Spotlight: Sexologist Marla Renee Stewart
Part 1 of a conversation on a Post-Roe World. This interview has been edited for length and clarity
How would you define what it means to be a sexologist? Some might hear the term and think of a sex therapist, for example. Where would you say the differences lay specifically to your profession?
That is something that happens; a lot of people intertwine the professions relating to sex. Not even a solely sex therapist, but sex educator, sex coach — these are all professions that people seem to view the same. I’d say research lies at the basis of sexology. For example, I might be recruited to do independent research; and I’ve done sex research in the past. For me, how I got involved in sexology was through academia. After doing work through a number of institutions, I applied to become a sex therapist. There are also those who become sexologists through direct programming. The idea of research is what clearly defines the profession from the rest.
Can you share the types of clientele you see through your sex programming?
Most of my clients come directly for private counseling, generally related to an issue they are facing in their sex life. This might be a discrepancy in desire or arousal between partners; they might want to be in touch with their sexuality; or they want to improve orgasms as a way to maximize sexual pleasure. They might be seeking my guidance on their own sexuality and what type of relationship they want to be in. Having a wide range of identities myself, I pull from a number of communities to my practice. This includes both monogamous and polyamourous couples, kinky folks, or members of the LGBTQ+ community — people who might not be served in the general sex world.
You have been working in this career for a number of years. Can you discuss any shifts you have seen — whether in terms of clientele or the types of questions people seek from you — over those years?
Absolutely. This shift has really come from the pandemic. Before the pandemic, I’d say I had the same types of clients. The pandemic has really exacerbated certain issues, particularly for couples or people in relationships. During the pandemic, people were really confronted with a new reality — the pandemic altered the nature of their relationships. At this point in the pandemic, hopefully nearing the end, people are recognizing that they are different people, and, in turn, their relationships have suffered. My clients are rediscovering themselves and figuring out how they can manage their relationships in the process.
I know you mentioned that your services extend to underserved communities. Have you seen any communities more present in your practice over the last few years?
For sure. Over the last number of years, I have seen more individuals in my practice outside of what would be deemed “traditional.” As a queer person, I recognize the history of stigma surrounding those who were considered outside the norm; these people feel very open to come to me and discuss their issues. This might be individuals who identify as bisexual, heteroflexible, or transgender – really anyone along the spectrum, I have seen more interaction from over the last few years. I’d say specifically in regards to the LGBTQ+ community, I have talked to more trans women. Generally, when I meet with them it relates to bottom surgery and how to best manage such a transition.
Given the political climate, most starkly with the overturning of Roe V. Wade, how do you see things changing — whether relating to sex, sexuality, or gender identity?
I think there will be a lot of changes. More people will need to get control over their reproductive responsibilities. What do I mean by that? As a board member of SPARK reproductive justice NOW, and not speaking on behalf of the organization itself, I recognize the need to educate individuals about their bodies. As laws continue to limit an individuals’ rights over their body, it is particularly important they understand how their body functions — this might be in terms of birth control, ovulation, or the reproductive system. Comprehensive sex education is extremely important but it extends to reproductive justice as well.
When it comes to Roe V. Wade, and the barrier to an abortion, I think abortion networks will become evermore important; I think people who have had abortions will become more vocal; I think that communities will become more valuable to assisting those who want or need an abortion. More generally, these concerns are felt by a number of communities who are scared that their rights will be revoked. We must find ways to protect ourselves and our legal rights.
How has your experience in HIV experience shaped your practice now?
The shame and stigma surrounding HIV and AIDS was very present during my research. Figuring out how to explain to someone that they were HIV positive, as part of my counseling, was extremely impactful. As well, as part of research, I interviewed both sex workers and trans women. Their experiences helped me understand how they themselves navigated the world. I used those insights as a framework for my own practice, educating my clients that they can have a fulfilling life in spite of their disease. There are ways to take control of one’s situation. I am very thankful for my experience working in public health and my HIV research.