American Sex Story
Bad Sex’s Chris Donaghue Turns the Tables on Tradition
Michelle McCarthy

On Logo’s Bad Sex, sexuality expert Chris Donaghue counsels patients who are dealing with a wide spectrum of issues—from sex addiction and sexual anorexia to compulsions and phobias. So you might be surprised to hear that when he moved from Philadelphia to West Hollywood six years ago, he was shocked by the sight of two men holding hands. “I had never seen that, because in Philadelphia, even in the ‘acceptable gay areas,’ it still wasn’t that expressive,” he says. A lot has changed since those days, and now Chris, who received his master’s in clinical social work and is currently finishing a doctoral degree in clinical psychology, is dedicated to getting his sex-positive message out to the masses.

What were you hoping to accomplish with the show?
In American culture, we’re pretty sex-negative and have a lot of sex phobia, so the goal was to get a dialogue going and get people more comfortable with the diversity of sexuality. I wanted to normalize things a lot of people see as weird or different because they’re alternative. I try to point out that these issues are more common than people think, and we all have a piece of each one.

Why is it so hard for the average American to talk about sex?
It goes back to historical, Puritanical ideals and beliefs we haven’t moved beyond. A lot of it was born out of religion. Sex was feared, and a lot of the culture thinks that if we don’t keep sex under control, we’re going to get out of control. Because we don’t have honest, open dialogue about sex, it keeps that in play. I hear people talk about their body parts in public and they’ll use words like “down there” or “private parts”—and these are adults. I’m thinking, you mean your vagina? It’s OK to say vagina—just like it’s OK to say elbow. It’s a body part.

What’s the biggest misconception in our society about sex?
Two things: First, that sex is natural. People have this idea that sex is something that happens and you shouldn’t have to put any work or thought into it. There are a lot of natural components, but sex is skill-based. The other thing is that sex is bad. Sex is a natural function just like eating, sleeping and breathing. We don’t use creative words for eating, sleeping and breathing. We don’t try to put controls around that and call people breathing addicts. Our culture needs to recognize that sex is a good, healthy thing, and we have to stop being so afraid of it.

What drew you to pursue this career?
I think people think I just really like sex. I started working in the health field and with addiction. Sex was always coming up, but no one was really trained in it. People would bypass it because of their own discomfort. I knew something needed to change. I started studying, and it really improved my work as a couples therapist. A lot of relationship issues show up in sex, and a lot of sex issues show up in relationships. Within our sex lives, we can see the most about who we are. It really gets to the core of our being. Our self-esteem is tied into our sexuality, body esteem, communication skills, boundaries and our entire history of socialization.

Growing up, did your family talk about sex?
My parents were as open as the traditional, suburban family would be. It wasn’t a common topic in my household, but if it was something I brought up, they were comfortable talking about it. But sex is usually only referenced in terms of procreation and STDs. So when you’re talking about sex with your family or even at school in sex ed, it’s the mechanics and the biology. We talked about that but never about the diversity within sex—that sex can be fun.

Was the view of sex different in Philadelphia versus what you see now in West Hollywood?
Exponentially. The East Coast is very traditional—even in terms of psychology. The West Coast seems to be more esoteric, transcendent, alternative and open. When I moved here, I was shocked to see men in Pavilions holding hands and pushing a cart through the supermarket. To come out to WeHo and see pride and confidence and comfort was mind-blowing. It took me, like, four months to really settle into that. Even gay Pride on the East Coast is … very political. They don’t weave in the sexuality as much as they do in WeHo. Because it’s so in-your-face and readily available, we talk.

What’s the best way to change someone’s focus from sex-negative to sex-positive?
Getting the dialogue going. I tried to get the participants on Bad Sex used to and comfortable with hearing certain words, and I used them in a normalizing way. I didn’t lower my voice when I’d say certain things or make faces. I’d talk about alternative sexual behaviors with a positive look on my face that gives the message, ‘this is OK.’ The more we talked about it, the more they were able to talk about the scarier parts of their sexuality. They knew I wasn’t going to judge them. It was really important to me that no one ever got shamed. That’s how we got more sex-positive: by delivering the message that no matter what your sexuality is, it’s acceptable—but let’s just make sure you’re utilizing that in a functional, constructive way.

Was it difficult to do the sessions on camera?
You’re trying to sit in a deep moment with someone breaking down and sharing a traumatic part of their life and the camera is zooming in and out. I had an earbud in, so as I was talking, every now and then I got comments from the control room from the producers. There was a lot of stimulus and activity going on at all times. But the beautiful thing about the show and the participants is that they really took it seriously. We eventually found a place where we were so in the process that we honestly forgot there were cameras around. I didn’t want to do a show where it would be a mockery of this field or these topics. I told the clients, “We’re really working. This isn’t some BS reality show where we’re going to flip tables and scream at people.”

What did you take away from the experience?
It was a lot of stress and pressure. I was maintaining my clinical practice while I was shooting. A traditional group would be anywhere from an hour or two; our group for the show could be up to four hours. And I’d see my own clients on my breaks. I got to discover abilities I didn’t know I had. I saw my own vulnerabilities and learned patience and stress management. Another good thing that came out of it was a bigger mission around this work for myself. I got feedback from people on Facebook and Twitter and they’d say, “Something clicked that hadn’t before and now I’m going into therapy.” Those kinds of things make me really glad I did this, and it’s important that I continue.

What do you do for fun?
I’m a big reader. I read about three to five books a week—a lot of sociology and postmodern theory around gender and identity. I’m a neurology nerd, so I love reading about that. I’m also into nutrition—my first degree was in nutrition and food science. And I made it my goal this year to travel every couple of months.

Do your tattoos hold deep meaning for you?
I see tattoos as ownership, where you’re taking ownership of your body and customizing it. I started getting them when I was 17. Back then, a lot of them were about standing apart, and now it’s kind of the opposite. As I was getting more tattoos, I was getting more and more degrees. On the show, they said why don’t you show your tattoos? I thought that was great because it’s just another piece of normalizing what is seen as alternative. You can be tattooed and still be smart, educated and healthy. It doesn’t imply that you’re a derelict of some kind. I went to 12 years of private Catholic school, and that was really traumatic for me. A lot of my tattoos have religious significance. Part of it is working through some of that. Some are icons like animals or symbols. I have a Joan of Arc—she’s always been someone I hold myself to. She was the ultimate example of standing by what you believe. She literally went to her death saying, “I won’t say anything but my truth.”

Photographer: Andrew Johnston, ajohnstonphotography.com; Styling: Marco Marco, marcomarco.net; Styling Assistant: Brandon Barker; David Mason in Latex Look bodysuit from slickitup.com; Thanks to Rover & Cal at Green Man Lodge

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