It’s just before midnight on a Friday in Trolley Square, and the bar inside Toscana is boozy and swelling. Handsome men and women forget about the recession for a while. They sip their pints and cocktails. They dangle themselves before one another without reservation. They lean in to fight the music for closer conversation. And they smell one another in the dark. And they laugh on cue. And they touch elbows and shoulders and backs incidentally. And they pretend.
Somewhere in the mix is Debra Laino, Delaware’s lone certified sex therapist, standing beside a high-top corner table with a fresh peach martini in her hand. It’s her first night out in months, and she’s happy to be here. This is her laboratory, her jungle of discovery. She watches the crowd and riffs on the countless conventions of sexual behavior, sharing one hypothetical after another, taking verbal note of every observation. Rising above the illusion.
“Here ya go. Women’s clothing. I don’t understand why all men wouldn’t want to wear women’s clothing, even once. I mean, why wouldn’t men be curious about what it’s like to wear a pair of pantyhose?”
She looks around. The corner of her mouth curls into a half smile. Endearing. Puckish. This is the signature mark of Laino living the joy of her theories, and if you’re not ready to bear witness, you can just shove off.
“But ya know what? They are curious. I would bet you that 90 percent of the men in this bar right now—90 percent, maybe more—would put on a pair of panties if you asked them to. They’re just afraid to admit it. And that drives me crazy.” She completes the smile before taking a sip of her martini. Case closed.
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At 33, there is a lot about the world that drives Laino crazy: the sexual secrets we keep hidden in our post-Victorian closets, the perversions we fear and refuse to admit, the dread silence of couples in crisis, the absurdity of traditional gender roles, the lack of connection between who we are and what we want to someday become. All of it makes her shudder.
But Laino’s crusade against these grievances is not a militant one. She’s a therapist, a cultural priest, and her fight for our sexual freedom—yours, mine, her own—is less about revolution and more about personal purpose and discovery. Her game isn’t judgment. It’s liberation. And it’s certainly about more than men putting on panties.
“I try to teach people to find their purpose, because everyone has a purpose and life path they are meant to go down,” she says. “And if you’re clouded by all sorts of other things, then you won’t go down that path. You know where that path is. You know how to do it. But things cloud our way. And all I feel like saying is, ‘Don’t you know it’s all in your heart?’” The mouth begins to curl again. Seductive. Wise. “If you don’t have a purpose you will always have a sense of self that isn’t full. And I guess you could call that a very spiritual thing—God or the universe or whatever.”â€¨
And the men continue to touch. And the women continue to laugh. And the dance continues, just as it always has.
On the surface her purpose is simple: It’s sex. It’s what she does. A mechanic works on cars. A dentist works on teeth. Debra Laino works on sex.
But before there was sex, there was the sense, the sense that she understood people, knew them better than they knew themselves. She never needed an explanation. All she needed was to follow the sense like a dog on the hunt. The sense would take her where she had to be.
Which, for now, is here, perched high atop the erotic hill as an authority on all matters risqué, taboo, delicious and naughty. It is here that she practices private sexual and mental health counseling for couples and individuals struggling with every—every—bedroom hang-up in the book.
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She also co-hosts a late-night radio program on 1360 AM every Saturday evening, where she tiptoes on the line between the serious and the silly. Laino also teaches various behavioral sciences at several local colleges and universities while hammering out a draft of her second book.
But all of this would be nothing without the sense.
“I’m telling you, man, I can sense people’s sexuality from across the room. It’s really weird. And it’s not just sexuality. It’s pain, anger, hostility, all of it. Good therapists are not made. They’re born that way. You’re born with that sense of understanding other human beings.”
Midnight at Toscana has come and gone and Laino is shivering outside the bar as she lights a bummed American Spirit cigarette and huddles against its flame. When she talks, Laino becomes a mélange of characters: scientist meets philosopher, socialite meets poet, sexual progressive meets blue-collar worker, post-feminist professor meets libidinous jester.
It all contradicts and connects at the same time. In one breath Laino will tell you, “I swear, birds are messengers, man.” In the next, you’ll find her riffing on the virtues of vibrators as marriage savers. She doles secret hangover cures to strangers (here’s a hint: steam rooms), makes declarations on the unimportance of, ahem, size, and rails—always, always rails—against the absurdity of sexual convention. She is nothing if not defiant of almost every expectation, and that, she will tell you, simply comes with the territory of shouting down the system.
“People are so afraid of letting their true selves out for fear of being judged. Why? Just be who you are, no matter what. That’s what I tell my patients. Normalize, normalize, normalize. Let’s make it work for you. How can we make you feel safe and accepting of yourself, of your sexual realm?”
