Long before Dr. Joy became a groundbreaking relationship expert, she gleaned harmful messages about sëxuality. Her journey into ethical non-monogamy and polyamory shed light on important truths, while inviting lesson-rich challenges and benefits she continues to cherish.
Today Joy helps others cultivate authentic, pleasure-rich lives and relationships, no matter the style. And her work continues to reveal myths so many of us learn about intimacy, plus the wonderfulness that can unfold when we unlearn them. Learn much more in the new Girl Boner Radio episode!
“Adventures in Polyamory and Open Relationships: Dr. Joy”
a Girl Boner podcast transcript
Dr. Joy: Pleasure is available to all of us. It’s like equivalent to drinking water and eating. If you want to have mental health, emotional health, spiritual health, you need to tap into your pleasure. It’s something that we just have to have.
[encouraging, acoustic music]
Dr. Joy is a relationship expert and sexologist who knew so little about sex when she was a kid that when she caught a glimpse of it, she felt clueless.
Dr. Joy: First of all, my mother just really wouldn’t talk about sex other than, you know, “don’t have sex.” When I was about twelve, I remember, opening the door of one of the bedrooms. We would go back and forth between an apartment in Queens and then, upstate we had a house. Because my family owned funeral homes. But anyway, my mom was in one of the bedrooms, it was like the middle of the night.
I have no idea why I walked in there, I don’t know if I was going to ask her something. But she was on the floor, like sitting up, and the gentleman who used to help us with stuff, his head was between her legs and I was just so confused of what was happening. And I just backed out of the room.
but confused, but she saw me, and then she just kind of got up and shuffled and, but just never said anything about what happened, and just, it was just nothingness.
August: Oh my goodness.
Dr. Joy: It was just like, what? Why would someone’s head be between someone’s legs? This is very strange. And the thing about it is my mother didn’t really have, I mean, she did have a boyfriend, but even when she had a boyfriend, he was just the guy who would take me fishing and he was just the guy who I loved.
I guess she loved him and, you know, he was just this really cool guy. But it wasn’t identified as her boyfriend. He was just a guy.
But he was a really important guy who would fix her car and all that stuff. And she never was like, “this is my boyfriend.” She didn’t talk about stuff. And I don’t think I even knew what that was until, maybe when I was in college or something like that. I was like, what is this thing that’s going on?
August: I could totally imagine that.
Especially given that Joy had had basically zero sex ed.
I barely think they told us how babies were born.
One thing did help her start to blossom into her sexuality, she said: HBO.
[light drama TV show music]
Dr. Joy: I feel like the first time that I masturbated was probably on the love seat. I was 15. Again, my mother was involved – it’s so weird. She was asleep on the couch, snoring [soft snore…], and I was on the loveseat, which is the other side of the living room.
And it was probably one of those times where, like, HBO was free or something, and there was a trial. And so it was the middle of the night, and some sex scene is on. [woman moans] I’m like, what’s happening here?
Which inspired her to make something else happen.
Dr. Joy: An exploratory thing where I’m, like, touching myself. I’m like, wow, there’s a reaction happening here. What, what is this? That was the first time I even knew that something could happen with your body and then once you find out, you know, you gotta do it all the time now. [laughs] Like oh, okay then!
It’s so lovely because, thinking back then how I really could absolutely just use my imagination to make all sorts of things happen. I didn’t have to use anything else at all.
Today Dr. Joy does groundbreaking work as a polyamorous, sex-positive therapist who guides others navigating, among other things, non-traditional partnerships. None of that was on her radar early on either.
Dr. Joy: I knew pretty early on that I was bisexual for sure, but, I guess some of the other messaging, because growing up a Christian and things like you definitely couldn’t be anything other than heterosexual. You had to wait to be married, to have sex and all those things.
So, I was probably the only person in high school who wasn’t having sex and I didn’t know. Everybody kept it from me that they were having sex and then they didn’t tell me until after college. Like, yeah, Joey, we were all having sex and smoking weed and we didn’t tell you because your mom was ridiculous.
So we knew if we told you, she would somehow find out. I’m like, what? Wait a minute. So, it wasn’t actually until I was divorced and I was probably 39 or something like that. And I was dating. I was at a point in my life where my husband was pretty much the reincarnation of my mother.
