Walter Brackelmanns, Sex Therapist
AUTHOR: Liz Goldwyn
Walter Brackelmanns, President and co-founder of AACAST (American Association of Couples and Sex Therapists) and Director of the Sex Therapy Training Program at UCLA has been teaching for over 50 years. At 87, Walter has become a grandfather figure to a network of therapists, focused in various areas— kink/ fetish aware; LBGQT+; sexual trauma, polyamory. Many of them come back to lecture in his seminar classes on their areas of expertise.
In 2012, my friend Nina Hartley, the adult film star, director and author invited me to sit in on her guest lecture for Walter’s sex and relationship therapy seminar, which he founded in 2006. When I arrived, the previous lecturers, an adult film actress and producer, were finishing their presentation and handing out research materials —their pornographic films—to the students, an eager crowd of licensed and practicing sex therapists.
It felt like landing in Sex Ed heaven. I developed an instant intellectual crush on Walter and his Co-Directors of the Couples and Sex Training program; foxy redhead Wendy Cherry who specializes in alternative lifestyles; and soft spoken Ron Crane, who focuses on LGBTQ patients. The three of them share an easy chemistry— Ron gently corrects Walter’s heteronormative bias, while Wendy interjects with feminine interpretations. Walter invited me to audit the rest of the semester and several years later I am back to absorb more.
Walter is a terrible flirt with a brilliant and dirty mind. He is charming even when lecturing me on the nuances of male sexual problems “If you enter into a relationship with a man over the age of 70-75-80...no, that’s pushing the envelope a little bit.” “You don’t think 75 is pushing the envelope for me?” I ask. “Well maybe not pushing the envelope…” he winks.
His teaching style is confrontational and direct. “I’m a little bit of a rogue.” I’ve seen him send a class into an uproar over his position on affairs and a couple of years later, see the field shift towards his way of thinking.
Walter says “it’s sinful how little exposure most people have to sexuality and how much exposure people have to sexual issues. And how guilty we feel about it. It’s taken me years and years to get to the point where I truly believe now that all sex is good sex.” As long as it is consensual, I interject. “Right. There are only three [groups] you can’t have sex with [all of whom can’t give consent]: dead people, animals and children. Non consensual sex is out.”
Walter credits Dr. Ruth with challenging him to accept his sexual biases more than 30 years ago when she started her TV show. He says he and his colleagues were like “old dogs” who needed “new tricks.” She made it ok to openly discuss the many flavors of sexuality. Mimicking her voice Walter says “’oh you like to have sex in a canoe hanging from the ceiling with the chains, oh that’s so nice.’”
Walter was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1932 to an alcoholic “hustler” father who sold grain, his mother was a housewife. He says everyone in his family (including himself, his brother and sister) were alcoholics. He hated their poverty and decided at a young age he was going to be successful. He took a piece of paper and wrote down his favorite subjects— biology, anatomy, nature. The profession that jumped out was “Doctor: prestige, money, security. It’s a no brainer.” Duly motivated, he earned a Premed scholarship to Rutgers University followed by Georgetown Medical School.
After interning at Los Angeles County Hospital, he spent three years in the Navy as a flight surgeon, a job he likens to being a “mental health consultant.” He met and married wife Lois while he was in the Navy— she was a nurse. They were married 53 years until her passing in 2015 even though he diagnoses himself with a “very serious problem with closeness, a fear of abandonment.”
Walter “drifted” into psychiatry —at the time, the profession wasn’t taken as seriously as being “a real doctor.” In 1962 he applied to Langley Porter Neuropsychiatric Institute in San Francisco. His first year was split between child and adult outpatient psychiatry. Family therapy didn’t exist then— if you were working with a child and you wanted to see the entire family, you had to treat them separately. A family could have up to six or seven individual therapists.
Upon graduation from Langley, Walter got a fellowship in child psychiatry at UCLA and joined the clinical faculty. Over the years he rose through the ranks, teaching continuously since then (currently he is clinical Professor of Psychiatry.)
When Walter started his career as a Psychiatrist, sexual problems were simply not discussed, in private nor culturally “It’s not that problems weren’t there but [that they] weren’t identified.”
Sex Therapy was still in its infancy in the mid 1960s— Kinsey (Walter calls him “way ahead of himself—whatever sexual activity you wanted was fine—a very modern approach”) and Masters & Johnson “revolutionary. They really started the whole sex therapy movement.” had made major inroads in the clinical field, but marital and sex therapy was not widespread, nor was it conjoined. In Walter’s view, this is essential to successful treatment.
Walter established a relationship therapy training program at UCLA in 1978 and incorporated Sex Therapy into the curriculum around 2006. Volume one of the training manual he uses in his seminar, Inter-Analytic Couples Therapy: An Interpersonal and Psychoanalytic Model (Theory, Search for the Other) was just published in December 2018. He claims to have several Volumes in him and says he will release a memoir when he is 90, The Experiences of a Flawed Man.
