Speaking of sex...
Sex – everyone loves talking about it, many of us even enjoy taking part in it, but few of us have ever considered making it a full-time job. Unless you’re a clinical psychologist like Perry Sirota, MA’84, PhD’91.
Perry’s work as a sex therapist has taken him from jail cells across the country where he’s worked with hardened sex criminals to the bedrooms (well, hearing about them anyway) of sexually-troubled couples. “I never would have believed when my career started that it would be this interesting.”
Perry, a native of Montreal, who now lives and works in Calgary – his clinical partner is also his newlywed wife Jodi, whom he married in July – has a job that beats shuffling papers any day. “I get more women than men complaining about not getting enough sex – 20 years ago, it was the opposite.”
Not only does it make for some fascinating listening, but because Perry is always open to expanding his vocation, his work has taken him into a number of different realms of study - everything from working with sex offenders and unhappy couples to examining workplace violence and harassment. He refers to them all as “spokes on a wheel.”
After studying at the elbow of Dr. Fred Boland at Queen’s and serving a kind of internship in Kingston area penitentiaries, where he worked with some of Canada’s most notorious sex offenders and criminals - a “baptism by fire” he calls it - Perry’s second job was working in a mental health clinic in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan in the 1990s. When members of the local medical community found out about his background, they started referring to him patients with non-criminal sexual challenges. “They figured I was the closest thing to a sex therapist the town had ever had,” he says.
While Perry may have been able to pick up a lot from academic texts, he notes that it’s his patients who have taught him the most - both enlightening and sad. For instance, many people with sexual problems have suffered sexual trauma early in life. “The big unknown when I graduated was how many men had been sexually abused as children. Now we know from stories about residential schools and foster homes that boys are victims too - although still not as much as girls.”
He says people’s views about sex have really changed since he graduated from Queen’s in 1991. Not only is sex not considered “dirty” anymore, but the impetus for sex is originating now from a different source. Says Perry, “Women are the initiators now. They want [sex] - I don’t think they knew they wanted it before.”
Often when couples arrive for counseling, Perry observes that it’s usually the man who is complaining about a dearth of sex in the relationship. If the couple addresses the problem and they’re successful in changing that, Perry says it sometimes creates new problems. “Men think they know what they want, but they need to remember that expression ‘Be careful what you wish for’. That’s because a lot of women have a really strong inner sexuality that’s been so repressed that when it comes out, it’s like a tidal wave and can totally drown the guy.”
In addition to sex therapy, Perry does regular counseling for addiction and mental health problems and assessment of employees who may be a risk in the workplace. “Many workplace violence cases start with harassment. The bully becomes the workplace killer.”
Perry also conducts risk assessments of lawyers’ clients, the kind of work that can take him right into a prison - sometimes a frightening prospect. On one occasion, he found himself in a cell with the jailhouse weightlifting champion who stood 6’4”. “He said he had an idea that he could kill me, take my clothes and get out because he looked like me,” says Perry. “Running away wasn’t possible, but I knew if I disagreed and told him he’d be caught in five minutes, he would have killed me and been caught. Instead, I said, ‘You’re probably right, but please don’t,’ and he answered ‘Okay’. What I learned working behind bars is not to treat an inmate like an inmate, but like a human. At a minimum it’s the right thing to do, but even bigger than that is that it keeps you alive.”
Much safer to stick with improving people’s sex lives - it sounds - and who knows where that can lead? Says Perry, “If you can help make people’s sex lives better, that’s great – more sex, less war,” he says with a knowing laugh.