Sexpert for Life: A Spotlight on Dr. Laurie Betito
Dr. Laurie Betito, for some reason, always found it easy to talk about sex – so much so that she became the de facto sexpert of her high school group of friends, who would come with all sorts of questions. She would “do the research” and find answers for them.
There were questions about losing their virginity. There were questions about how to give a blowjob… “that kind of thing,” Betito seemed to shrug with her voice. “We had very little access to information.” This was Montreal in the late 1970’s.
There was a period of time when her father sold encyclopedias, which came in handy. “I had, like, all the encyclopedias, and I had Cosmopolitan magazine,” laughed Betito. “That was about all I had in terms of research tools as a teen. There really wasn’t all that much available.” After a moment’s pause, she added: “Oh yes… I discovered a book in my parents’ closet about positions – I had that too.”
At a young age, Betito read everything she could find about sex, including The Hite Report, a 600-page research-based account of women’s sexuality by Shere Hite, an American-born German sexologist whose work offers a feminist continuation and criticism of Alfred Kinsey’s research on human sexuality. The lack of readily available scholarly information was supplemented by her gusto for “trashy novels like Jackie Collins.”
Born in Casablanca, Morocco, Betito moved to Quebec at age 4 where she has lived ever since, with the exception of living in Los Angeles briefly for an internship. Her parents were conservative when it came to sex. When Betito was around 17, her mother fainted upon finding her birth control pills. Her father found her mother passed out, and also found the pills.
“My parents have evolved greatly,” said Betito. “My father still has a hard time listening to me and reading my books, and I’m still his little girl even though I’m 55 years old. But otherwise the conversations around our table can turn around sexuality, gender stuff, LGBTQ, anything that’s in the news. My parents are super open now, and they’re in their 80s, and they talk to my kids about sex. These were not the parents I had, but they’re the grandparents of my kids, who absolutely talk to them about sexuality. No problem at all.”
Other parents encouraged their kids to carpool with Betito’s kids, so that they could glean sexuality lessons from car conversations – a symptom of North America’s ever-present unease with open and practical discussions about sex. Betito herself was told about the ‘bird and the bees’ inside a car, by her father. “They don’t have to look at you directly, and you can’t run,” chuckled Betito, adding that she herself has used the car as a setting for important talks with her kids.
Betito studied social work as an undergraduate and spent her first few years after college working in child protective services. She ended up seeing a lot of child abuse cases and working with teens. The clear impact that sexual history, knowledge, and experience had on a person’s well-being – for better or worse – made her interest in the subject grow.
She went back to school to do her master’s in social work, and simultaneously did an intensive two-year sex therapy training program out of a Montreal hospital. Her master’s thesis was about transgender issues.
Betito got an opportunity to switch her focus to psychology – a professor who knew about her work in the area of sexual abuse recruited her to do a Masters and Doctorate in developmental psychology where the focus was the impact of sexual abuse. From there, she went on to private practice. Early on in her career, Betito developed a media persona, Dr. Laurie, and was approached to do co-hosting on a local radio station on a show about sex. That evolved into her own nightly show, Passion, which – after 20 years – is still happening weeknights at 10pm on CJAD 800.
So why is it so hard to talk about sex?
“In North America we have a lot of sex-negative messages,” explained Betito. “There are still a lot of right-wing religious beliefs, and it all stems from that. It’s reinforced by the States who insist on abstinence-only education. You have the anti-abortion movement. There’s so much in the space that’s conservative, maybe in North America, less so in Quebec.”
Quebec province has comprehensive sex ed curriculum that spans from elementary school through high school that this year became compulsory. But not all of Canada is sex positive and rainbows. Ontario, a more conservative province, has seen political backlash and has reverted their curriculum to the 1998 version, which does not address sexting, social media, consent, or anything concerning the LGBTQ community.
“There’s a lot of shame around sexuality and people don’t want to see children as sexual beings. They don’t realize that we’re all born sexual beings. And so, their own discomfort with their upbringing doesn’t makes it easy for them to talk openly about sex with their kids, nor do they want anybody else to ‘corrupt’ them somehow, because they believe teaching sex ed will do that. And that’s just not true.”
Without comprehensive sexual education, many people turn to magazines, movies, and porn for information. Porn in particular, is not the best way to get accurate information about sex.
