship norms. It’s our job to meet them there.
What’s the most common question people have for you?
The number one question that people come in with — and they come in with it often — is, “Am I normal? Am I broken? Am I okay the way I am?” People think there’s a right way to be. Because from birth, we’re socialized away from anything authentic, trained in things like etiquette, and that there’s one right way to be. Healthy mental health is, in my mind, about being allowed to live in the world in the ways that make sense to you.
We recently wrote about what to do if you have a great relationship, but the sex is bad. What would be your advice?
I’d say if you’re going to be monogamous, that’s going to be a problem. If you’re open to polyamory, or to the idea that some people use masturbation and porn to substantiate that disconnect, then it may be able to work. But if you and your partner aren’t sexually compatible, I’d say you’re settling for a lot of unhappiness. You’ll see the sex you want to have in movies and in books, and you’ll be sad that you’re not having it. I also would say, “Why did you not have a lot of sex before you made a commitment?”
I feel like therapists and advice columnists would say that you can always make the sex better if you just put in more effort. But is there a point at which you would say that there’s really no more effort to be made for a couple having problems in the bedroom?
What I would say is that chemistry and compatibility can’t be forced or created. If you have it and you want to improve upon it, I can help you with that. But I cannot — happily! — force people to be compatible. I say “happily” because the dark side of that skill is making gay people straight, normalizing heterosexuality, making everyone into man/woman/missionary-style sex only after we’ve both showered and so on. So I sometimes have to say to clients, “I know you came in here thinking I could create what isn’t there. I can help you add some things, but otherwise, our work will be mourning the sex you thought you were going to have.”
I’ll add that the gay community has gotten really good at understanding sexual nuance. The straight community hasn’t gotten it yet. For example, I’ll have women come in and say, “I want my husband to dominate me, I want him to smack my ass.” And I say, “Your husband is a bottom. Your husband is a gentle person. I can’t make him anything but that.” Before you make a commitment, explore the relationship deeply. People think, “Oh, the sex will just figure itself out if we love each other enough.” No, it won’t!
Can porn ruin relationships?
Here’s the thing: When we say porn ruins relationships, we’re blaming an object for something that’s happening with a human being. It’s also a misinterpretation of actual studies. Studies will say something like, “Men who watch a lot of porn tend to have a lot of relationships dissatisfaction, so porn creates it.” No, it’s the opposite. They’re in relationships that are dissatisfying, and it’s a beautiful thing because they want to use porn so they can say, “I love you. I want to stay with you. I’m getting a sexual need met in a way that I can still honor my monogamy or my relationship with you.”
Additionally, we’re now finally in a healthy enough place where we’re realizing that not everyone’s orientation is geared toward partner sex. Some people are more geared toward sex alone with themselves. In other words, healthy sex isn’t always sex with another person.
Where do you stand on the notion of sex addiction?
I wholeheartedly do not agree with or subscribe to the sex addiction model. I was trained in it by the people who created it — and they’re all sex-phobic, tightly wound, angry and puritanical. They’re afraid of their own bodies, so they pathologize anyone who’s sexually confident. And their model reflects that. They’re untrained in human sexuality, and they’re making up this model that they pulled out of their asses.
As a result, there are now all these people that thought they had a sex addiction, and none of them did. You like things that your partner doesn’t like, so of course you go to porn. You want sex more than your partner, so of course you go to porn. None of the major psychology organizations, including the American Psychological Association, acknowledge that sex addiction is real. Every time it’s been proposed for inclusion in the DSM, it’s been denied. That means it doesn’t exist.
Is there a point at which you would tell someone that there is a problem with the way they’re expressing their sexuality?
Yes. My model for healthy sex is: Is it consensual and compassionate? We all know the consent piece, although people don’t always apply it. With compassion, healthy sex and being a healthy person means that you take into account that you’re impacting another human being, whether it’s a one-night hookup or a long-term relationship. That means a multitude of things, including that maybe you don’t have the sex you want to have because it won’t feel good to your partner.
How did you come to see the traditional psychiatric establishment as judgmental?
When I was in school, many of [my teachers] were pathologizing behaviors that me and my friends, who are all really healthy, grounded, successful, loving people, were engaging in. There was a disconnect; me and my friends were living in a world that was, at times, marginalized as far as our body shapes and sizes or different sexual orientations were concerned.
What were you doing in particular that was being pathologized by the people you encountered at school?
I began my clinical career focusing on sex within the sex-addiction world, and that’s probably one of the most problematic, pathologizing, bullshit areas of psychology. They were saying, and this is really, really shocking, that healthy sex always takes place within a relationship context. So, sex outside of a relationship context was considered a sign of sex addiction.
They also shamed pornography use and consistent masturbation as being addictive, because the implication was that relationship sex and sex with a partner should be the most legitimized, prioritized form. They also were shaming different relationship styles like nonmonogamous open relationships. I saw them shame people who had colorful, creative sexual interests. Another scary moment was when I was in a training, this sex-addiction expert came in and was still preaching the idea that any men who aren’t fully presenting as masculine have a problem and need to be masculinized. So it was all of that.
What effect did that have on your work?
I would see all of this be problematized at school, and then I’m doing it to my clients. I’m like, “There’s something off about this.” But there were no alternatives or resources to find other models of health or functioning. So I did the research on fat positivity, queer politics, feminist politics; all of these resources were normalizing other ways of being than the thin, white, cisgender model. I was like, “Fuck this shit, I’m not gonna make the mission of my clinical work to whitewash people’s sexuality.”
What also can be meaningful is to use examples of my own life. In my own private life, I like a lot of intimacy, a lot of closeness. I want you to text me all day long; I like a lot of connection. A lot of people would pathologize my style as codependent and needy, but I’m using positive words instead of saying, “You’re needy.” I like a lot of depth, intimacy and closeness, and that’s okay. If you want to wait four days to text back, we aren’t a match. That’s something I want to know right away.
What’s the one thing you want Loveline listeners to take away from the show?
I want people to have more confidence in who they are authentically. A great example is a woman who called in talking about her worth, and Amber tells her to go be a stripper. A lot of people are anti-porn; I’m telling people to watch porn. I’m prescribing it. We want to normalize alternative ways of being.