50 odd years from the start of his career, Walter is teaching in a new frontier of sex education. Sex and love have moved online— easy to come by, dispensable— but culturally, we still don’t speak honestly about sex, even with our own partners. Walter says “Pick all the subjects in the world, atom bomb, money, sex. What’s the one that is most challenging for people to talk about? Sex.” With all our access to sex in the digital age, we know very little about how to have IRL relationships, to have great sex, to truly be intimate.
Before one of Walter’s classes begins students (including sex, relationship and family therapists, social workers, psychiatric residents, and Premed graduates) are on mobile devices looking at Instagram and talking about Grindr, Tinder and their clients. Of dating apps Walter says “I’m not opposed to booty calls and hooking up. There’s something kind of interesting about it— I don’t think they sustain very long—they drift into something meaningful or they stop.”
Walter openly acknowledges his patriarchy “I’m a chauvinist but I’m trying to hide it.”
He is often old fashioned— “Women are difficult to understand. [Hetero] men are not. In order to satisfy men there’s only the three F’s: feed him, flatter him and fuck him. Guess where women break down the most? Flattery.”
I ask him how [hetero] men can please women. “Oh my God. Women are much more complex than men.” He pauses, tells me a long winded genie joke to emphasize his point and continues “for women it has to do with the totality of the relationship. It has to do with feelings and not necessarily just sex. [Men need to] be sensitive, caring, tuned in. Listen to her. Try to understand what is going on [in her head.] Bring them flowers, send a letter, be responsive to her needs.” He lets out a long sigh as I wink at him, “you haven’t figured us out yet yourself, have you?” In these moments with Walter, who usually has an answer for every sexual question I pose, he reminds me how wonderfully complicated and powerful women are.
Sex therapy is more prevalent on the West Coast, where, according to Walter “We’re on the cutting edge, we’re crazy.” In Los Angeles, most sex therapy clients are young (25-mid 40s) and predominately white. They need help with issues ranging from performance anxiety (erectile dysfunction, rapid ejaculation, etc.,) lack of desire, and simple sex education. Money is another common issue that causes tension in relationships and the bedroom.
Walter says that “85% of all marriages have sexual problems of some kind.” Even after years of partnership, most people don’t discuss sex with each other.
Walter elaborates “It is difficult for therapists to ask and difficult for patients to talk about. Do you masturbate, do you like oral sex, do you like when your partner swallows? What do you fantasize about? What would you like? I like it when you perform oral sex and lick on the sides. Can we get some whips and chains and add it to our sexual repertoire?”
Wendy Cherry tells me, “Once in a while someone will come in wanting to know if their sexuality is "normal" (a word she dislikes), but have insecurities about their own expression of sexuality.” (Aka a preference for something other than “vanilla” sex.) Once Walter had a case with a “woman who trained her German Shepard to have sex with her ‘full face’ [i.e. she and the dog were face to face with the dog growling while they were having sex.] Her husband found out and was jealous but didn't stop her. She continued doing it until the dog died and then she got another one and trained it to do the same.” Apparently, bestiality is not as rare as one might think in Los Angeles. Walter strongly disapproves of such non-consensual sex but notes, “it’s not that unusual [for people] train dogs to have sex with them."
For couples seeking therapy, often the sex in the relationship has waned or become nonexistent. Walter calls this closire syndrome— a lack of sexual desire linked to closeness. Quite literally the more committed a relationship becomes, the more intimacy is feared or avoided. Walter emphasizes his combination of Sex and Relationship therapy— to treat sex as integral to a healthy overall partnership. In his private practice Walter sees mostly heterosexual couples. His patients are often high profile and generally “rich. Because I’m expensive.”
Paul Fishbein (founder of the AVN “Adult Video Network” franchise and film producer) a former patient of Walter’s and a current guest lecturer (“I was his entree to the adult industry”) has nothing but praise for Walter’s methods. “He's got a theory about falling in love -- that you're really only in love for a very short period of time. No couples are in love after a period of time…They're connecting on other levels. But that true feeling of in love cannot last. But people have successful marriages, because they connect on so many other levels. He’s a firm believer in sex, and how important it is as a way to communicate. And when people aren't having sex, they're not communicating.”
In Walter’s words, “being in love is a transient psychotic state you have to get over in order to have a real love relationship with another person.”
The state of “in love” or “limerence” lasts roughly 2-4 years—as oxytocin floods your brain, it is a feeling like being on drugs and marked by obsession and anxiety. “If you want to be “in love” for the rest of your life you have to keep rotating partners every 1-4 years.” Over time a relationship changes, lust decreases and hopefully, bonding and a “dialogue of intimacy” takes place—communicating feelings and insecurities instead of criticizing, defending, demanding and venting. Romantic love sustains a relationship over time. As does regular sex, an important part of intimacy. All of which takes enormous determination and consideration on both parties. Walter’s is not the Disney version of love —Snow White and her Prince Charming riding off into the sunset. His story begins when they shack in up the castle.
Currently, American sexuality is evolving (or devolving depending on whom you ask) faster than the sex therapy field can keep up. Walter asks “why are Americans so uptight about sex and so ready to condone gross, intense violence?
