"Naked Therapy™ (N.T.) is an experience that combines elements from positive and person-centered talk therapy, experiential therapy, and creative play therapy, with the added component of the client and/or therapist getting naked to facilitate more honest and unique insights through the experience of arousal."
—Sarah White, the Naked Therapist™
Sarah White, the Naked Therapist™. Photo by Francesco Sapienza
I have depression.
It took me a long time to come to terms with that, and when I finally did, it was humbling. But it was also incredibly important in terms of beginning to understand mental illness and how fucking complicated it is. Prior to accepting my own depression, I had dismissed depression as something that others used as an excuse; I didn't understand that people don't "choose" to be depressed any more than they choose to develop multiple sclerosis. Henry Rollins's recent op-ed "Fuck Suicide" for LA Weekly, published in the wake of Robin Williams's death, is a prime example of the ignorance and stigmatization surrounding mental illness in our country (Hank has since apologized). Rollins's post really pissed me off at first, but I had to remind myself of the fact that until I personally had actually considered suicide, I had the same mentality as him. What changed my perspective was when I reread comedian Rob Delaney's open and transparent writing on his own battles with this often misunderstood mental disorder; that post in particular finally persuaded me to stop being a dick and actually pursue therapy.
For nearly a year, I have been in regular therapy. I am extremely thankful that I work in academia and that the last two colleges where I've been employed have had employee-assistance programs that permit a certain number of therapy sessions at no cost to their faculty and staff. Most people don't have this benefit, which is categorically fucked because mental health is just as important as, if not more so than, regular checkups at the doctor or a biannual tooth cleaning. Through therapy, I am learning the means to manage my depression. It occurs to me now that I have experienced severe depression multiple times in my life, although I would have never admitted it at the time. My therapist in Richmond, VA, where I lived last fall, was instrumental in assisting me in pulling myself out of a severely deep, dark well. She was an incredible and supportive listener, 100 percent sex-positive, and helped me to confront my mental disorder with conviction.
LOL: "Smiling couple reconciling at therapy session in therapist's office photo." Copywright-free stock image
Now that I live in New York, I've continued with regular therapy even though I feel considerably better than I did last fall. While I might not necessarily feel the "need" before any given session to attend it, it always proves valuable in taking inventory of what's on my mind. Regular therapy, for those of us who are fortunate enough to access it, is like going to the gym. While you might be in good shape, you continue going to maintain that shape. That might be a really shitty simile—I don't know—I have no idea what going to the gym is like.
Shortly after moving to New York, I was at a performance night during the exhibition The New Romantics at Eyebeam to see my good friend Ann Hirsch perform a new work and to see a set from noise-duo MSHR. Following Ann's piece, which was phenomenally uncomfortable, she introduced me to her friend Leah Schrager. Schrager works across various media, but the project that has earned her the most attention is easily Sarah White, the Naked Therapist™. Schrager views Sarah White as an ona, rather than a persona, and explains that concept in depth here.
After researching the project, and "Sarah's" writings on the benefits of Naked Therapy™, I was obviously intrigued. In terms of contemporary art, Schrager's hybridization of various practices including performance art, social practice, the internet as context/interface, and solicited audience participation makes the work interestingly difficult to define concretely. More often than not, performers struggle to entice their audiences into participating. It's painfully awkward to witness something live where its author is literally begging members of the audience to do this or that. What's fascinating is how Schrager has exploited the male gaze to garner participants who are willing to pay their own money to contribute to the development of her project. It's a coy and, frankly, economically taut method to approach interactive performance work while avoiding actual individual exploitation through maintaining the valued anonymity of her participants (I'm looking at you, Laurel Nakadate).
While the ona of Sarah White is physically beautiful, I was also attracted to how she describes the motivations for the project, actually addressing with precise articulation the paradoxes that I genuinely feel about how to exhibit my sexuality in a responsible and progressive fashion. My Facebook feed is filled with reports from female-identified friends on the harassment they constantly experience in their day-to-day lives, and it makes me (perhaps overly) conscious of my interactions with women that I meet.
All of Sarah's clients are men, and on her website she states that this is something about which she's proud. Her approach places an emphasis on the benefits of arousal, a state which she argues allows one "to heal, to discover, to learn, [and] to become aware of things [one] cannot otherwise become aware of, for this state is as unique in the human mind as is the unconscious state of dreaming." The FAQ on her website is quite comprehensive, and here's a sample of answers to questions that I'd wager you're probably thinking of right now:
Do you get fully naked?
Yes, if you wish it.
How explicit will you get?
That depends on what I consider therapeutically relevant.
Can I get naked during my session?
Can I masturbate during my session?
Photo by Francesco Sapienza
In her writing, she points out that while a vast number of men experience crises and mental disorders, very few of them ever seek treatment. This is not only a result of the social stigma attached to therapy, she continues, but also because "therapy doesn't get men." And while I've personally benefited greatly from therapy, I do understand the point that she's making. Prior to swallowing my ego and admitting that I needed help, I couldn't fathom how talking to a therapist would make any difference in my life whatsoever.
The first therapy session that I ever had was an awful and borderline traumatic experience; the therapist was plainly sex-negative and, to be frank, made me feel pretty shitty about what I wanted to talk about with her. Luckily, I sucked it up and forced myself to try a new therapist, the one in Richmond, who ended up being phenomenal. So, and I am of course only able to base this on my own experiences, I don't fully agree that "therapy doesn't get men," but I have met with therapists who made me feel terribly fucking guilty about myself as a sexual person, mostly resulting from their aversion and obvious disapproval of things that I tried to discuss.