Very much a perfectionist. I actually identified her as the Black mommy dearest. She’s no longer alive, but literally very much controlling. My ex husband was also very, very controlling and I could not live authentically at all.
I let him know my sexual orientation and what I wanted to do. And he was like, nope, not going to happen. Like, wow. So after I got divorced, I decided that that was just not going to be my life ever again. And I was just going to be who I was going to be. And anyone I dated was either going to have to deal with that or just not date me,
I started dating my then partner, a month in or so. And I was like, “I just want you to know that I’m definitely going to have a girlfriend, just letting you know what’s going to happen and you can hang out or not.” I had no intentions. of sharing.
That woman would be her girlfriend – a separate relationship.
Dr. Joy: And so he says to me, “okay, so you know, why don’t we do it together?” And I’m like, er? “I don’t want to do it together. I’m just telling you what I’m going to do.” Um, so then he basically started doing some research and presented to me actually the lifestyle and kind of swinging and things like that I didn’t even know were a thing. I literally didn’t know.
“The lifestyle” is another term for swinging, which involves things like partner swapping for sex. Many people consider it a form of ethical non-monogamy. And Joy was intrigued by the idea.
Dr. Joy: So we started actually getting into lifestyle and they go into clubs and what’s interesting is that people are really lovely, they’re very not judgmental, and so we made really good friends. We had a lot of fun. We went to a lot of places.
Through doing so, Joy learned a lot about her desires.
Dr. Joy: What I actually discovered about me and my sex is that I cannot have sex with people that I don’t have an emotional connection with. So I actually ended up not having sex with anybody. I did a lot of dancing, a lot of eating. All of the things, but I, I just couldn’t have sex. I couldn’t do it. There were a lot of beautiful women, a lot of great looking men, but it was like, Oh, like, like, I don’t know you.
And that led to more important revelations.
Dr. Joy: He started looking up polyamory and what that was. And, That was when we had our first triad.
We had a girlfriend, a beautiful girlfriend. She was just absolutely nuts…
Happens sometimes, right? That triad relationship was “beautiful when it was beautiful,” though, and the beginning of Joy’s polyamory journey.
Polyamory is basically the practice of engaging in multiple romantic relationships – which may or may not be sexual – with the consent of everyone involved. And Joy’s journey into it helped her learn, and unlearn, many things she’d gleaned about relationships.
August: Do you recall a specific experience that stands out as far as realizing that, oh, this is something that I carried over from these beliefs I’ve absorbed and we need to figure this out.
Dr. Joy: Yeah, absolutely. Like the first time he slept over with this other person.
He went out with someone and rather than returning home that night, he arrived home in the morning. Which set Joy off. She laid into him a bit.
Dr. Joy: How dare you? Why would you think that it was okay for you to come back at that time? And he’s like, “well, why would I not?
I’m in a relationship with this other person. How would I know to come back at this certain time? I’m with this person as well.”
She took a breath and realized he had a point.
Dr. Joy: “You’re right. How would you know,” right? So you can’t make the assumption, you know? “We don’t have a rule. You don’t have a curfew. You’re not a child. And you literally are in a relationship with this other person and I’m actually in a relationship with her as well. Like. Yeah, I cannot make that assumption. You’re right. We didn’t talk about it.”
Along with those teaching moments and challenges, Joy has found many aspects of polyamory deeply rewarding. Especially this idea — that every partner is different and activates different things in you.
So you get to, have different things reflected out of you. There’s something that might be dormant in you that another beautiful soul can kind of like poke in you. They see something different in you. They light something up different in you. One person can tap into the creative side of me.
One person can really make me giggle. One person can really make me orgasm, very, very different. Right? One person will feed me a different kind of food, you know, like, I mean, everyone brings out something different and I appreciate it.
This topic came up in a recent support group Dr. Joy led, too, in a sort of reverse way.
Dr. Joy: This gentleman was upset because his partner was picking other people who look nothing like him and he was like, “I don’t understand why… He obviously doesn’t like me.” I’m like, “no he does like you and you are one of like you are you. You are the gem that you are. Why would you want him to get a clone of you? Weird!”
Imagine if he chose only partners who looked just like him.
Dr. Joy: Like I would be more worried “Like are you trying to replace me? You’re literally trying to get me again? I don’t want you to get me. Go get somebody else!”
And that’s the thing. You want somebody to be different. And I don’t want you to get all the needs you’re already getting here. Get other things from somebody else.
