Over Twenty Years
of Early Sexual Memories Workshops

It has now been over twenty years since I first started leading workshops on “early sexual memories” and almost ten years since I wrote the pamphlet, Counseling on Early Sexual Memories. Originally motivated by Harvey’s insight about the importance of counseling on the “earliest memory connected with sex in any way at all,” I developed the workshops after noticing that this was not happening in most people’s regular sessions. Since then, my understanding of the significance and scope of discharging on early sexual memories has greatly increased. Early sexual memories (ESM) work in the RC Communities has shifted from something of a “specialty” topic, with a devoted but limited following, to a much more broadly used and valued tool, not only for the elimination of a wide array of individual distresses, but also for understanding counseling and clienting better, improving relationships within RC Communities, moving leadership forward, and helping to free whole groups from internalized oppression.

Over the past several years, leaders of black, Asian, Chicano, Native, Irish, Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, male, and female constituencies have deliberately used counseling on early sexual memories to advance the liberation of their groups. The Gay liberation leaders, Jeanne D’Arc and David Nijinsky, have made counseling on sex-related distresses the center of their work and have each played a major role in advancing counseling on early sexual memories and on sex generally. Teresa Enrico has been key in encouraging people of color to explore the importance of discharging on early sexual memories. In addition to the many who have led ESM workshops, the one-way counselors at Personal Counselors have continued their important role of offering excellent sessions on early sexual memories to one-way clients, further adding to the resource and understanding available in the Communities at large. Harvey has continued to think and write about his insights into rational sexuality and rational relationships, requiring the rest of us to challenge our assumptions in these areas. Over the years I have collaborated especially closely with David Jernigan, sharing successes and concerns from our separate ESM workshops and working together on ESM workshops for leaders of particular constituencies.


It became clear early on that sex plays different roles in different oppressions (there is a section on this in my pamphlet). What was slower to emerge was the relationship between early sexual distresses and internalized oppression generally, and how discharging on the former can speed the elimination of the latter. The connection between the victimization felt by most females as a condition of being female (internalized oppression) and early sexual abuse has been easy to see. More recently the counseling of women on these early hurts has improved, especially the ability to contradict the assumptions of the internalized oppression that this victimization is an inherent, permanent condition and deserving of sympathy. With men, there has been an ever-broadening understanding of how the roles required of men in society (men’s oppression) lead to and reinforce men’s sexual distresses. Concomitant with this has been an emphasis on men’s goodness and better contradictions to shame and isolation.

Because so much internalized oppression is passed on within the family, much of it shows up in what is worked on as early sexual memories. Thus working on early sexual memories has become an important tool for working on internalized oppression. And conversely, skillfully contradicting the internalized oppression is often necessary to assist a client to work effectively on early sexual memories. Here are some examples:

An African-American man who had experienced sexual abuse from his father, which included a strong verbal message that everything about him was bad, had often counseled on it by getting angry and disappointed with his father. Clearly his father was passing on to his son what had been done to himself, and likely this distress had originated in and certainly been reinforced by racist treatment. The client was asked to, in his mind, unite with his father against the distress recording and resulting confusion and instead of aiming his feelings at his father, aim them instead at the oppression, on behalf of them both. This led to a powerful session on the recordings of both the sexual mistreatment and the internalized oppression, which seemed to go back to the experience of slavery.

When she was a child, a woman client had overheard her parents having sex and surmised that her mother was not an eager participant. She was asked to imagine coaching her mother to set up the sexual encounter to her liking and to ensure her own pleasure.

It can be extremely important to get an agreement from the client to be totally open and honest before proceeding with a session and to stop whenever discharge is required to avoid censoring. One Asian woman was limited in her clienting on early sexual abuse within her family by both her culturally reinforced respect for her parents and a culturally defined sense of herself. In order to fully discharge the hurts she had sustained, she had to be able to consider herself as an individual important enough to fight for and, at least temporarily during the session, give up protecting her parents. Both of these were big contradictions to her internalized oppression.

A New Zealand woman visiting the U.S. attended an ESM workshop. While counseling on her early sexual memory, she realized that her usual struggle to overcome her quietness in the face of talkative USers had broader roots than she had been aware of: the common treatment of babies in New Zealand, which included aggressive measures to keep them from crying, to keep them quiet. She now had additional motivation to contradict her silences, both in session and out.

Many Irish clients, in contradiction to generations of despair, have discharged heavily when asked to insert a tone of eagerness into the stories of their early lives. They have also had to recover a sense of having been important and unique individuals right from the start, another contradiction to their internalized oppression, in order to recover from the early hurts.

A middle-class Protestant woman was asked to use role exchange—to threaten to abuse her counselor. When that, by itself, did not produce much discharge, the direction was refined to be mean. Still the client seemed quite numb and not able to connect with the counselor. When she was asked to “reach” the counselor with her meanness, heavy discharge ensued immediately. Many Protestant clients describe being born into a vacuum of real human connection, covered by a pretense that “everything is fine.” Exposing this profound aloneness as a shared experience, sometimes with the direction toward other Protestants of “you understand,” has provided an important contradiction.

