Pioneers on any new frontier require a measure of courage and a willingness to risk unpopularity and misunderstanding -- even within their own families. That adage is especially true when the terrain is sexual therapy, the families are black and the old ways are long entrenched.
June Dobbs Butts, therapist, assistant professor in psychiatry at Howard and outspoken columnist for Essence magazine, has learned this lesson well.
"When I first wrote the column, I sent a copy to one of my sisters," said Butts. "I didn't hear anything. Finally I asked her what she thought. You know what she said? 'Well, to tell you the truth, June, it turned my stomach. I didn't think black women would write about things like that.'"
Daughter Lucia, 24, eldest of Butts' three children, has consistently refused to allow her mother to lecture at schools Lucia is attending. "I said, 'Lucia, I'm not coming to work in the kitchen, though there's nothing wrong with that. I'm coming to lecture.' But she didn't want it," Butts recalled with a sigh.
With a style that defies both the quacks and the cold clinicians, Butts has spent 10 years on a quest to ring common sense to sexual health practices. As the first black trained at the famed Masters and Johnson Clinic in St. Louis, she spent almost two years there as a therapist. At Masters and Johnson, all of her patients were white; now 90 percent of them are black.
Besides her extensive clinical training, Butts brings her patients something more. With her interest and attention to the special needs of blacks and women, she has become a prominent and much-needed symbol in an age in which blacks are losing their traditional, often religion-inspired reluctance to discuss sexual matters openly.
As might be expected in an age of transition, misunderstandings abound.
"People ask me if I have sex with my patients," she said, her smooth brown cheeks just barely wrinkling with a grin. "You know what I tell them? I say, Hell no!," and then she laughs. "I would never invade the privacy of a patient like that. How do you handle it? Sex is not a mechanical thing; there are emotions involved."
Butts received her B.A. from Spelman College in Atlanta in 1948, and earned her doctorate after devoting 15 years to raising her children. Her 1969 degree from Columbia was granted in "family Life Education."
Appropriately Butts' career in confronting the basic issues of life began with the scrutiny of her own family, She was born in Atlanta's northeast fourth ward, the daughter of a respected railroad man, John Wesley Dobbs, and his wife Irene. Her father, a self-educated man who turned his office as grand master of Masons into the beginnings of a political machine, had six children, achievers all. One of them, Mattiwilda Dobbs, a noted opera singer who now lives in the Washington area, was the first black to sing at La Scala in Milan. Still, Dobbs was a disappointed man. All of his children were girls.
Then the first three grandchildren came along. They were all girls, and Dobbs again was bitterly disappointed. "I didn't see that it was so sexist," Butts recalled. I thought, 'What a calamity, why don't we have a boy?'" She sat in her paper-strewn office, absent-mindedly pushing pieces of paper into a stack of cartoons. The fluorescent light overhead illuminated her neat salt-and-paper afro, and she laughed again, remembering her childhood perceptions.
This early lesson in the politics of sexuality was reinforced with the birth of her nephew Maynard Jackson, now mayor of Atlanta. Because he was the first grandson, an overjoyed John Wesley Dobbs insisted that the family make a pilgrimage to see the baby at his birthplace in Texas. His youngest daughter June was then 10.
"I thought we were like the maggi. The gift my father was taking wih was a 21-jewel Hamilton watch. I was mad as hell. I said, 'Why are you taking a baby a watch? Especially a big, beautiful watch like that?' He said, 'Because time is important; he must know that.' And I had a Mickey Mouse watch, you know."
That's when it began to dawn on June Butts that women were perceived as different from men. Butts also remembers the way lessons in sex roles were imparted through her mothers example.
"I remember my father used to praise my mother because when the first girls were coming along he was very poor, and she used to cut up her dresses and make little clothes for the children. I used to think, 'Why doesn't she cut up one of his coats. Why her dresses?'" she said, with a hint of special pain in her voice.
As a counselor, Butts has discovered there is far more to sexual counseling than just sex. In her trademark rapid-fire language, Butts says, "At Masters and Johnson we saw a lot of men suffering from premature ejaculation and for the women, the problem was situational orgasm. But I don't see things just that clinically. I'm much more social and interpersonal."
"My typical couple says, 'We can do it just fine, but where we get off the track is about money, or about power values, or about the children, or my fantasies, or about my wanting to go out, or his running around.'"
Although couples often come to her for help with sexual problems, she said therapy may help reduce other sources of tension and this, in turn, helps solve other problems in the relationship.
"I've had very good success with couples because they're more committed. When you have an arrangement like marriage that's already locked in, why, you're halfway there."
Unlike Masters and Johnson, who see their patients every day for two weeks, Butts sees a couple once a week for one or two months. They return three months later for follow-up counseling. The reason is as practical as Butts herself: most of her patients can't afford the time or the money the Masters and Johnson way demands.
Butts tries in her counseling sessions to duplicate the aproach she uses in her magazine column, packaging medical advice, common sense and soul-searching guidance for women who often lact the self-esteem to know when they're being mistreated.
"I've heard complaints that she's too abrupt, and sometimes she can be rather blunt," said Rosemary Bray, editor of Essence magazine's Good Health! section. "But she says to people -- to women -- to get a sense that it's your body, your life, your relationship. You are the only person who can make it work or not work. We have a lot of women write and who don't feel bad about themselves but someone is making them feel bad -- a boyfriend or lover -- and June says, 'Wait a minute, wait a minute! There's nothing wrong with you. Trust yourself.' I think that's what I like most about her."
Butts says she misses the companionship of a close relationship in her own life. Her marriage of 18 years ended in 1971, just after she'd received her doctorate. The relationship ended in part, she said, because of what has become a familiar scenario to many career-minded women: male-female competition. Her former husband, she said, "seemed to feel that when I got my degree I'd (just) hang it on the wall . . . that seemed to crystallize that we were moving in different directions."
Her response to the breakup was a good example of June Butts taking her own advice. Her career has blossomed. With two colleagues, doctors Renee Jenkins and Ouida Westney, she is working under a $300,000 research grant on a study of the formation of concepts of sexuality in pre-adolescents. The study follows black youngsters and their families over a period of time.
Dr. James Collins, chairman of Howard's psychiatry department, has added Butts' course in human sexuality to the freshman curriculum of the college of medicine, and Butts says she now regards teaching medical students as one of the most important jobs she's had. "After all," she said, "who do people go to for information? Their ministers and their doctors."
In addition to her academic work, Butts has a private practice, writes occasional articles for popular magazines like Ebony in addition to her column, and watches her children, now 24, 21 and 17, grow to maturity.
She doesn't know what her next step will be, but it will have to embody the Butts cardinal rules: "Feelings are what it's all about . . . but when we stop just short of that and just give our children the facts, we haven't taught them about human sexuality. It's the feelings that count. And your own feelings are the best barometer."