Former GO Magazine managing editor, former professional dominatrix and current therapist Dulcinea Pitagora talks about the intersection of sex work, sexual orientation and the therapeutic process, and how she came to be the person she is today—a therapist who’s out and proud to be atypical.
GO: Tell us all about your therapy practice and how you conceived the idea for it.
DP: I’ve been interested in psychology and sexuality my entire adult life, but I would say I really became serious about going to grad school so I could become a licensed therapist around five years ago while working as a professional dominant. I had witnessed the transformation of so many people who had the opportunity to explore their hidden sexual selves in a safe space. It really motivated me to take things to the next level and start training that specifically focused on affirming alternative lifestyles and non-mainstream sexual orientations and gender identities.
Do you find it especially gratifying to work with clients in the LGBT community?
I can’t tell you how happy I am to be practicing now and working mostly with people who are LGBTQ-identified, trans, gender non-conforming, kinky and/or poly, and also with people who are current or former sex workers. My life has intersected in one way or another to all of these communities, and I have come into contact with so many people who would like to do therapy with someone who understands where they’re coming from, someone who has practical experience dealing with issues that come up in those communities. A lot of the time they aren’t coming to therapy to talk about their gender or sexuality specifically, they just want to know they’re in the room with someone they won’t have to explain their lifestyle to. I had the same experience myself with a previous therapist, who happened to be very supportive and non-judgmental, but just didn’t have any working knowledge of a lot of the things I was talking about in regards to my relationships or identity, and eventually I felt like I was wasting time and money. So that also really impacted my decision to focus on supporting the communities I’m a part of.
What about the BDSM community?
Now that I’m practicing I’m realizing what good timing it is to be working with clients who are BDSM-oriented or kink-curious, because of the impact the Fifty Shades of Grey franchise is having on public consciousness around BDSM. It’s particularly important to me to be supporting the BDSM community right now, since there are a lot more people these days who are either misinformed about what kink is or who are running into people who are.
How do you approach therapy for sex workers when they may have sought therapy before from practitioners who viewed sex work as a problem? Do you find that you have to deal with conflict or defensiveness from your clients, because they've had bad therapy experiences?
I mean, to a certain extent, yes, there has been a bit of defensiveness from some people in the beginning who are a bit gun shy from interactions they’ve had with others— sometimes with previous therapists—but mostly from society at large. Sex workers have to deal with a certain amount of stigma on a daily basis from lots of different people, and so do other people with non-mainstream sexual preferences or gender orientations. People come to me because I’m open about being affirmative and sex positive, but that doesn’t keep them from feeling nervous or worried about being accepted or judged. That’s a natural reaction. It’s almost impossible not to be wary of someone you’ve never spoken to before about really sensitive topics. But usually people get comfortable pretty quickly when we start talking, and they see my reaction—or my lack of negative reaction—to what they tell me. Most people are relieved to finally be talking about things they often don’t feel comfortable talking to anyone else about.
Do you find that sex workers view themselves as therapists, in a way—or that their clients treat them as such?
Some actually do, yes! Maybe not as therapists, per se, but I think the ones who are really in touch with themselves and with their clients realize the benefit of the service they provide, which is often very therapeutic. And I read a study not too long ago that was actually about this very subject, where the researcher, Danielle Lindemann, asked a number of professional dominatrices (or pro-dommes) general questions about their work and analyzed their collective responses. It turned out that many of them felt like they were doing something similar to sex therapy. Like I said before, sometimes all people need is a space where they can feel safe and comfortable being themselves, and express a part of themselves that they can’t anywhere else. That alone can be hugely therapeutic and stress relieving. I particularly hear this from pro-dommes about their clients because the more atypical your sexual orientation is, the more of a relief it is to be able to express that with someone who gets it, and ideally someone who is not only non-judgmental about it but thinks it’s a great way to be. And sexuality in particular is something so integral to our identities, to have to hide who you are the majority of the time can really lead to a build up of stress and other problems. But whether or not clients treat sex workers as therapists? Sure, there’s a percentage of clients who are self-aware enough to recognize the therapeutic value in the experience they’re getting, but most of them just know they feel a lot better when they’ve had a really good scene or session. Not all of them, but I’d say quite a lot do, anyway.
Do sex workers who identify as lesbian often have any issues to discuss that are different from their straight-identified counterparts?
That’s a really good question. I’d say that depends on the individual, as does everything of course, but if I had to generalize, I don’t think the majority of lesbians I’ve known who are sex workers have particularly unique issues. But it’s possible that some have clearer boundaries in their work life because it has less to do with the way they express themselves sexually, since most clients are males. Another aspect might be that since lesbians generally understand what it’s like to be closeted or stigmatized for their sexual orientation, they understand the value of their clients not having to be closeted about what they’re into, even if it’s just for a short period of time.
Speaking of being closeted, you’re very out about your personal connection with the various communities you mentioned. This doesn’t seem to be a common practice with most therapists, why did you decide to go that route?
I’m glad you asked because this is something that I had to think long and hard about prior to starting my practice. We’re trained in grad school to be very careful about disclosure—the therapeutic environment is not a place for therapists to disclose too much about themselves, since therapy is about the client, not about the therapist. Having said that, there have been recent publications on the value of certain types of disclosure, particularly when the therapist is a member of a sexual minority group and the client in question might feel safer with a therapist they know shares their marginalized identification. Also, I feel an obligation to the individuals I work with to be out about my identifications because that sets the example that there doesn’t have to be shame in feeling good about having an atypical identification and owning who you are. It’s important to point out, though, that being out is a privilege that not everyone has. Many people work and live in environments that could turn dangerous if they were out, so it’s definitely an individual decision. My feeling is that the more people who are out and proud the better, because it helps people in those types of environments by changing the overall public perception of marginalized groups. Unfortunately, it can be hard for people to find therapists or health care providers who are willing to be connected to alternative lifestyle communities. This is why I launched ManhattanAlternative.com, which is a network of alt lifestyle affirmative providers in NYC. My goal is to make it easier for people who’ve been wanting to reach out for support but have been reluctant or haven’t been able to find someone they feel comfortable talking to.