The word “radical” has a bad rap these days. It’s the go-to adjective in the wake of a terrorist attack — police hunt for clues to confirm that perpetrators became radicalized at an extremist mosque where they plotted a suicide bombing. It’s an election-season slur used to bury political foes — the other candidate’s radical past will make him an unstable president who might put the very future of the world at stake.
But when clinical sexologist, therapist, author and Loveline with Amber Rose co-host Dr. Chris Donaghue says it, there’s no hostility, negativity or fear. Instead, there’s reverence, respect and wonder. On Donaghue’s lips, radical is a holy philosophy and the cornerstone of his work, which is nothing short of a calling.
Draping his body across an armchair at a coffee bar on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, Donaghue looks less like an individual who’s earned two PhDs and more like a tattoo artist who spent his 20s running with rockers and models. While he has never given, only received, tattoos — his first at the age of 16 while a Jesuit high school student in the early ’90s — the latter isn’t far from the truth.
The second of three boys, Donaghue was raised in the suburbs of Philly by a full-time mother and cosmetic dentist father. When he was a kid, he often dragged around a brown paper grocery bag full of his favorite objects — stuffed animals, toys, hats. He had a propensity for customizing these objects, giving troll dolls deviant haircuts, tattoos and piercings; cutting up T-shirts; and dying his shoes.
The margins of society and culture were shaping up to be the sun in Donaghue’s universe, locking him into orbit and propelling him forward through life. When he learned to read, Donaghue was obsessed with magazines and loved exploring the glossy-paged subcultures on display. When asked whether or not he thinks this pull toward the margins was inherent, latent in his soul, or if external factors played a part, he knows the answer immediately: “Inherent. Everything around me was telling me, ‘No, follow the straight and narrow.’ But I wasn’t interested.”
That “straight and narrow” came in large part from his Catholic school upbringing, first from nuns in grade school and then from a Jesuit high school in Delaware to which he commuted every day. Donaghue remembers the nuns as physically and psychologically abusive. “It was bad. One of the nuns ended up in a mental institution herself,” he says. For a boy who felt connected to the margins, the rigidity of Catholic school was not, unsurprisingly, where he felt at home. One summer during middle school, he attended an acting camp full of skater kids and Morrissey fans, most of them older, and he finally found his people.
Donaghue was popular and cool, and everyone knew it. As a result, he found himself at the center of the best teenage parties in town. At one house party in particular, he smoked weed outside with older kids. When he stepped back inside, his classmates were giddy to have caught him doing something wrong. “We know what you were doing!” they taunted. The corner of Donghue’s mouth turns up ever so slightly as he remembers his reply: “Oh yeah? You think that’s a big deal? Last weekend I was at a rave doing ecstasy, kissing girls and boys.”
Donaghue’s high school days of exploration were only a precursor to what awaited him when he arrived in Manhattan for college. He first enrolled at New York University for nutrition and health science, but the city’s parties and clubs — and the temptations they provided — were more alluring. It wasn’t long before Donaghue failed out of school. After a break from the city, he returned, this time enrolling at the Fashion Institute of Technology. But the parties still beckoned, and before long, he had failed out of FIT, too.
He made a move toward wholeness at age 24 by getting sober and re-enrolling in college, this time at Temple University, where he studied social work. He replaced nightlife with studying and had an epiphany — “I’m smart. I hadn’t known that before. I went from a C student to an A+ student,” he says. But it wasn’t long before the margins were calling again. “All of the good grades and the perfect research papers — it was all just going with the flow and accepting and assimilating into the norms of academia.” Sobriety and institutionalized education had molded him into a model citizen, a role that was simply incongruent with the shape of his soul.
Donaghue found a way back to his holy philosophy in Southern California. After moving west for a relationship, he found a nontraditional doctoral program in Santa Barbara that focused on depth-oriented psychology (Jung and Freud) as opposed to cognitive behavioral therapy. He went head-first into feminist and queer theory and began to see sexuality as the most centralizing point of who we are. “If you want to really understand someone, you go to their sexuality,” he says. “Everyone’s history is readily apparent there — how much intimacy they can tolerate, their social issues, their communication issues, their self esteem.” Donaghue saw this as a “beautiful entry point” into understanding and helping people.
So he started working at a sex-addiction clinic and trained as a sex therapist. It was through this work and his first years in practice that he began to believe cultural attitudes toward sex, as well as those of the psychiatric field, were damaging people. Sex is literally everywhere in culture and society, often with an unparalleled explicitness — billboards, magazines, film and television, at the gym — and is an undercurrent in many of our seemingly nonsexual transactions. And yet in the personal lives of many, it is regulated, restricted and shamed. “I realized that this beautiful core part of us was not taken seriously in academia and was pathologized in society,” he says. “I felt like if there was a way to undo both of those things, there could be a beautifully pervasive trickle-down effect on holistic health.”
