Dr. Helen Singer Kaplan: Sex Therapy Pioneer

March is Women’s History Month, so I’m writing a series of posts honoring important female pioneers in the fields of sex education, research and therapy.




Deliciously simple interventions can make a huge difference to female sexual pleasure. I heard about this in 1988 at a National meeting of the American Psychiatric Association in San Francisco. Dr. Helen Singer Kaplan (1929-1995), the keynote speaker, described doing sex therapy with pre-orgasmic Spanish-speaking women in Harlem. She simply sent the women home with a large diagram of the female genitals with the clitoris prominently marked, and instructions to point out the sensitive areas to their husbands. The therapy was very successful!


Sex therapist Helen Kaplan, who earned both PhD and MD degrees, refined Masters and Johnson’s model of sexual response, which suggested there was a continuous process of arousal, leading to a plateau of excitement, leading to orgasm. Women can enjoy sex without orgasm—but most report they find orgasmic sex quite different and much better!

"Sex is composed of friction and fantasies."

“Sex,” wrote Kaplan, “is composed of friction and fantasies.” Fantasy is a fundamental part of arousal. Many women describe how they first reached orgasm by using arousing fantasies during sex or masturbation. Learning to fantasize is an important component of successful therapy programs for pre-orgasmic women.


Dr. Kaplan offered good news to older women. While there is some reduction in sexual interest for many women from the late fifties on, older women still have great potential for sexual pleasure. Women can have multiple orgasms into their eighties and nineties, and, according to her, 25% of seventy-year-old women masturbate. In the 1970s this was a striking statistic given that inhibitions were usually stronger for older women brought up in a more sexually repressive society.


More good news for menopausal women from Dr. Kaplan: although female sexual functioning around menopause is extremely variable, “many women actually feel an increase in erotic appetite during the menopausal years.” (The New Sex Therapy, 1974) I discovered the same increase in erotic desire in research for my PhD dissertation “Aging Female Sexuality in Multi-racial and Multi-ethnic Relationships.”


I am personally grateful to Dr. Kaplan. She was dubbed the “Sex Queen” because of her role as a pioneer in sex therapy during the 1960s sexual revolution. Like her, I am a sexual cheerleader. Kaplan thought people should stop seeing sex as something immoral and enjoy it to the fullest extent possible.

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