Melissa Donahue is a national presenter, author, educator, and clinical therapist. She is one of only 900 certified sex therapists globally certified through the American Association of Sexual Educators, Counselors, and Therapists (AASECT). She has clinical experience in oncology, substance abuse, and gerontology and is a strong advocate for accurate sexual education for all.
The Network spoke with Melissa about her work in the field of sexual health and how she wants to see her specialization grow.
How did you begin your career in sex counseling and sexual health?
When I graduated from BU in 1999, I had a focus and passion in geriatrics. However, during my internships and after graduation I felt an unexpected struggle connecting to the family systems within that population. I went from a specialization in geriatrics to substance abuse therapy to oncology, and I loved working in all three areas. Interestingly, in all three disciplines, people would bring up concerns about their sexuality and their sexual health. It would happen very naturally early on in all the interactions. I would ask my other colleagues about it and nobody would get the questions that I would get asked about sexual health. I was developing a rapport with people where they felt that this was a safe topic to share with me. The universe pushed me there, because it was something I would have never chosen for myself otherwise.
At that point, my focus was to bring sexual counseling to the oncology practice, but my supervisor did not think that was appropriate at the time. So, I opened my own private practice for cancer patients for sexuality. What I was not prepared for was that my oncology patients did not go—it was the rest of the community. I learned a lot along the way. I definitely still keep in touch and see oncology patients, but they’re not the primary focus, which was the original intention.
Could you tell us about your experience taking the Train-the-Trainer certificate?
The Train-the-Trainer certificate really encourages you to consider all learning styles. I was reminded that when I’m doing a teaching module, I can’t just teach the way I like to teach or teach the way I like to learn, which was so interesting to me. Oftentimes, people forget that not all learners in the classroom learn the same way. I think it’s a great structure to help people become better educators and presenters. Nobody ever teaches you how to do that. It took me until my doctorate to really formally understand how I learned and how learners fall into different categories. I already knew this about myself and the way that I learn, but now I know why I learn this way and how that applies to other people in comparison.
The Train-the-Trainer certificate is one of those courses that I would like to go back to again and again, because even though I understand the material, I would like to say, “Okay, now that I’m creating this class, I want to go through these specific parts of the course and make sure I’m still checking all those boxes.” Having that frame of reference to go back to is very beneficial as an instructor.
What appeals to you about being a part of the Trainers Hub and this collaboration with BUSSW?
I received an outreach email for alumni that explained the Trainer’s Hub opportunity. I saw this as an opportunity to grow in my presenting skills and also be a part of a bigger community to share education. It is an important value for me as a social worker to give back to the newer social workers coming into the profession, especially as I grow and develop in my own skill. In order to keep the profession strong, social workers need to keep training the younger generation.
What are the challenges you see in the field of sexual health and how would you like to see the field grow?
I would love to see all doctors ask their patients if they are having any problems with sex. Is there any pain, any discomfort? Are you having any challenges? When you start opening the conversation and allowing for that to happen, people share a lot.
One area of focus in my doctorate program is focusing on creating a treatment protocol for women with vaginismus. This is a condition that involves both physical pain (spasms) and psychological distress, such as fear of pain or anxiety. In order for the patient to be treated holistically, there needs to be several professionals involved to manage this condition appropriately. It can be done quickly in most cases when you have trained professionals that know how to diagnose and treat this condition. However, women usually come to my practice after years of unsuccessful attempts to find the proper providers; therefore the patients exhibit a lot of shame, sadness, and defeat.
We can make a lot of progress in sexual health treatment if we minimize the shame around this topic; sex is a basic need. When we normalize sex at a much younger age, the topic becomes easier to discuss. People often ask me, “When do I teach my child about sex?” I say, “It starts earlier than you think. It begins when you teach them about their body parts; such as arm, leg, elbow, vulva, or penis.” The foundation begins with basics and when we normalize all the body parts you decrease the shame around the genitals. You lay the groundwork for open communication, and then you slowly build on that. My research started focusing on a case study of one cisgender woman and her journey for a cure for her vaginismus and then broadened into qualitative research focusing on OB/GYNs experience treating cisgender women with vaginismus. The research looked at the physicians professional training and their understanding of treatment protocols. With the collective work I have done, I am finalizing a multimedia project (MMP) to disseminate all of my findings as my final project before graduation in May 2023.
Do you have any advice for new social workers who might be interested in training, particularly in the field of sex therapy?
I think it’s important to find someone in the field whom you can trust and with whom you have a connection, somebody who can guide you and get you the education and support that you need. There are certain organizations that provide certification, like the one that I’m a member of, AASECT. AASECT follows a certification formula to ensure that everyone receives uniform training so that there is a uniform quality assurance.
Training and supervision are also key to minimize harm to the patients with topics of sexual health and wellness. Without these key components, individual values and personal experiences could interfere on topics such as open marriages, polyamory, same sex relationships, or masturbation. We need to remember that we have to keep our values in one place, and the client’s values in another, and focus on supporting them in their journey.
Read more about Melissa’s work here.
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