By Olesia Plokhii / The Washington Post
Patricia Schiller, a Washington sex and marriage therapist who became a leading authority on how doctors, nurses, teachers and members of the clergy could talk about sex in ways that were neither prudish nor judgmental, died June 29 at her home in Palm Beach, Florida. She was 104.
The cause was hypertensive cardiovascular disease, said her son, Jonathan Schiller.
Trained as a lawyer and later as a clinical psychologist, Schiller happened upon her calling of sex education by chance. While teaching English at a middle school in Washington in the 1960s, she noticed young girls being forced to drop out of school after getting pregnant.
She saw an opportunity to keep them in school and educate them about sex and parenting. She joined the staff of the Webster Girls School, a pilot District of Columbia public school for pregnant girls, and became the school’s sex and family planning counselor. She said that broken homes created a cycle of poverty as well as fear about sex as a shameful and unhealthy activity.
She grew intrigued by the way other professionals, including doctors, talked to their patients about sex and interpersonal relationships, and approached the Howard University medical school to help train their OB/GYN students about how to interview and counsel patients about sex and discuss the psychology of dysfunctional sexual relationships. Schiller became a professor there for the next 30 years.
In 1967, she founded the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists, the country’s only certification body for sex therapists. The next year, AASECT’s first National Sex Institute was held in Massachusetts. For the next five years, Schiller, who served as the group’s executive director, counseled patients in groups in her home, trying to foster more open communication about sex.
“Sex counseling,” she once told The Washington Post, “is to develop greater comfort about sexuality, greater openness, freedom, intimacy. Sex is a function of being human.”
It need not be “a gourmet dinner every time,” she said. “It can also be just, well, it can be a sandwich and a Coke.”
Schiller spent the next four decades holding seminars, conferences and talks around the world teaching professionals how to talk to others about sex. With famed sex researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson, she helped create legal guidelines and ethical standards for sexual counselors, her family said, largely as part of an effort to weed out impostors in the fast-growing field.
“The problem is that there’s so much money to be made,” Schiller told The Post.
Pearl Silverman, who later changed her first name to Patricia, was born in Brooklyn, New York, on Oct. 27, 1913. She was the youngest of four children to Jewish immigrant parents who came from the same village in Russia. She graduated in 1934 from Brooklyn Law School, came to the Washington area in 1941 and worked for the National Labor Relations Board and the Office of Price Administration.
As a volunteer at the Legal Aid Society, she was moved by the many couples seeking divorce advice. She campaigned for the group to offer marriage counseling and, after taking several courses in the field, began offering marriage counseling for the group in 1955. She subsequently became a director of guidance and counseling at American University, where she also received a master’s degree in clinical psychology in 1960. She soon began teaching English at Alice Deal Middle School, where the experience of seeing many pregnant girls drop out led her to sex-education work.
She and her husband, Irving Schiller, moved to Palm Beach from Washington in 1990. He died in 2007 after 64 years of marriage. Survivors include two children, Louise Schiller of Oakland, California, and Jonathan Schiller of Washington and New York; five grandsons; and four great-grandchildren.
Schiller wrote three books, “Creative Approach to Sex Education and Counseling” (1973), “The Sex Profession: What Sex Therapy Can Do” (1981) and “Sex Questions Kids Ask: and How To Answer” (2009).