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Catriona Boffard – Talking everything sex

You are an accredited clinical sexologist, integrative psychotherapist, sexuality researcher & educator and author. Break that down for us?
It sounds like a mouthful doesn’t it? But basically, all of those titles are related to one another. I’m a trained psychotherapist (a psychologist in SA), and specialist in clinical sexology, completing a masters degree in HIV, STIs and Sexual health (counselling). I’m trained in understanding sexuality from a medical, psychological and social model, so I view each and every client holistically. I also completed a masters degree in research. I’m passionate about exploring this broad field in order to deepen my own understanding and contribute to the field. I’m basically a bit of a sex geek!

Why the interest in sexology, let’s go back to the beginning?
Up until 3rd year at varsity, I had never heard of ‘anorgasmia’ which is the inability to orgasm or ‘vaginismus’ which is a female genito-pelvic pain disorder,  when I did I was intrigued and confused. I asked my friends and they didn’t know anything about them either. That meant that most people had no clue about the difficulties we might experience in our sexual experience. I did some research and got a volunteer job counselling at a reproductive health care clinic and the rest is history. I truly think I have the best job in the world, it’s incredibly challenging but honestly the most rewarding work ever.

You work from a biopsychosocial perspective, assessing and treating clients through an integrative approach which explores the physiological, psychological and social factors behind their concerns. Explain, please?
I do not believe that when seeing a client for the first time I could view their concerns through only a psychological lens or just a medical lens. A sexologist is someone with specialist training in human sexuality, I have colleagues who are doctors and nurses. In order to offer sexology, I have to be able to assess, formulate and treat my client’s concerns holistically, which means including everything from medical history, mental health, relationship history, even upbringing, culture and religion. All of these areas play important roles.

Are South Africa ladies shy when it comes to talking about sex?
Having worked in South Africa, Australia and the UK, as well as travelled and presented around the world, I do think South African ladies are shyer. I think South Africa as a whole is a more conservative society, but I’ve definitely seen a change in the last few years and every single person I speak to is hungry to know more and ask questions. I think South African women want to talk about sex more than ever, it’s just about getting past the shame, embarrassment and cultural stigma associated with it.

Can SA women communicate with their partners when it comes to sex or women in general?
Again, I think this is slowly changing. But sadly women’s sexuality around the world is generally viewed through a ‘male-default’ lens (as Emily Nagoski says). Most people, let alone just women, are more likely to just have sex than they are to talk about it. But research has found that the more couples talk about their sex life, the more sex they have. So whenever I meet women, whether through my work or socially, I always encourage them to ask for what they want, share what they like, and be open with their partner about what turns them on.

How do SA women differ from the rest of the world when it comes to thinking about sex, initiating it…
Again sadly through a male-default lens, i.e. men’s pleasure first and foremost. However, SA women are becoming more and more keen to explore, to delve into their sexuality, and take charge of their own pleasure. Women the world over are less likely than men to initiate sex in general, but I always try to encourage women to take responsibility of their own sexual pleasure, and that means initiating sex if they want sex!

Understanding our own bodies…
Culturally, the way South African women view their bodies is so diverse. In some cultures, curves are a sign of beauty and in others, they are not. Unfortunately, we’re bombarded with pop culture left, right and centre these days and influential people promote bad habits and unhealthy or unrealistic lifestyles. Body image is so often a fundamental issue for women who are struggling with a part of their sexuality, and so it’s important for me to help women work through this, by developing some acceptance for their bodies. South African women, no matter their culture, need to love themselves first and foremost…

The mind and body connection…
Sadly when it comes to sexual concerns, most people want a ‘quick fix’. Most people would prefer to take medication and have the problem resolved. I practice by trying to reconnect the mind and body, because generally when someone’s struggling with something sexually, there is a mind-body disconnect. I preach mindfulness all the time and believe that it’s truly one of the best ways to reconnect the mind and body.

You have published journal articles on a variety of topics relating to sexual health professionals and whether they are saying enough…
Yes quite a while ago, and sadly I still don’t think they are! Many healthcare professionals are either too embarrassed to talk about sex with their patients, or they don’t know enough to offer them answers. Having presented to many health care professionals, my message is always the same: give your patient space and permission to talk. Allow them to feel safe and heard. Be non-judgemental. Offer information if you’re able to, or refer to an appropriate clinician. It’s ok if they are embarrassed, but shaming a patient who’s bravely asked about sex needs to stop.

Sexual health and education in schools…
If there’s one mission I have in my lifetime, it’s to get sexual education in schools changed, particularly to include aspects such as permission and pleasure. Unfortunately, all too often I hear from a new client that they had a traumatic experience as a child when they heard something in their sex ed lessons or they thought sex was dangerous and simply all about HIV. There needs to be a serious overhaul of sex education in South Africa so that the next generation of kids grow up being sex-positive. And then the next. And then the next.

The workshops you offer…
I offer all kinds of workshops and I absolutely love presenting them! I run my own ‘Girls night out’ with delicious food and wine, with sexy goodie bags and an evening of me talking about sex. I also run couples workshops and corporate workshops. I’ve spoken all over the world to people about sex, from Kuala Lumpur to Nairobi.

You have been in England for the last 3 years, what do you bring back to SA?
I’ve been in the UK for almost 3 years actually, and what brings me back is both personal and professional. Professionally, I recognize that there is a much greater need for me in South Africa than the UK. There are so few sexologists in South Africa because you have to study abroad, and so coming back to practice in SA was a natural choice for me because I know I can make a real difference. Plus the sun shines almost every day…

You are a go-to expert for broadcast and print publications, what message do you hope to spread?
There are a few key messages that I always try to get out whenever I do anything in the media. Firstly, sex should never be about the destination! We’re all wired to only focus on the end goal (orgasm, if we’re lucky as women), and I’m eternally on a mission to get people to focus on the journey, meaning the sensations, the pleasure, the connection. The more you’re able to focus on that, the more satisfying sex will be. The second is encouraging people to talk about sex, think about sex, and explore sex. It’s a daunting topic I know, but trust me when I say that it can only have a positive effect on your sexual identity. Finally, take responsibility for your own actions, thoughts and feelings in a relationship. We so often project our emotions onto our partner and fixate on their behaviour. Take ownership of what bothers you and why, and try to work together with your partner to do things differently.

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