An English Protestant man who had discharged for years on being abandoned at birth by his mother was asked to hold an attitude of total respect for her. This led him to realize and discharge on how she herself had been abandoned during the birthing process and had, in fact, fought for things to be right for him.


Early hurtful incidents can leave a person confused about herself or himself, about others, and about the world around him or her. The goal of working on early sexual memories is to discharge some of these early hurts. As we have expanded our understanding of contradictions generally, so too have we varied our approaches to contradicting early sexual distresses. In addition to retelling the story and contradicting specific aspects of it, clients are also discharging more often with attention off the distress. Since reality is ultimately the best contradiction, drawing attention to some aspect of one’s relationships with others in the support group itself often provides an important contradiction to the confusion left by the early hurts. Various understatements have also offered contradictions. For example, some people who experienced repeated abuse as children have found the following useful: “It sometimes happens that a small girl is protected from harm,” or “It sometimes happens that a young boy is held close and loved in exactly the right way.” People who have recently experienced war may be especially reluctant to put any more direct attention on difficult situations; they have found the understatement approach particularly useful. Role exchange, in which the client threatens to abuse the counselor, physically and sexually, has been a powerful tool, especially for assisting clients to discharge events that are still occluded.

I have observed over the years that many people at ESM workshops counsel primarily on early incidents that do not seem directly related to sex. (I have always recommended that clients trust whatever memories are brought forward when they are asked for the “earliest memory connected to sex in any way at all.” There is always an important connection, even if it is not immediately evident.) These incidents often have to do with a loss or lack of human connection, or with a time when things felt “just right,” perhaps for the last time. In thinking about this, I realized that sexual distresses often become attached to these earlier feelings, either when the client is subjected to childhood sexual abuse or when sex is held out as the primary vehicle for being fully close to another human. It seems that these early feelings of isolation, desperation, discouragement, longing, etc., even if first experienced apart from sex, can later be an important driving force compelling a person toward a compulsive or inhibited relationship to sex in the present. Thus, discharging these sometimes “seemingly insignificant” early memories can be quite important in both understanding current behavior in relation to sex and relationships and in draining key distresses keeping irrational behavior in place.


Discharging on early sexual memories has had powerful effects on people’s lives in a wide range of areas. For some people, it has also seemed useful to put attention on later sexual experiences, including current ones, especially if they have discharged well on their earliest memories. (Early sexual memories workshops have always included times to discharge directly on current masturbation fantasies and have encouraged direct work on sexual abuse, regardless of when it occurred in a person’s life.) Reviewing every memory consciously connected to sex, from the earliest one up to the present, can be useful both for discharge and for revealing how the early hurts set up a pattern of behavior in relation to sex. There are also key benchmarks in most people’s lives that deserve special attention: puberty; the first time a romantic interest in another person was acted on (after puberty); the first memory of actual sexual feelings; and/or the first experience of full sexual activity. These are times when society’s dictates about acceptable behavior and sexual identity can become much more rigid and when the influence of the early hurts on intimacy and sex is defined in new ways. Counseling directly on frozen needs, crushes, sexual inhibitions, and compulsive sexual behaviors has also been helpful.

Role exchange can be particularly useful in counseling on sexual identities, exposing societal mistreatment that has encouraged us to choose limiting, rigid, and non-survival behaviors. For example, an Asian-American male client could say to his counselor: “I will do to you what U.S. society does to Asian men in the area of sex.” A heterosexual female client could say: “I will turn you into a ‘typical’ heterosexual woman.”

When the  counselor(s) have enough attention, it can be helpful for a client to tell the details of very recent sexual activity. When such a session proceeds with full knowledge of the early sexual memory, heavy discharge can occur on both the early hurt and the way it plays out in the present, providing lots of insight into previously unexamined assumptions and patterned behaviors. This can be useful for clients with inhibited as well as compulsive patterns in relation to sex. Recently I’ve started asking wives to tell the histories of their sexual relationships with their husbands. This has illuminated the effects of the institution of marriage, and other factors, on long-term committed sexual relationships. Obviously this would be useful for others in long-term relationships as well.

The early sexual memories work started as a way of showing people the benefits of discharging consistently on early hurts (of any kind), broadened to serve as a springboard from which to take on and contradict chronic patterns, and more recently has been an effective vehicle for recovering from many forms of internalized oppression. The additional attention to current sexual issues, when appropriate, is in line with Goal Ten of the Long Range Goals adopted by the 1997 World Conference: “To re-emphasize the correctness of recommending that all Co-Counselors counsel on all of their memories involving sex or sexual orientation or sexual feelings in any way at all until the instinctive drive toward sexual activity is free from any burden of distress of any kind, and guided by our intelligence. . . .”

As anyone who has discharged on sexual distresses with any consistency knows, it requires a thorough understanding of all levels of the counseling process to be successful over time but repays every effort with abundant, significant, and often unexpected rewards.

Joan Karp

Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA

Last modified: 2018-04-14 15:20:31+00