Dr. Sonjia: A Multicultural Dr. Ruth for the 21st Century

Dr. Sonjia Kenya considers herself a multicultural Dr. Ruth for the 21st Century. She grew up in San Francisco, the daughter of a mother of English descent from Plymouth, Mass. and an African-American father from Shreveport, Louisiana. Dr. Kenya (or Dr. Sonjia, as she prefers to be called) earned a doctorate in health education from Columbia University before beginning a career as a researcher in HIV and diabetes. She is a certified sexologist and serves as sex columnist for the South Florida Sun Post. She recently authored the book Sex In South Beach.

Dr. Sonjia (courtesy, Sonjia Kenya)

Why did you decide it was important to write this book?

SK: A lot of people have sex problems, and most of these problems result from a lack of education about them. A lot of sex education is inaccessible, or is delivered in a way that targets specific populations. No one just talks to people and tells them the real deal. And people have been very, very receptive. The more I talk about sex, the more they want to talk about it.

Do you see this as a public health issue?

SK: It's definitely a public health issue. I've never had an HIV positive patient tell me, "I was in a great relationship, I was having great sex, and I contracted HIV." It's just never happened. I was trying to figure out a way to study this. I asked infectious disease clinicians, "have any of your patients contracted HIV from 'wow' sexual relationships?" They all agreed that their patients were not having great sexual relationships when they contracted HIV. So that's really how it started.

My mother founded Divorce With Dignity (a national alliance of divorce professionals) after my parents' divorce. If you see people who are getting divorced, there's no intimacy, no intimate connection, there seems to be no love, even though many will have to raise these kids together and figure these things out. It was easy to observe that that their physical relationship and satisfaction with their intimate relationship diminished long before the divorce began. Once the intimate connection is gone, it's difficult to find the motivation to work things out, which often leads to problems and eventually divorce.

I saw similarities in HIV positive people -- they were having these intimate relationships but they weren't communicating about what is and isn't ok, about fidelity issues, about negotiating condom use, and even about experiencing sexual pleasure. They weren't having these talks and I thought maybe we could start preventing divorces, HIV transmission, other things if we could really teach people how to have more pleasurable intimate interactions.

After completing postdoctoral research in New York, you moved to the Cayman Islands and then to Miami. How did that move shape your work?

SK: I taught at the medical school in the Cayman Islands. You know, people go on vacation and one of the primary motivations is to have sex when they're on vacation. I started writing a sex column for the newspaper, and all the pastors took out ads against me. I talked about masturbation, "the real deal," and it caused a public uproar. I said, it's the safest sex you can have, and it also prepares you to have better sexual relationships because you're more informed about what you like or don't like. I don't want some man teaching a young girl "this is what you like" or "this is what you don't like." If you don't have sex education and no one's talking about it, how is anyone supposed to learn it? When I moved to Miami, I just transferred the column to here.

In a recent documentary, Tom Wolfe said," New York is all about money, Washington is all about power, and Miami is all about sex." Miami also has the highest incidence rate of HIV in the U.S. What particular issues does this area face in terms of sexual problems?

SK: People take a lot of risks here. It's vacation land. The weather is conducive to free flowing behaviors. You can be anything here -- you can be gay, you can be bisexual, you can be a transvestite, you can be a lot of different things and feel accepted and find your people so to speak. Also, because of the warm weather, people are motivated to wear less clothing. Everything is so tempting -- but I know people who have gotten themselves into sexual situations and they may not have known that the person was HIV positive, and then they're like, "Oh my God, I've got to get tested."

Because of the huge immigration issues, a lot of women are trying to get a husband for legal reasons and men as well. I find that a lot of women put themselves in a vulnerable position because they think they're gaining something by giving someone sex. We have a really high immigrant population that wants legal status.

What issues do you often need to address in your practice?

SK: Almost everything that I work on with couples is making them understand how the other person works in terms of that person's brain. Most people lack understanding of what motivates the other person.

This is a generalization, but often women crave intimacy and that intimate connection while men crave sex. There's a real disconnect. With women our testosterone levels only peak a couple of days a month; if you want to get a woman excited you have to do things. As my mentor says, you can't start a car in fifth gear. With women it's Time, Talk, Touch, Trust, then she's ready. If men could learn how to do those things, then they could have a lot more sex -- if that's what they're looking for.

You have done a lot of work with the transgender community. What misconceptions does the general public have about transgendered people?

SK: That it's a choice and that they're weird, not normal. Also, sexuality and sexual orientation are quite different than gender. Just because you change your gender doesn't mean you're gay.

It's not a choice. You would never choose something that would put you through additional hardships. I've heard it described as a cognitive dissonance between who you are on the inside and who you are on the outside. Even getting dressed can take hours of crying -- people just don't want to put on these "man clothes" or these "woman clothes." It can just lead to such reduced self esteem. But most transgenders I've met would fit into all of our "normal" quote unquote categories, these are normal people. So it's really important for me to help the world understand that it's not a choice.

You have recently branched out into television and other media. What are you hoping to accomplish?

I want people to have easy, fun and informed conversations that lead to more fulfilling sexual relationships. People don't get divorced, people don't contract HIV, people don't experience sex problems when the communication is clear. When people are honest, you have nothing to lose. It's the dishonesty that hurts.