The following information has been written for those already familiar with the Internal Family Systems therapy model. The IFS model was developed in the 1980’s by Richard C. Schwartz PhD. For more information about the IFS model, its terminology, workshops and trainings please go to the
IFS Institute website.
I have trained in the Internal Family Systems modality because I believe that this approach provides a respectful, client-empowering way to work with sexually traumatic events, deeply embedded unhelpful beliefs about the body and sex, as well as intense feelings of shame and humiliation around sexuality. I completed my Level 1 training in 2017/18 and am currently completing the Level 2 IFIO training in 2021. I am listed on both the IFS Institute website under the Australian Practitioner Directory, and the Internal Family Systems Australia therapist directory.
If you have not seen the Disney/Pixar movie Inside Out the official trailer provides a short and simplified example of how we all have numerous internal characters with voices that influence our thoughts, feelings and behaviours.
Human sexuality is complex with many influences including:-
Often the sexuality education we received when growing up has been non-existent, inadequate or unhelpful. As one example, the structural anatomy and function of the clitoris was only published in the 1990’s and so it is relatively new knowledge that this remarkable female organ has absolutely nothing to do with reproduction and is purely about pleasure.
The Sexual Trichotomy model is a helpful way to consider the complexities of human sexuality as being related to three separate but interconnected elements:
Source – Department of Education, Employment and Training. Catching On: Teaching and Learning Activities. Victoria, 2001.
Thus, it is possible for a person to choose to have sexual interactions with a person of the same gender, but not identify as gay/lesbian, because Sexual Identity is an internal construct about how we view ourselves. Examples include some same sex interactions in prison where only one or neither party may identify as gay/lesbian, but the relationship serves additional functions such as protection or companionship. Other examples are seen with married heterosexual men who choose to have sex with other men but do not identify as being homosexual themselves. A person’s Sexual Orientation may be towards members of the same gender but never be expressed publicly due to cultural, political or familial restrictions on sexuality. Similarly, a person’s Sexual Behaviour and the sexual contacts they have, may not match with their internal view of themselves and their sexuality.
When it comes to human sexuality, there is no ‘normal’ but rather one long continuum of sexual identity/orientation/behaviour. The perception of ‘normal’ is a social construct created and perpetuated by all those external influences mentioned above. Heteronormativity is a term used to describe the socially constructed view that only men and women should pair bond and copulate to reproduce, and any other variation of human sexuality is considered unnatural or not ‘normal’. Heteronormativity assumes a gender binary, that there are only two distinct and opposite genders, and is often linked to heterosexism and homophobia. The existence of people with a variety of sexual orientations across a range of global communities demonstrates that in fact, sexual diversity is ‘normal’. Some examples include, the Two-Spirit people of indigenous North Americans, Hijras in the Indian subcontinent who are officially recognized as the third gender, and Australian Aboriginals who recognise Brotherboys and Sistergirls.
Often internal conflict can arise when the way we self-identify does not match the way we are expected to present ourselves publicly within the culture or society or family, in which we live. Or perhaps those to whom we are attracted to is not accepted by our culture, religion, community or family. Or maybe our fantasies scare or confuse us and create internal distress. This internal conflict can manifest itself in various ways such as negative body images, extreme body alterations, inhibited sexual expression, denial of objects of arousal, secretive or compulsive sexual behaviours, internal beliefs that sex is only for reproduction or a restricted access to our internal Sexual Goddess or God who can freely and liberally drink from the well of sexual pleasure, safely in the knowledge that ‘this is good’. Many aspects of human sexuality get squashed down into the unconscious as shadow aspects and can cause tremendous internal conflict for people. It takes a lot of courage to delve into these shadow aspects of our sexuality, examine them and bring them into the light of conscious awareness. With a deeper and Self-led understanding about our own unique sexuality, also comes a liberation and a freedom.
The IFS model is a non-pathologizing, evidence-based therapeutic modality, appropriate for addressing sexual issues as it is inclusive of all cultures, religions, self-expression and sexual identity/orientation/behaviour. The IFS catch phrase ‘All Parts Are Welcome’ helps us to understand ourselves as a team of internal parts all working for positive intention of the whole system. Through the IFS lens, it is easier to see how the parts of us who may display extreme behaviours are in fact operating from a position of trying to protect us in some way.
When working with sexual issues in therapy from an IFS perspective, it can be helpful for clients to understand that there is no ‘normal’ but that human sexual behaviour may be more appropriately guided by the following:-
IFS can be a highly effective therapeutic modality for facilitating clients understanding of their various internal parts and their own unique sexuality. Building solid Self-to-part relationships is vital to understanding each part’s sexual story, beliefs and burdens. While some beliefs (or burdens) may themselves be unhelpful, it is often the internal conflict between our parts that creates a lot of the internal distress. IFS provides the opportunity to identify our parts, their beliefs/burdens as well as the other parts they are in conflict with. In clients who present with sexual issues, it is common to see internal exiling, blaming and shaming of parts who hold beliefs/burdens that differ from the main Managers in the system. Through the gentle unfolding process of IFS therapy and with the client’s Self guiding their system, these internal conflicts can be harmonised and parts will start to collaborate as an internal community with significantly more internal coherence, rather than being “at war” with one another.
When working with IFS and sexual issues, we often come across internalised homophobic beliefs that a part has taken on from an external source of messaging and this can create internal conflict which affects their sexuality. With members of the LGBTIQA+ community there can sometimes be Exiles in the system because of the discrimination, persecution and violence they may have experienced. For women, it is common to see internalised shame and negative body image beliefs about their body and sex, that are carried as burdens which influence their sexuality. Sometimes, these can be intergenerational burdens handed unconsciously down through the family line from one generation to the next. In men, there can also be intergenerational burdens passed down about “what it means to be a man” with these messages being taken on as little boys through implicit and explicit messages.
