A trip to the sexologist

A trip to the sexologist

Natalie Hemengül
Zurich, on 03.09.2020
Pictures: Thomas Kunz

Fetishes, pain and reduced sex drive. These are the kinds of things sex therapist Dania Schiftan helps people with. But what does the day in the life of a sex therapist look like? I decided to find out.

My feet sink into the bright, fleecy carpet. The room is bathed in light and gives off the carefree charm of a bag of Smarties. Dania Schiftan's Zurich practice certainly doesn't have an oppressive vibe. I look around in vain for one of those dark leather sofas I've only ever seen in films. For the last 13 years, Dania has been working from her own practice to help couples and singles unlock hidden depths of their sexuality. This includes people who don't feel their sex life is as fulfilling as it could be, or who have an issue with something linked to sexuality. I sit down to talk with Dania and find out the main issues that lead her patients to consult a sexologist and learn the main prejudices she has to deal with in her work.

You don't have a typical job. How did you end up in this line of work?
Dania Schiftan, Sexologist and Psychotherapist:
My dad was a vet and my mum was a child psychologist. And then there was me, a child that asked so many questions. I was lucky that my parents were quite open and happy to answer all my questions. Then as a young adult, I had my first proper relationship while I was studying psychology. It was around that time that some personal questions came up for me, such as: how can I get more pleasure from my sexuality? I found that my psychology course just wasn't giving any answers to the issues coming up in my daily life as part of a couple. We mostly only studied extreme topics and problems, for instance fetishes and criminal cases. And so I approached a gynecologist. While she was able to use her medical knowledge to help with some issues, she had to look to her own experience to answer other questions. If nothing else, it made one thing clear: that if I had questions, I couldn't be the only one. That's how I got the idea for my end-of-degree thesis.

Dania uses the whiteboard to make complex issues easy to understand.
Dania uses the whiteboard to make complex issues easy to understand.

What did you end up researching as part of this thesis?
I carried out a study into the sexual behaviour of German-speaking Swiss people. A total of 15,000 people filled out my survey, and 6,900 of those responses were usable. That's a substantial number. Especially as people warned me at the outset that I wouldn't get many participants. The topic must have struck a chord. From then on, I continued studying these issues alongside my course work and my psychotherapist training. These days, I find myself giving other people answers to the questions I used to ask.

Did anyone you know struggle with your career choice?
No, actually. Quite the opposite. I always had the support of my family. My then 80-year-old grandad even proofread my thesis. He did this for me even though he came from another generation and had a different concept of intimacy and morals. I think what I wrote mortified him on a few occasions. And yet, he still supported me 100%.

The fabric vulva is for educational purposes.
The fabric vulva is for educational purposes.

Do you ever have to deal with prejudice or bias?
A lot of people think I always have my psychotherapist hat on and that I'm analysing their behaviour to work out what kind of sex life they have. People feel scrutinised very easily. What I can say definitively is that I don't do that when I’m off the clock.

You've written a book about how women can climax more easily with practice. Is that one of the most common problems that female patients come to you with?
It is, in fact. A lot of women who come to me have trouble reaching orgasm. Unfortunately, women often resign themselves to thinking that’s just how they are. But they can, in fact, work on it. The other two main problems that bring women to a sexologist are pain during sex and (lack of) sex drive. I give these women exercises and tips to bring about improvements.

What kind of problems encourage men to go see a sexologist?
Men often have problems with premature ejaculation, losing their erection or erectile dysfunction. Lack of sexual drive or libido is also a big issue. Feeling like you've failed in your sex life can be demotivating and make men worried about losing their partner. On the whole, I'd say men and women have an equal amount of problems. I also get people coming to me with questions about their sexual identity. I then explain to them that the sexuality spectrum is larger and has more layers than most people realise.

Is there a minimum or maximum age limit for going to sex therapy?
That really depends on what you mean by sex therapy. In general, you can go to sex therapy at any age. I recently had a 70-year-old man come to my clinic with problems about losing his erection. His doctor had told him that was normal. But he wanted to do something about it rather than just accept it because his sexuality was such an important part of him. So we worked on it. I also get mums asking me for advice on child development or sex education. My patients are usually between 18 and 75 years old.

How many times do your patients come for an appointment on average?
Some people just have one two-hour appointment, while others are in therapy for two to three years. In my case, the overlap with psychotherapy is fluid and I’m passionate about both of these fields.

What do you think is the most common cause of problems with sexuality?
The fact that sexuality as a topic is handled in a strange way. On the one hand, people talk about it as if it's really easy and as if we’re all open about it. And yet at the same time, there's not a lot of good sex education. We simply don't learn to be in touch with our sexuality. Hardly anyone talks about what processes are going on in the body or how we can have a positive influence on our own sex drive. Essentially, it's the discrepancy between our own experience and the sense that you're supposed to seem open and relaxed about the subject. These two experiences are contradictory. That in turn causes tension, which is exhausting. And that's why people don't feel comfortable asking questions in the first place. They just think they're strange because they don't know something.

Dania recommends having a look at the @das.da.unten Instagram account.
Dania recommends having a look at the @das.da.unten Instagram account.

I imagine it's a challenge to accept you need professional help for sexual issues...
When people meet me, they soon realise it's not that difficult to talk about intimate topics, such as fetishes. They're most scared of the first appointment because they don't know what to expect. That's why I wish more people knew about the work of sexologists. People often mistake us for being weird and are under the impression that our appointments are shady. The kind of sexual therapy I offer doesn't involve arousal or anyone getting undressed. The main requirement for this kind of work is that the patient wants some kind of change. In other words, they're not willing to accept their current situation and are willing to actively do something to change it. This kind of commitment requires courage. The courage to tackle their own story. Seeing each patient's determination for change is the nicest thing about my job.

This is the first article in a series on sexuality with Dania Schiftan. If you have any questions or points you want us to cover in the coming articles, let us know in the comments below or write me an email: natalie.hemenguel@digitecgalaxus.ch

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As a massive Disney fan, I see the world through rose-tinted glasses. I worship series from the 90s and consider mermaids a religion. When I’m not dancing in glitter rain, I’m either hanging out at pyjama parties or sitting at my make-up table. P.S. I love you, bacon, garlic and onions. 


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