She takes a drag. “But they don’t always embrace it, and that causes major mental and emotional anguish. Look, if someone comes into my office and says he had sex with a chicken last night, my first reaction is going to be, ‘So? What’s the problem? You tell me.’”
Here she erupts with laughter, not at the idea of chicken sex, but at the idea that it should be seen as a problem. As she says over and over again, “It’s only a problem if it’s a problem.” Zen and the Art of Bestiality.
In the world of Debra Laino, all of this is connected: A man likes to wear his wife’s clothing but he never tells her; a woman likes to be dominant in bed but suppresses the desire out of fear; another couple disintegrates slowly and painfully because, when problems go unaddressed, they become infections. Then the world becomes infected. Then our sex, our relationships—our humanity—all become compromised.
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Which brings her to the biggest problem of all: silence.
“Everyone is so conservative, but conservative on the outside,” she says. “I know what goes on underneath this stuff.” She waves a hand in the direction of the bar. “I know where the swingers are and who’s doing what and the types of parties that are going on right under everyone’s noses. I know the things nobody talks about. And it’s, like, what are you trying to hide? Why don’t you just come out with it? It’s not that big a deal.”
So she roughs it up. The world, that is. But this stirring of the sexual pot is about more than just revolt or subversion. Laino doesn’t fancy herself a contrarian for the mere sake of shaking society to see what falls from its fusty pockets. Something larger is always at stake. An evolution is always at hand. Sometimes it’s indefinable, sometimes very real. God or the universe or whatever.
“Equality is not about economics or politics or making the same amount of money. It’s about sexuality,” Laino says. “One of the main reasons I went down this road is because of that whole idea of why men can do something and women can’t. Why can’t I sit around and talk about sex without people thinking I’m loose or a whore or whatever? Why can’t we sit around and talk about sex openly? Why does it have to be so private?”
It’s not always so simple, and her public defiance of the silence often comes at a cost. As a sex therapist—a young, attractive, single, female sex therapist—Laino is constantly navigating some very strange dualities. Like Midas’ touch, Laino’s profession—her purpose—is equal parts burden and blessing. When men in bars find out what she does for a living, they will drop onto their knees and beg to be taken home. They will make assumptions about what she’s like behind closed doors. And they will sometimes cower because, whoa, a sex therapist. How could I ever…?
Laino is not afraid of this, not any more, even though the assumptions continue, even though she fights the stereotypes every day—even though her mother still refuses to use the term “sex therapist” when explaining what her daughter does for a living. “She tells people I’m a sexual psychologist, and she only got to that point a few years ago,” Laino says. “So there’s some tension there.” But it’s all good. Laino is impossibly cool with the consequences.
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“This is what I do. I certainly don’t need to flaunt my sexuality. I’m confident enough to know that I get attention without going into my sex therapy,” she says. “I know there’s an intimidation factor, a fantasizing about what I’m like in bed or whatnot. But I try to get away from that whole thing. Actually, I’m a very normal person. But I guess I shouldn’t say that, because what the hell is normal anyway?”
Two weeks later Laino is in the midst of another Friday night out, and the talk has moved beyond society and into specifics. What does all of this mean for her own romantic realm, her own private sexual kingdom? Does she think she’ll find love? Does she want to? And what about marriage? Children? Will the domestication of the great sexologist ever be at hand?
It takes awhile, but she admits that she worries sometimes. She worries there may not be a man out there strong enough to handle her ambitions or the weight of dating a—whoa—sex therapist. She worries that she may never have children because of what that might do to her career. She worries that she may worry too much about all of this, that maybe she’s blocking herself from the possibility of love and passion and commitment from another person because of what she thinks might get in the way.
“I think I’ve put myself on a pedestal with regard to how relationships should function,” she says. “And when they don’t function that way, I have a tendency to bitch about it and push for ‘the healthy relationship,’ and men don’t want to hear that. I guess it’s one of the hazards of what I do. I sometimes think I know too much.” She laughs. “So do I see myself marrying? Yeah. Sort of. I think so. But it depends on the guy. And you know what? If that guy doesn’t come along, I’ll be happy single.”
In the meantime, Laino’s going to keep on moving. She’s going to keep on setting other people free. And she’s going to keep following the sense.
“I’m everything that I fantasized about when I was a kid. I’m a teacher. I’m a writer. And I’m a therapist. It’s synchronicity. It all happened for a reason. And when I think back on it, it makes me that much more of a spiritual person. Why did all of this happen? I don’t know. It’s like something was guiding me. God or the universe or whatever. And I know it’s not done.”