Adolescence is an important time of ego development and identity experimentation. IFS can be a helpful framework for both an adolescent and their parents to understand that personal expression (including sexuality) is not set-in stone. While a young person may identify as asexual or pansexual or cis gendered, this may change over the course of their lifetime and with varying life experiences. This is important to be aware of because often, once a label has been applied, it can be hard for the individual to remove that label and become something different. Again, this can create a lot of internal conflict and be the source of great emotional distress.
As a kink friendly sex therapist, I understand that sexuality can often be expressed in unique and complex ways. Working with couples from an IFS perspective provides a non-judgemental framework from which to help couples better understand and have empathy for their own, and their partner’s parts. This is particularly helpful in couples where one party is wanting to explore their fantasies and/or fetishes and the other party is unwilling, or for couples recovering from infidelity.
A helpful exercise when working from an IFS perspective with sexual issues, can be mapping a client’s parts on a gender continuum. Internally any one individual has many parts and each part can be of any or no gender. Some parts may hold strong feminist views while others may hold misogynistic views that have been taken on at some point in their life’s experience. Some parts may strongly identify with being feminine or masculine and others may be non-binary or have gender fluidity. It is common to find that Manager and Firefighter parts have exiled other parts in the system if it is not safe for them to be freely expressed in the individual. The IFS process of Befriending our parts allows Self to be with each part and understand their stories in preparation for the Unburdening process. The process of Befriending parts can be long and take time to unravel all the fascinating complexities of our internal world.
Another very worthwhile therapeutic exercise can be to assist a client work out who is on their ‘Sexual Team’ and who is not. All parts will have a perspective about sex and sexuality, and it is useful for parts who don’t like sex or are not willing to engage in sexual activities to be understood and taken care of also. Not all parts will be enthusiastic lovers or wish to be swinging from the chandelier. With Self leading the system, strong internal relationships can be formed and when parts have been fully Unburdened, more collaboration between parts can be achieved to alleviate the internal conflict that was once experienced. Where there may once have been internal exclusion or blaming and shaming of parts around sexual issues, there is now more cooperation between parts with a willingness for everyone’s needs to be met at some time, in the knowledge that others needs will also be met at other times. This can lead an individual to have more pleasurable and empowering sexual experiences with fully informed internal consent being a key feature of their conscious sexuality. While some techniques may place an unwilling part into a room or safe place in order for the sexual activity to occur, I believe that this can contribute to parts feeling exiled within the system and can result in Backlash from parts who don’t appreciate this (even if they have originally consented to going to the safe place). Working with a professionally trained IFS therapist is important for ensuring that the clients Self is leading the system, and not a Self-like Manager perpetuating this exiling.
Other insightful therapeutic activities for clients to explore their sexuality through IFS therapy can be mapping their parts, interviewing them and externalizing them through various physical representations like artwork, collaging, journaling, poetry, making music or creating a “parts playlist”. Once strong internal relationships have been formed and Self is leading the system, there can be more collaboration and camaraderie between all parts. This can then lead to more internal harmony and empowerment in the individual’s sexual identity, expression, orientation and behaviour.
Working with people on their sexual issues is a very privileged role and I deeply respect the courage my clients display in accessing their highly vulnerable parts who have a sexual story to tell. I understand that developing trust with a therapist to address sexual issues can take time to build and I have the utmost regard for my clients who continually help me learn about the intricacies of human sexuality. The IFS model is my preferred therapeutic intervention because I believe it provides a safe and empowering path for people to deeply understand themselves and undergo sustained, long-term healing with tools to assist them after therapy has finished. The path to Unburdening Exiles who hold deeply engrained burdens about the body and sexuality can be long, convoluted and surprising but always rewarding and liberating.
One of the most significant moments for clients when working with IFS for sexual issues is the development of Self-compassion for their protector parts (Manager and Firefighter parts). Some parts may have been driving extreme behaviours or have internal, highly critical voices or be highly avoidant. When these parts are seen, heard and understood by Self as trying to protect the individual from further harm, the client experiences a deep sense of Self-compassion. Protective Manger and Firefighter parts will be aware of Exiles in the system who may be hiding away or have been hidden or exiled by other parts in the system. Perhaps there has been harm from a perpetrator or an abusive caregiver who taught a younger part of themselves about what sex looked or felt like, or maybe what love is or how it is expressed, or maybe what their body should look like. With Self present, a client can assist these parts in creative ways that they needed but did not get back when the event happened. Often, protector parts respond positively to being “updated” by Self and will relax from their fearful and assertive position of protection. For example, when Self can have dialogue with a Firefighter to let them know that life has moved on from that intense moment the Exile they’re protecting is stuck in, they will often be more willing for Self to assist the Exile in a way that they need. This in turn, can alleviate the Firefighters extreme behaviours.
Once an Exile has been fully Unburdened, the protectors who have been protecting it may feel at a loss with their original role now being made redundant. For example, a protector part who may have used alcohol to numb feelings, may find that the role they had employed is no longer useful. Protector parts will sometimes have uncertainty when the status quo shifts and they can feel unsure of their change of role within the system. With Self present and when parts learn to trust Self as a healthy and guiding presence, all parts will have the capacity to rediscover their natural qualities. And so it is, that an originally functional alcoholic part may find a passion for gardening and composting, or a desire to take up woodwork, or discover a previously hidden talent for making their own clothes.