Pornhub’s Sexual Wellness Center
Yes, Pornhub has an online Sexual Wellness Center, directed by – guess who? – Dr. Laurie. It was born out of the idea that if people are going to watch porn, there has to be something to counteract the fantasy.
“I was looking for a project to reach the masses,” said Betito. “I was talking to my manager about it. We were thinking of developing an app or something, and then we started talking about an online site. She knew some of the people at Pornhub, so she contacted them and we had a meeting.”
Pornhub loved the idea, and the site has been running for two years now. All writers on the site have contributed to the field of sexuality in some way, and have their own expertise. There are articles about sex, romance, STIs, and a Q&A section run by Dr. Laurie herself.
Since the site launched, Betito estimates that she has received between three and five thousand questions.
“If people only went through the other Q&As, they would get their questions answered. You know what I mean?”
Most people’s questions can be summed up by: is this normal?
There are a lot of commonalities Betito sees in the questions she receives. There’s a lot of men worried about their penis size. There’s a lot of questions about orgasms, a lot of questions about masturbation, a lot of questions about addiction, even. “I get a lot of basic questions like, ‘I’ve got this thing on my penis’ or ‘My vagina smells like this and I don’t know if it’s normal.’”
Betito’s work is to essentially fill the major gaps so many of us have in our knowledge level when it comes to sex. “Nobody talks about the pleasure. Nobody talks about the how-to’s.”
Attitudes have shifted when it comes to sex.
Betito’s career spans three decades, and she’s noticed some attitude shifts along the way.
“I’ve seen a lot of things go mainstream,” said Betito. “I started doing my work pre-internet. People would come to me – a sex therapist – because of what they considered an ‘odd desire’ or what we’d call a fetish. Now, I hardly see any of these patients. They find their communities online. They know they’re not alone.”
She sees more open discussion on topics like kink and open relationships. “People have been swinging for a very long time,” Betito explained. “There’s nothing new about that. It’s just now, they’re open about it.”
People need to talk about sex with their partners.
According to Betito, we still have to improve when it comes to sex and educating and protecting ourselves as a society.
“We’re not doing a good enough job in terms of getting people to use condoms all the time, unfortunately,” Betito said. “But, I’ve noticed that there is far less stigma around getting tested. In my day nobody got tested, unless you had a sore or something that was obvious. It wasn’t a thing.”
The problem, says Betito, is that far too many people find it easier to have sex than to talk about sex. “That has to be switched around,” Betito said. “Before you have sex, you should be able to talk about sex, and that’s just not happening. People are getting in to sexual situations more and more quickly. What I’m hearing from younger people is, ‘You want to have sex with them to see if you even want to date them.’”
Talking about sex isn’t easy though, especially when it comes to disclosing STI status.
“People worry about being judged, partially because when you get into these conversations, you might not know the other person’s level of knowledge when it comes to this stuff,” explained Betito. “If you say, ‘Yes, I’m HIV positive, but I’m on treatment and am undetectable’ will the receiver know anything about that? Or will they just hear ‘HIV’?”
Betito still has people coming to her office, devastated upon receiving a diagnosis. “People think they’re never going to date again.”
Betito herself has oral herpes and – in true sex therapist fashion – talks about it with the utmost ease. “Listen, it’s annoying, but I know I have one of the viruses in me, and I’m careful. When I’m aware something is about to erupt, I’m not going to kiss my partner or give oral sex.” And that’s that.
The good news, Betito says, is that the internet has provided people who are struggling with a diagnosis with safe spaces to talk and exchange resources. “Even though it’s still hard to talk about, there are people who are committed to bringing these kinds of conversations further into the mainstream. The more examples people see, the easier it will be for people to have their own conversations.”
Dr. Laurie’s advice on how to talk about sex?
It’s a loaded question, no pun intended.
Betito recommends that if you have trouble talking about issues, reading a book together might help. Make sure when you do have conversations, that it’s not in an offensive or defensive mode. Whenever you start a question with “why”, you’re putting the other person on the defensive. “Why do you fantasize?” “Why do you watch porn?”
Instead, questions should be framed more open-ended, like, “Hey let’s talk about this. I’m interested to know what you think about pornography.” Approach with curiosity, rather than with some sort of judgment, and it’ll likely be an easier conversation.