At the start of new poly relationships, New Relationship Energy, NRE, is a big topic. It’s the intense punch-drunk feeling pretty much everyone experiences while falling for someone. And how you navigate it in an non-monogamous partnership may help make or break it.
August: I’ve heard different things about new relationship energy. Some people I’ve spoken to are like, they love it so much and it works really well still in their primary partnership if they have one. Other folks I’ve talked to, have said it’s one of the challenging aspects for them because it’s like, so they’ve used words like intoxicating and “I have harder time with my primary relationship,” et cetera. I’m sure it varies so much, but what has your experience been like? And what would you like to share about NRE?
Dr. Joy: I mean, it is both of those. Yeah. One person loves it so much. And one person hates it. I mean, it’s just that simple.
It’s both of those. It’s like being high, the person who’s high likes it. And the person who has to watch the high person doesn’t like it. Like it’s just, it’s just like that. Like what?
I say to my couples, “The person who has to experience their partner with this NRE, please give them some grace. Don’t expect them to not have it. How do you try to get someone to turn down their sensations? They’re going to experience this thing that would be like telling someone to hold their breath. You know you can’t really ask them to do that.”
But then I ask the other person, “Hey, do me a favor. Don’t come back to the house and skip when you walk inside like there’s no need for that. Calm down. You can be happy, but you don’t need to do that.”
However, you know a lot of couples really do like sharing their joy with each other. And you can experience compersion, meaning like you experience joy that your partner is having joy. But it doesn’t mean again that it has to be all consuming, like all you’re talking about is this new person.
Like I get it. You’re having a good time, but we still have our whole lives. It can’t be all about, “Oh, my God, this person is so great. But am I still great?” You know what I mean? You can still experience both those things. So it’s a balance. for both of these people to validate each other’s experience until this person can come down from it and it still gets equalized.
But as long as the original partner’s needs are still being met and the agreements are still being met, the original partner needs to figure out ways to self soothe because this is just a natural part of relationships, you know?
When it comes to myths about polyamory, there is definitely no shortage. And those myths can cause problems in poly relationships.
Dr. Joy: They always say, “Oh, it’s just an excuse for cheating.” I don’t even understand literally from the context of the English language what that means. Because you can actually cheat in a polyamorous relationship. I’m like, “I don’t know what you mean by that… No, it’s an actual agreement that everyone has. It’s a relationship style.”
Now, there are people who will move under the guise of ethical non-monogamy, right? And say, “I’m ethically non-monogamous, and I’m telling my partner that this is what I want,” but they’re actually coercive. And they’re telling their partner, “this is what I want to do,” but they’re also telling their partner, “but you can’t touch anybody. You can’t talk to anybody…” I don’t want you to do anything [outside of our relationship], but I want to have all the treats, right? Please go sit down somewhere. Don’t do anything. And I know that you’re really, really uncomfortable. I know that psychologically this is very damaging to you, but I have to have it because this is the makeup of me. So please, this is what I have to do.
Dr. Joy: That’s different. And they’re saying that they’re ethically non monogamous.
Dr. Joy has had this play out in various ways in her practice. For instance, this particular couple…
Dr. Joy: They were not having sex in their relationship. And their partner was not interested in having sex. And they told their partner, like, “I really, really want to have sex.” And their partner was like, “Yeah, not really interested.” This person is bisexual, so they got on Grindr. And they start having sex, a lot.
Dr. Joy: Yeah, secretly. And he’s found out and so of course, his wife is devastated like “oh my gosh, how could you do the thing?” And he’s like, “I’m so sorry.”
I don’t know how this came about, But they agreed that maybe they should open their relationship. Now this does happen a lot where there’s infidelity and then they decide that maybe we should just kind of reestablish the rules of the relationship.
There’s actually a book specifically for this: The New Monogamy where it starts out talking about the infidelity. First, you have to process the infidelity, why it happened. We have to have an understanding about it. We have to rebuild trust and then we can break down. Okay. What are the things that we need to have? How do we need to address our sensual needs and all the things and then go forward?
Dr. Joy recommended that book to the couple.