As Donaghue began building his private practice, he saw greater potential for his work — as a way to tear apart systems and structures preventing people from wholeness. “Everything around us is saying assimilate, assimilate, but I’m saying the opposite — burn everything down and create something new, because healing is found in liberation and creation,” he says. “All of my clinical work is about invention.”
He says the two most important questions on his intake form are not How often do you have sex? or Is anything interfering with your ability to go about your daily life and work? Instead, Donaghue asks, How often do you spend time in nature? and How much time do you spend playing, having fun?
“Too much of mental health in the prevailing culture is about meeting benchmarks, productivity — how can we get you well enough to get you back to work?” he says. To Donaghue, this capitalist framework denies the profound value of time spent off the clock and is oblivious to the healing power of the natural world.
“Nature is one of the queerest, most sex-positive things we have,” he says. “Nature has transsexual plants and animals, animals that are solo-sexed and don’t require a partner, non-monogamous couples, and some animals have even formed their own methods of contraception and dildos. There are single-gendered families, mixed-gendered families, poly relationships and fluid sexualities.”
For Donaghue, the planet is not just our home that demands care and respect. It’s one of the greatest role models we have for moving toward wholeness as people.
“Some of the most healing clinical sessions I’ve had are when patients sit down with me after years of therapy elsewhere, telling me what all their problems are, and then hearing me say, ‘You have no problem, the world around you is just twisted. Go live you life,’” he says. It’s that type of liberation that has led to the growth of Donaghue’s practice over the last decade, a respect that landed him as a featured expert on The Today Show, Dr. Drew, Nightline, as well as in publications like The New York Times and National Geographic, and a frequent guest host on The Doctors. It also led him to publish his first book, Sex Outside the Lines: Authentic Sexuality in a Sexually Dysfunctional Culture.
It was on the set of The Doctors that Donaghue met and hit it off with “neo-feminist, entrepreneur and talk show host” Amber Rose as she is introduced on the newly re-launched Loveline podcast. When Rose was developing her Dr. Phil-produced VH1 show The Amber Rose Show, she asked Donaghue to be a regular contributor for a segment fielding questions from the audience on sex and relationships. The success of that pairing led to Donaghue taking the mic next to Rose on Loveline.
The more he ventured away from academia and traditional psychiatry, the more Donaghue was inspired by the power of cultural tools like podcasts and TV shows to effect the kind of widespread, systematic healing he hopes to see in the world.
Donaghue isn’t the first doctor to bring his practice and philosophy of life into the public eye, as doctors Phil, Oz, Drew and Ruth all precede him. But none of them are covered in tattoos. None of them speak like they are trying desperately to keep up with the rate at which their minds are connecting information from all corners of the universe. None of them are on air for millions of listeners talking explicitly about how intimate and connected they feel with partners when aggressively having sex pushed against a wall. Donaghue possesses a relevance that those who precede him do not. “It’s a crass statement, and I say it jokingly, but people can tell I’m still fucking,” he says. “That I’m out in the world being sexual.”
But the radicalness of Dr. Chris Donaghue should not simply be understood in terms of his willingness to speak candidly about his preferred sex positions. It’s the melding of his visceral experience with a reverence for the spiritual — a vision that encompasses both as the path to transformational healing. “We aren’t a total, full, whole person if we’re not addressing mind, body, and soul,” he says.
Donaghue recently added a new tattoo to his living canvas: a portrait of Albert Einstein, joining Nietzsche and Joan of Arc on his right forearm. His heroes run the gamut from bell hooks to Gloria Steinem to Cornel West, so why Einstein?
Several years ago, a former partner ended their relationship by telling Donaghue that he was not a nice person. “That really impacted me,” he says. “I never wanted anyone to think that about me ever again, so I did some soul searching.” He says he didn’t need therapy — psychology had reinforced his self-centeredness. “This was a spiritual problem,” he says. “I needed a mission, a core belief, ethics — something else.”
His journey led him to familiar territory for spiritual seekers: yoga, meditation and Buddhism. But a surprising voice kept popping up — that of Einstein. “I kept coming across these quotes that would just totally blow me away,” Donaghue says. He pulls out his phone to find examples.
The most beautiful and most profound emotion we can experience is the sensation of the mystical. … He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead.
There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.
Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.
The more he read about Einstein, the more he was inspired. “He was combining the spiritual and the scientific, and he did it with tremendous kindness and humility,” Donaghue says. “That’s what I want to do.”
In Einstein’s day, the melding of the spiritual and the scientific was nothing short of radical. And it remains so over a half-century after his death, on a planet populated with people who refuse to acknowledge they are being strangled by climate change, an American president who speaks proudly about sexually assaulting women, and people of faith routinely employing rhetorical and physical violence in the name of God.
Before I left him, I asked Donaghue how he answers that dreaded question: “What do you do?”
“I tell them that I’m decentering norms that pathologize diversity,” he answers without hesitation. I think Einstein would be proud.