Like some women who have had a hysterectomy, Gabriela Buich found herself losing interest in sex. On top of that, she felt guilty that she was brushing off her husband’s increasingly frustrated advances. Over the course of four trying years, the Salinas, Calif., resident and mother of six went to several doctors and therapists “weeping, begging for help,” she recalls. Instead, she was told she simply was depressed. “It’s all in your head,” they would say.
Then, idly channel-surfing last May, Buich, 48, saw a newsmagazine segment on the Berman sisters, Jennifer and Laura, newly anointed sex experts dubbed the Baby Ruths (as in Westheimer). Luckily for Buich, the Boston-based duo was relocating to California to open a clinic, and she was able to arrange a visit in Los Angeles with Jennifer, 36, one of about 150 board-certified female urologists. The post-exam news was dire. While hormone therapy would help, Jennifer told Buich that because of her surgery, in which her ovaries were also removed, the intensity of her physical pleasure would be diminished. Though upset, Buich appreciated the straight talk. “I just wept,” she says. “Why did I have to spend years and thousands of dollars to get this kind of help?”
If the Bermans have their way, women suffering from sexual dysfunction—a term once used primarily in reference to men—will find better answers quicker. Through their recent book, For Women Only, and their UCLA-based Center for Pelvic Medicine, they hope to combine their psychological and physiological expertise to address women’s complete sexual health needs. A patient coming to the Bermans faces three initial exams: a 45-minute evaluation with Laura, 32, a psychotherapist; a physical by Jennifer; and, finally, tests that evaluate the blood flow and measure sensations in the genitals. “What the Bermans are doing is making it okay to discuss female sexual dysfunction,” says Dr. Shlomo Raz, a professor of urology at UCLA. “And talking is the first step to getting help.”
Dealing frankly with sex is something the Bermans picked up around the dinner table while growing up on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, then on St. Simon’s, an island off the coast of Georgia. “My mother would always answer every question without blinking,” says Laura, whose mother, Linda, 60, was once a broker’s assistant on Wall Street. And their father, Irwin, 64, a colonrectal surgeon, regaled the girls with tales of his work. “There is nothing sacred,” says the sisters’ college friend Jennifer Gilbert, 32, a corporate event planner. “Laura and Jennifer are probably the only two people in the world who can make me blush.”
Working together had been the sisters’ dream, but it took a while to realize it. Jennifer majored in Spanish at Hollins College in Virginia and thought she might become a writer. The only problem: “I hated writing.” So after graduation she took a premed course, got an M.S. at the University of Maryland, and graduated from Boston University medical school in 1991. She chose female sexual dysfunction as her specialty, despite warnings from colleagues that no one would take it seriously.
Meanwhile Laura attended the University of Vermont, where she became interested in the anthropological aspects of sexuality. It was while Laura was a grad student at New York University that the sisters became aware of how much their work overlapped. “When I got to Boston and started seeing women, I realized I wasn’t qualified to deal with psychological issues associated with sexual dysfunction,” says Jennifer. “So I called Laura.”
Their planned collaboration was put on hold by their personal lives. Laura’s marriage in 1995 to a Spanish businessman lasted four years and produced a son, Ethan, 4. Jennifer met professional sailor Greg Moore, 32, on a sailing vacation and married him in 1998 after a brief courtship. Then last year, the sisters decided it was time to combine their talents and moved to L.A. to open a clinic. “They’re very happy out there,” Jennifer’s sister-in-law Christine Hamori, 37, says of the Bermans, who live less than five miles apart. “Jen is so excited about her work. She’ll call and say, ‘I’ve been doing this fun nipple-response research.’ ”
As elated as Jennifer may be, her patients are doubly so. Using hormone therapy, she has helped Buich regain some of the intimacy she had lost with her husband. “Recently he came to me with tears in his eyes,” says Buich. “He said, ‘Welcome back. I have missed you so much.’ ”
Karen Grigsby Bates in Los Angeles