Europeans are more open [about sex] but now America is progressing because culturally we are discussing sex more openly.” We are also more accepting of diverse sexuality than we were even ten years ago. In wake of changing gender roles, financial disparity, gender fluidity—millennials are getting married later or not at all, having children outside of marriage or not at all and exploring polyamory.
The merits of polyamory are often discussed in class— Winston Wilde, a kink-aware therapist, tells the 20-something patients who come into his office wanting to try polyamory “have you ever had a relationship with one person? Master that first—it’s hard enough.” Walter views polyamory favorably, emphasizing that monogamy “is not a natural state, it is a choice. You choose to make your life less complicated.”
75% of all marriages in Southern California end in divorce. Walter claims the divorce rate in his office is 5%. He likens his experience to being a U.N. peacekeeper and says he can tell in the first couple of sessions with a couple whether or not the relationship is viable. “Are you committed to each other? Do you love each other? Are you willing to do the work that’s necessary to make things get better?” Both parties say for therapy to be effective. It brings tears to Walter’s eyes when people aren’t willing to make the effort. He gives these couples three choices “[One] you’re going to live unhappily for the rest of your life. [Two] you can get a divorce. I’m leaving out killing each other. The third choice is you can do the work.”
One of Walter’s most heated seminar classes is focused on infidelity. “If you suggest anything nice about affairs…it stirs up feelings of right and wrong, American flag, apple pie, justice…rather than looking at the objective reality of whether there is any value to an affair [we] tend to treat it like it’s evil. It’s not a question of if it is right or wrong— is it working for you?”
Walter feels that is possible to have a “successful” love affair outside of a committed relationship— and that often, it can help heal the primary relationship.
“It works if at an unconscious level the three or four people involved have an unconscious need for the system to operate that way—not if people are having an affair to express anger or punish a mate.” He says that some people have affairs to “satisfy a need inside themselves that is not being taken care of by their mate.” This need is connected with the first year of life and the child being frustrated with not having their needs met by their primary care giver—the Psychological term is “Attachment Issues”. Ultimately defense mechanisms are developed (i.e. building walls around oneself, needing constant reassurance.) “There are only a few places in life when you get unqualified love— the first year of life, being in love with someone in the initial phases, or in an affair—the feeling of being in a perfect relationship” without real life interjecting. “The affair…is connected to the child’s need to get that unqualified love. To be in the ‘limerance bubble’.”
Walter’s technique dealing with an affair in therapy is first to determine why the person having the affair is doing it. Do they need to get caught? Do they want out of the marriage? Often the person having an affair doesn’t want a divorce, they are cheating because there is a problem in the marriage and they can’t face it. When I suggest that this may be a “chicken shit” approach on the part of the cheater, Walter argues “chicken shit implies weakness but so what we’re all weak.”
According to Walter, an affair can sustain or even improve a marriage. He frequently suggests patients send a “thank you” note to the “other woman or man” after 6 months to a year of finding out. Whether the marriage recovers or ends, the affair forces hidden issues onto the table. “If you add oxygen to an affair— bring it into the open— you run the risk of it ending or it becoming a relationship. An affair is like delicate china [whereas] marriage is like a goldfish, it can sustain a lot of abuse and survive.” He says an emotional affair is even “trickier” than a consummated one because it exists “in darkness.”
Privately, my conversations with Walter veer from clinical to esoteric. I want to know if he believes in soul mates. He does, stressing how very rare it is to find someone with whom your psychopathology fits perfectly. He believes he and his wife Lois had a soul mate marriage. Among his patients, he counts one case. Keep in mind he has been teaching for 50 years and has 97,000 hours of clinical practice under his belt. A couple came in to see him because the husband was “fucking hookers...It got out of hand, so he told her what he was doing. And she got really upset.” Very quickly Walter excused the wife from therapy—the husband had individual issues unrelated to the marriage that needed to be addressed. In Walter’s view, you can have problems in your marriage and still be soul mates.
Walter (and most of his peers) estimate that we unconsciously choose our partners in order to “recreate a relationship which is similar to one we had with the parent or parents of conflict, for purposes of fixing and repairing our childhood. Good fucking luck. That’s what we do. We do it over and over.” However, he clarifies that we don’t have to repeat the patterns if we recognize and accept these parts of ourselves.
Walter is adamant that that sex therapists work even harder on their own limitations and sexual judgements if they want to treat successfully. As we sip tea in his kitchen, discussing whether “sport fucking” is widespread (he thinks it died out in the late 70s, I say it’s back) and the impact of feminism “The women’s movement…scared the shit out of men. [Being caught] without your sexual skills in place is very threatening, particularly for men” I realize he is struggling like the rest of us to understand his own psyche and the vast subject of sex.
“The part that I’m pausing over is what is the role of sex therapy with young people when there’s all this open sex? The more open we become and the more accepting we become, and the more aware we become that that we’re not alone, that the problems [one has] sexually…everybody has them, or lots of people have them. We’re trying very hard [in the field] not only in the area of sexual problems, but in all emotional problems…to get away from the notion that problems are special or unique. Problems are a part of the human experience. We’re all flawed.”
But there’s hope. And Walter’s sex therapy model. “We have a saying in our business. Bad sex can never become good [but] good sex can become great.”