Dr. Joy: I told him take this and you guys need to do this together. So what was so interesting is I’m giving this resource and he’s like, “yeah, but she doesn’t want to read it.” I’m like, huh, this is confusing. She decides, okay, well, I’m going to go ahead and I’m going to start seeing my high school boyfriend.
but you can’t see anybody. You can’t see anybody. You can’t have sex. You’re on sex probation, but the relationship is open though, but you can’t have sex. I’m like, “Oh, so you’re being punished.” He’s like, “No, no, no… She says it’s not punishment.” I’m like, it sounds like punishment, but okay.
Eventually she sleeps with her old high school boyfriend. The guy is having some trouble because he doesn’t want her to have an emotional connection with this person. That’s not something you can ever stop.
She does. She has an emotional connection with the person. She has sex with him. He’s not having sex with anybody. He’s not having sex with her.
They’re sleeping in the same bed. He has to look at this woman. He can’t touch her. He can’t touch anybody. She then says that this high school boyfriend is her soulmate, and I’m just dumbfounded.
“How do you even know that this is her soul mate?” “Oh, because she told me.” I’m like, this is abusive. I don’t understand what’s happening right now. But she’s doing this all under the umbrella of this is ethical, not like this is not ethical non monogamy. Please do not claim this to our community. This has nothing to do with ethical, non-monogamy. I promise you, this is not what this is.
That ordeal became more dramatic and perplexing… You can hear about that in a bonus clip in the Girl Boner Patreon.
And Dr. Joy said it’s not uncommon for someone to bring up some horribleness they’re going through in a support group or when talking to friends about their supposedly ENM relationship that isn’t actually ethically non-monogamous.
It’s not going your way. You have a narrative about something and so you’re going to force it to be the way that you want it to be. It doesn’t matter if it’s reality or not. It’s going to be the way you want it to be, but this is what people do and this is what people do with everything. And so just putting it in the context of polyamory and ENM, we can’t believe everything people say just because they say it doesn’t make it true. We have to really process things for ourselves.
August: And it’s so interesting how, I think partly because of this lack of education and understanding about all relationship styles and dynamics and sexuality… how ethical non monogamy and monogamy, both, people will use it as these, like what they want and they force it into.
So monogamy becomes this sort of like, well, we’re monogamous, so you’re not allowed to think about A, B, and C or something… these kinds of extreme things. And the same thing with polyamory, non-monogamy and open relationships, where people will think that anything that is not, “we only have sex with each other” is okay. But aren’t they missing the ethical part?
Dr. Joy: Exactly! When it’s ethical, there’s consent, right? Everybody in this thing is aware. Everyone says, “I’m okay.” No one’s under emotional duress when agreements are made. It’s not an agreement if I’m terrified of losing you, or if I’m in a state where I can’t really make decisions. I’m super depressed right now. I just lost something else in my life.
There’s so much that makes something ethical and we have to take our time. And nobody thinks about it because everyone is really more so thinking about themselves and what they want in this moment.
The need for more thoughtfulness and communication is something we can all learn from, Dr. Joy said, regardless of our preferred relationship style. And monogamous couples can learn a lot from couples who approach ENM well.
Dr. Joy: What being in ethical non-monogamous relationships will really teach you is about you. You are challenged to do so much introspection. People say, “Oh, I can never do that because I’m just so jealous.” We’re human. You think we don’t have jealousy? Of course we have jealousy, but we are challenged to deal with it differently.
We can’t just tell our partner, “I’m jealous, so stop doing that thing.” No, we made an agreement that you can do that thing. So clearly I have to figure out another way to deal with this thing, right?
Maybe I should think about the wound that is creating this jealousy. Maybe I should think, do I have needs that are not being met? Do I have insecurity that is creating this jealousy, right? What narrative am I telling myself right now? What kind of a train is going through my head that I’m just letting go that I can stop? What’s under my control and what’s not right?
What boundaries have I not said that I need to set right here,? What assumptions am I making that I need to not be making? What kind of support do I need from my partner or maybe from my best friend? What kind of spiritual support do I need? What kind of food am I eating? Like what am I putting in my body?
How am I moving my body? Have I been meditating enough? There’s so many things that really makes you look at you that every couple, every individual can look at differently.
And non-monogamous relationships, Joy said, really make you dig into all of that. Dr. Joy helps many people navigate that in her work — a career that her early curiosities inspired.
