Since I published my first story in Playboy, I’ve been regarded as a sex, dating and relationship expert.
I never introduced myself as a relationship expert and I certainly didn’t think of myself as one, but I agreed to write a sex column for the now-defunct Razor magazine anyway; and when I started to appear on television with “Relationship Expert” or “Sexpert” as my chryon, I didn’t really argue against it. After a successful appearance on Attack of the Show (giving sex, dating, and relationship advice), I was asked back and, before I knew it, I was fielding emails from all sorts of lovelorn twenty-somethings on television twice a week.
I loved it. I really did. So when I was asked to talk about sex, dating and relationships on The Today Show or The CBS Morning Show or anywhere else, I did.
But my memoir came out last month and while it’s ostensibly about how I followed everything Helen Gurley Brown recommended in her seminal ‘60s book Sex and the Single Girl, it also very clearly details my struggles in romantic relationships.
While it’s been somewhat difficult to read people’s comments on my personal failures, in another way it’s been a relief because a part of me often felt like a fraud wearing my “expert” hat. Now, look: I know we’re in an era where one only need be an addict to be called an “addiction expert” or to have a firm grasp on the obvious to be called a “body language expert” but the literal part of my brain was uncomfortable with my new label. I’d have my makeup done by bright, sunny women, most of whom were married — while I remained primarily single. I dated (often) but I can’t tell you the number of times I squirmed in that makeup chair as one of those sweet girls said, “So, who are you dating? Are you in love? What’s the story?” I was the one who was about to be televised, lending my so-called expertise to the topic of relationships, but really, I wanted to ask them how they did it.
When I confessed to other people — to friends, to other so-called relationship experts, or even to the makeup artists themselves — that I felt like a sham, I was almost always told the same thing: Don’t worry about it. You’re good at this. Besides, would someone who’d met the love of her life at 18 and had nothing but years of wedded bliss be able to counsel the lovelorn, the confused and broken-hearted? In other words, it was my years of frustrating experiences that qualified me for the job. Besides, I was hardly giving Dr. Phil a run for his money: no one was losing any sleep over whether or not the so-called expert on a cable TV show geared toward college-age video game players was really an expert.
Still, I felt like a fraud.
I’d get emails from people asking if they could come to me for “therapy” or asking me how I came to be a “therapist.” Never was it stated or even implied on any TV show or article that I was a therapist but people will fill in gaps with what they want to believe is true. I was offered more work as a relationship expert, shooting one pilot for E! and another one for Comedy Central — both featured me giving advice. I even began pitching my own show ideas.
Still feeling fraudulent, I decided that I would go get a Masters in psychology. I knew this was working backwards — getting a degree so that the thing I was already known for doing felt more legit — but it also appealed to me. I’d originally wanted to major in psychology in college before I learned that I could simply major in writing. And I’ve often thought that the kind of writing I do — exploratory, analytical work that could be classified as narcissistic navel gazing — is pretty close to psychoanalysis. Besides, friends and family members always told me they thought I’d be a great shrink.
My TV agent said that it was a bad idea. “You already have the expertise,” he said. “Being on television as an expert gives it to you. It would be a waste of time and money.”
I looked into phony-sounding programs. Dr. Phil, I’d heard, had a mail order degree. I became a professional member of something called the American Association of Sex Counselors, Educators and Therapists, joining a mailing list where members emailed each other their thoughts about the latest studies, techniques and discoveries in the field. Whenever I chimed in on the mailing list, no one responded. I eventually earned something called an Associate in Sex Education Certificate from a school called the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality in San Francisco. But the class mostly involved watching DVDs of ‘70s-era hippy types talking about masturbation. If anything, the class made me feel like I’d possibly decreased my knowledge.
I still give advice on TV — but now that I’ve come clean in my book about everything from heartbreak and rejection to online and speed dating, I do it without any internal conflict. If making mistakes and attempting to learn from them and then continuing to try in the face of that makes me an expert, then I’ve more than earned my stripes.
By the way, can I get a certificate for that?