A Depth Approach To Trauma & Sexuality

Daniel Watter, Ed.D.

February 2020

Constance Avery-Clark, Ph.D., CJSSF Vice President

DR. AVERY-CLARK: We are doing something a little different in having you present because your background is from more of an Existential-Humanistic perspective than a Jungian one. Yet I have heard you speak so eloquently on numerous occasions from the Existential-Humanistic vantage point and in such a way that it often closely parallels the Jungian approach that I thought it most appropriate to have you speak to our Jung Center audience, especially on such a timely topic as A Depth Approach to Trauma and Sexuality.

CJSSF QUESTION #1: One point I have heard you emphasize numerous times is the importance of appreciating the gray area, the complexities of ethical situations, of sexual situations. One of Carl Jung’s main psychological points is the importance of sitting and wrestling with what he refers to as the tension of opposites. Could you share some of your thoughts about how this “holding the tension of opposites” is going to factor into your presentation on trauma and sexuality?

DR. WATTER: While the language may be different, the notion of holding the tension of two opposites in an essential feature of existential sex therapy. If my understanding of Jung’s concept is correct, the primary difference from my perspective is that the tension of opposites exists between the conscious and the protective unconscious. Consciously, most of the people I treat are clear that they would like to be able to engage in a satisfying sexual experience. However, for those experiencing relational traumas, the protective unconscious pulls them back in an effort to protect from further trauma. Helping individuals and couples manage these opposing forces/tensions is a primary goal in existential-humanistic sex therapy.


CJSSF Question #2. Much like the Existential-Humanistic viewpoint, the Jungian perspective emphasizes looking beyond the specific content of a presenting symptom to identify the meaning of the symptom for the individual. As James Hollis, one of the most respected Jungian analysts, suggests, the symptom is “rarely about what it is about.” Could you elaborate on what you mean when you indicate that you are going to “focus on resolving the existential dilemmas as opposed to ‘fixing’ the sexual symptom”?

DR. WATTER: Existential-humanistic sex therapy also believes that the presenting symptom is not what is truly the problem. E/H Sex Therapy looks to explore the meaning of the presenting symptom in an existential construct. Once the symptom is better understood (i.e. we have uncovered what our genitals are trying to tell us), therapy proceeds based on the understanding of the meaning or significance of the presenting problem.


CJSSF Question #3. Why sex? We know that certainly Freud but also Jung focused significant energy on the whole field of sexuality. But what brought you to focus on the whole field of sexuality as a worthy subject of a more depth-oriented perspective?

DR. WATTER: Sex is a fundamental issue in one of the most primary of existential dilemmas, namely the terror of death. Sex is seen as the life force that the unconscious searches for in the face of fears of death, or loss of existence. Interestingly, Freud and Jung didn’t often deal directly with the terror. While I greatly respect, admire, and appreciate their work, the existential approach to psychotherapy and sex therapy has several nuanced differences. For example, Freud actually discouraged patients from talking about their fears of death itself, as he saw anxiety about death as being an unconscious representation of castration or abandonment. In Irvin Yalom’s discussion of the groundbreaking psychoanalytic work, Studies on Hysteria, he notes, “It is a fascinating work and merits attention for it illustrates strikingly a selective inattention to death, and it laid the foundation for the exclusion of death from the entire field of dynamic therapy which it spawned.” As a result, the analytic conceptualization of the role of death and its place in treatment generally, and in the treatment of sexual problems in particular, is not consistent with the existential approach to psychotherapy/sex therapy in which an awareness of mortality and its impact on sexual function is a central piece of the therapeutic discussion.


CJSSF Question #4. Interestingly enough, you are not going to focus on sexually traumatic sources of sexual dysfunction but on non-sexual traumas associated with sexual concerns. Could you elaborate briefly on that, and on why you have become interested in non-sexual traumas associated with dysfunction?

DR. WATTER: There has been much written on the effects of sexual abuse on sexual function. However, many of the patients I see with sexual problems have not been exposed to sexual trauma. They have, however, been exposed to relational traumas such as abandonment, rejection, and enmeshment. In my mention of the protective unconscious above, I believe that much of sexual dysfunction is an enactment of the fear of past and future relational traumatization. Protection occurs when sexual connection and attachment cannot occur and is therefore interrupted in an effort to shield against further victimization. Again, in the existential view it is the meaning of the sexual shutdown that is important and conceptualizing the meaning through the lens of relational trauma is often very helpful.

DR. AVERY-CLARK: Thank you so much Dr. Watter for your elucidation of the points you are going to emphasize. I am sure there will be many people who will be interested to hear your expounding on the association of fears of death and sexual concerns.

Professional headshot of Dominic Callahan Ph.D.

Daniel Watter, Ed.D. is a licensed psychologist, and marital and family therapist. He uses a depth-oriented, specifically Humanistic/Existential approach to treating individuals and couples experiencing sexual and/or relationship problems, and sexual trauma. Along with his doctoral degree, he has a post-graduate certificate in Medical Humanities (Medical Ethics) from Drew University. He is a Board Certified in Sex Therapy by the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists (AASECT), and the American Board of Sexology (ACS). In addition to his private practice, Dr. Watter has held numerous faculty positions including at the Women’s Health at New Jersey Medical School and the New York College of Osteopathic Medicine. He has been President of the Society for Sex Therapy and Research (SSTAR). A frequent lecturer, Dr. Watter is also the author of several professional articles and book chapters, and the soon-to-be-published book entitled, Trauma-Informed Sex Therapy: Existential-Humanistic Approaches to Treatment. View Dr. Water’s Blog.


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As a Not-For-Profit organization we exist because of the generosity of our friends, volunteers and donors. None of the work that we do would be possible without you.