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Sex and the New City

The Berman sisters, pioneers in the study of women's sexual dysfunction, are bringing their buzz-worthy practice to Los Angeles.

February 12, 2001|SHARI ROAN | TIMES HEALTH WRITER

Jennifer and Laura Berman didn't go looking to become torchbearers for the female sexuality movement so much as it came looking for them.

When the two sisters--one a urologist, the other a psychotherapist--set up practice together at a low-profile Boston urology clinic in 1998, their goal was to improve the treatments available for women suffering from sexual disorders.

Their timing, as it turned out, was perfect. The male impotency drug Viagra was grabbing worldwide headlines, prompting public debate for the first time about why similar effective treatments were not available for women. Within the year, more headlines: A major research study found that 43% of U.S. women experience sexual dysfunction.

Interest in women's sexual health issues was peaking after years of inattention. In the meantime, the Bermans were gaining a reputation in Boston for their innovative work. Patients were waiting four months to get an appointment with the young and enthusiastic sisters known for their willingness to try novel therapies.

By last year, the Bermans had emerged as the female sexuality experts in the media, appearing in Newsweek and Vogue and on "Good Morning America" and "Larry King Live." It didn't hurt that Jennifer, 36, and Laura, 32, are attractive and photogenic.

"They have been in the right place at the right time," says Janell Carroll, a Hartford, Conn., sex therapist who is familiar with the Bermans' work. "There is a lot of attention being paid to female sexuality right now."

And that attention didn't go unnoticed at UCLA, which recruited the sisters to head up a new clinic, the Female Sexual Medicine Center, which opens later this month.

"They're a dynamic duo," says Dr. Shlomo Raz, a professor of urology at UCLA. "One complements the other. Their impact will not only be felt in L.A. I think they'll have an effect on how physicians look at sexuality."

It was Raz, a leading authority on female urology, who invited the Bermans to join UCLA in hopes of establishing a leading female sexual dysfunction clinic in sexually liberated, media-friendly Los Angeles. Jennifer, the urologist, had been working with Raz since last summer, when she left Boston to begin a one-year fellowship with the UCLA doctor.

The sisters were "impressed with how open UCLA was to our vision," says psychotherapist Laura. It was a vision that included an environment in which the university would enthusiastically support, rather than shy away from, a research program on female sexual dysfunction. The sisters made "great strides" in their research in Boston, but, she says, that city's more conservative climate was a detriment to securing research funds in their field.

Treating the Mind as Well as the Body

While the Boston clinic was among the first female sexuality centers in the country, UCLA hopes to take the concept much further. For example, the clinic--which is yet to be built--will be devoted to both research and treatment of a wide range of psychological, hormonal and urological conditions that interfere with sex--from relationship problems to menopause to pelvic pain. For now, the sisters are working from Raz's office near the campus.

"As a team, they are the right combination," says Raz. "The psychological part will be covered by Laura; Jennifer will do the medical testing. That will provide the best service."

Launching a clinic for female sexual dysfunction in an image-conscious city like Los Angeles calls for a certain amount of brashness. Indeed, the Bermans already are wondering how to strike a balance between serious science and celebrity medicine.

Though accommodating and friendly to the media--they posed for a glamorous photo shoot in a Vogue magazine article titled "Doctors of Desire"--the sisters also fret about each television appearance and story in the press.

"There aren't many role models," says Laura, "for being a scientist and being on 'Oprah.' "

The challenge for the Bermans will be to make good use of their fame without falling victim to it, says Dr. Irwin Goldstein, a renowned Boston sex researcher who has been a professional mentor for the sisters.

"There are blessings and curses in having significant media attention so early in their careers," says Goldstein. "They could get so carried away with this that they lose their focus. . . . My hope is that they use the media to get patients in the office--but once those patients are in the office, they use good science to move the field along."

The motivation behind the media appearances, and a new book, "For Women Only" (Henry Holt, 2001), is to educate women about their sexuality, the Bermans say.

"What we talk about is based on science," says Laura. "As long as we hold to that, we should be able to keep walking the line. And I think if there is any place to walk that fine line, it's L.A."

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