I ran into Schrager recently and mentioned that I'd read her (Sarah White's, rather) writing on Naked Therapy™ and was interested in it, both in regard to what she'd said about arousal and in terms of its being a completely strange performance-art project. She encouraged me to schedule a session on Sarah White's website, so I did. From that point forward, I was no longer communicating with Schrager but exclusively with White, a role she plays so well that I more or less forgot that it was an artistic construction.
I received an email that included terms and conditions of the session, and also a series of preliminary questions. These included an inquiry in regard to why I was pursuing Naked Therapy™ (to which I probably spilled way too many guts) and also asked me what I would like for her to wear during the session. The anxiety that I felt typing into an email what I wanted her to wear turned into arousal as I hit Send on my reply; before we'd even begun a session, I was already feeling kind of randy. Generally, White doesn't allow any recording of the session from the client's end, but because I told her that I was planning to write about it for VICE, she agreed to let me do periodic screen captures as the session progressed.
Look at how cute Portland, OR, is. Why I moved to this garbage pile that is New York is beyond me.
On the date of my scheduled appointment, I was on the first day of a vacation in Portland, OR. I woke up early that morning and walked around the city for a while, visiting many of my favorite places from when I lived there for several years. No matter where I went, though, I couldn't stop feeling a simultaneous sense of anxiety and excitement about doing Naked Therapy™ that afternoon. Honestly, I was incredibly nervous about undressing in front of a person who was more or less a stranger to me, and even more nervous about the awkward initial monologue a person gives about everything that's wrong with him the first time he meets with a therapist. I was also really horny. If you've not experienced that cocktail of emotions before, I kind of recommend it.
Beginning of Naked Therapy™ Session
At 2:00 PM, I logged onto Skype. White was online and sent me a message asking if I was ready. Taking a deep breath, I sat down and replied, "Sure," and a moment later she called me. I answered pretty awkwardly, and she was sitting on her couch dressed quite impeccably as we exchanged pleasantries. I don't find public speaking nerve-wracking in the slightest, and although I'm kind of an anxious person, I usually don't feel like I come across as such when I'm speaking with people. But I was stuttering and mumbling and having a difficult time acting normal and I finally blurted out, "I'm seriously sorry; I am really, really nervous right now." White asked why, and as she uncrossed and crossed her legs, an avalanche of what sounded to me like nonsense came pouring out of my mouth. During this weird rant I'd suddenly begun after being completely unable to speak moments before, she shifted subtly on the couch every so often, and it was easy to see that she knew exactly what her body was doing and exactly how I'd respond to the visuals. It was kind of weird, but completely arousing.
I'm having a hard time articulating why this particular state of arousal was different from when I'm watching porn or hooking up with somebody; but it was, well, different. Sarah took off her shirt, and I just kept blabbering. In a couple of minutes, I'd probably spit out what normally takes half of a first therapy session because I was feeling wired and increasingly horny. Like any other therapist would have done, she let me talk for a while to get out all of the initial thoughts, and then began to ask me questions about what I'd just communicated to her.
We talked about how I almost exclusively date girls that I've met on OkCupid or Tinder, because I feel like it's weird or aggressive to, say, walk up to a girl in a bar and try to buy her a drink. While White stood up and took off her skirt, she told me that I could take off my clothes if I wanted to. Awkwardly, I removed my shirt. As I did this, she told me that, at least from what she could tell, I wasn't creepy or aggressive and that I probably had enough awareness to know right off the bat if a girl was into me, or not, if I walked up and talked to them. While that should have seemed obvious to me—and consider that according to my female friends I'm not creepy at all—hearing it from somebody that I didn't know very well somehow meant more.
Over the course of the hour-long session, I began to let my guard down and felt exponentially more comfortable. While what we were discussing were serious things that are regularly on my mind, I couldn't help finding the entire situation relievingly humorous. By the point that both of us were completely naked, feeling embarrassed or weird about bringing up any subject I wanted to talk about seemed pretty ridiculous. Instead of being anxious about being naked in front of somebody that I barely knew, I allowed myself to just feel aroused and uninhibited.
In regular therapy, even when I'm completely at ease, I can reflect now that I probably exhibit a somewhat closed-off form of body language—legs or arms crossed, often looking at something arbitrary in the room rather than engaging the therapist's gaze. But being naked eventually made me let my guard down, and the fact that White was completely naked (and periodically standing up and walking around seductively) made me feel completely present once I'd just accepted that the point of this was, indeed, to arouse me.
By the end of the session, I felt fucking great. Talking about anxieties related to sex and relationships, the very anxieties that so many of us experience, while feeling sexually turned on with somebody else makes complete sense. In a single session, a lot of things I'd been embarrassed to discuss with anybody came out and were addressed effectively. I'll still continue to attend regular therapy sessions while I have the privilege of doing so, as I'm not going to ignore how fortunate I am for having that benefit. Maybe Naked Therapy™ isn't for everybody, but if you're somebody who's been wrestling with any of the sex-related topics I've mentioned in this piece, I'd absolutely encourage you to get in touch with Sarah White. She's right that arousal is a unique state, and I'm glad that I had the opportunity to see how it can be channeled in a manner not strictly related to traditional physical intimacy.
Um, and yes, I masturbated.
Sean J Patrick Carney is a concrete comedian, visual artist, and writer based in Brooklyn. He is the founder and director of Social Malpractice Publishing and, since 2012, has been a member of GWC Investigators, a collaborative paranormal research team. Carney has taught at Pacific Northwest College of Art, the Virginia Commonwealth University, the Bruce High Quality Foundation University, and New York University. Follow him on Twitter, here.