Being a poly therapist, being a sexologist, they stem from really suppression. These are all the things I was always interested in when I was younger and all the things that I was told, “You can’t talk about this, you can’t look at this, you can’t be this.” When I was 15, I remember laying on my mom’s belly. I remember laying on her and I said, “What would happen if I liked girls or if I was gay” And I remember her immediately starting crying. I don’t think she answered me. And I was like, okay, nevermind. And that was kind of the end of that.
She passed away when I was like 19. So there was never a time where I ever identified as anything other than heterosexual like with her. My best friend, Jeff, came out, I think we were 16… She was in love with Jeff. Oh, it was disgusting, the two of them. He would get her these Hershey bars for her birthday because it was like her favorite candy in the world and she would get him stuff for his birthday too. They were each other’s favorite people.
At the time, Joy did not understand Jeff’s draw.
Dr. Joy: Cause she was so mean. I’m like, “Why do you like her?”
As much as Joy’s mom adored Jeff, though, she did not understand his sexuality.
Dr. Joy: I remember being in my mom’s room one day And she being like, “Oh man, I love Jeff so much. It’s too bad. He’s going to hell.” I’m like, are you serious right now? This is bananas! Jeff? You love Jeff! And so it, it was those moments there where I’m like, how do you love a person so much and believe these bonkers things?
Like how could you possibly in your body feel such things? How is this possible? It’s these pivotal moments in my life where I’m like, I have to do things to free people. From their own minds, honestly, because I know my mother wasn’t free from so many things in her mind, you know, there’s like things around like colorism, religion.
My mom, before I was born, was a hippie, right? Like she was a flower child and she wrote poetry and she was into astrology and you know, she had a big afro, like all these things. And then she had to take over the family business and then she had to wear a suit every day. I saw my mom in pants twice in my entire life, you know what I mean? So it was just this different thing that she had to transition and she didn’t really get to be this flowy mermaid person that she really was.
And it was so sad. And I didn’t recognize it until I was an adult and a therapist. And then I reflected. . I was like, Oh my God, my mother was depressed. What? It didn’t even, it didn’t register. And so that’s when it’s like, Oh my gosh, I don’t want to have to be her.
And I don’t want anyone to have to be her. And, I want us just to be free and to exhale and to just fully be embodied in our eroticism and whatever it is that we want to be, because what are we here for if not for that?
Joy is committed to helping womxn cultivate self-love, and fully embody their sexuality so that they can become their best authentic and liberated selves. And you don’t have to be a therapy client to work with her.
Dr. Joy: I love working with my goddesses. Because of my PhD in sexology and the research that I’ve done for how we really need to work with our, how can I say our sexuality, our sensuality.
I feel that utilizing somatics or body work is really what helps us. Truth is really felt in the body, right? So trauma affects our idea of the truth. Trauma lies to us. Trauma tells us that everything stays the same. Everything is scary. We approach everything the same way. So when it comes to trauma and pleasure, it tells us that we can’t have pleasure, that we can’t relax.
We can’t be present. We can’t receive. So I help people understand again that they can relax, they can be present. And they can receive pleasure by doing erotic embodiment. And I use sensual yoga.
She offers sensual yoga at conferences, retreats and on-demand, with a program called Glowing Your Goddess Yoga. And at the heart of all of that work is pleasure.
Dr. Joy: Pleasure is available to all of us and it is not actually something that I think we feel that it’s a luxury or it’s optional.
It’s like equivalent to drinking water and eating. If you want to have mental health, emotional health, spiritual health. You need to tap into your pleasure. It’s something that we just have to have.
As for figuring out your own best relationship style or even what’s next for you as far as sex or sensuality, Dr. Joy shared this advice:
Dr. Joy: Get quiet, especially if you are someone who’s thinking of being poly, right, you have all these relationships and we call people and we’re like, what do you think of this?
And what do you think of this? Get quiet and come back to you and ask you more often than not, what do you feel about this? Stop ignoring what you feel about this thing and go with that. Because we keep going outside. And then we end up in these spaces that we don’t necessarily want to be. And then we have to come back to scratch anyway, because we ignored how we felt. So get quiet, get intuitive and go with your truth.
Learn more about Dr. Joy and her programs at joyberkheimer.com.
And if you’re enjoying Girl Boner Radio, please join my community at patreon.com/girlboner for bonus content. I recently added a full sex toy bonus episode if you sign up for the $5 level or higher…and you can opt out any time. I’d also love it if you’d let your friends know about the show. Thanks so much for listening.