After coming out as queer eight years ago and seeing a variety of therapists in New York City and Los Angeles, filmmaker Kait Schuster, 29, was struggling to feel connected to her body during sex. “Everyone else’s sex problems, as imagined in my mind, were very small,” she says. It wasn’t until two years ago, when she discovered the work of “sexuality doula” Ev’Yan Whitney and her podcast The Sexually Liberated Woman, that something clicked. “It was the first signal into being like, ‘Oh, maybe I’m less alone than I think,’ ” she says.
Schuster instantly sought direct access to Whitney, who offers one-on-one coaching on her website, sexloveliberation.com. (Weekly hour-long calls are $750 per month; most clients, Whitney says, work through their hang-ups in three to four months.) The fees were more than Schuster could afford, but she recalls thinking, "Someday, if I could do that, it would be so cool." Then, around her birthday, she got an email from Whitney advertising a special rate of $70 for a single session. “It felt like a sign,” she says. “The universe was like, ‘I’m bringing this to you.’”
That first meeting went well, and Whitney offered a discount for more sessions and a series of exercises meant to reframe her new client’s approach to intimacy. At one point Whitney suggested Schuster take a break from sexual activity altogether. “I was like, ‘Oh my God. I can do that?’ ” Schuster recalls. “And she was like, ‘Of course you can do that.’ The reality was that when I was working with her regularly, my sex life was the most connected and easy it had ever been. I don’t know what worked, but it worked.”
Schuster is one of a growing number of women turning to self-help gurus who don’t have any formal training or credentials. According to Jane Buckingham, founder and CEO of the consumer insights firm Trendera, it’s a natural progression for a generation of young women raised on self-improvement. “This is a generation that has been ‘trained’ since birth. [In their lifetime] people started having birth coaches, life coaches, someone who can help you with everything. It’s no surprise that as these women are getting older, they’re turning to ‘specialists’ in other areas,” she says. “The reality, of course, is these specialists don’t necessarily have any more qualifications than the rest of us. Passion does not always equal experience.”
Alexi Wasser, a 37-year-old actress and podcaster, brands her own version of lifestyle coaching under the name Big Sister Sessions (lovealexi.as.me). For $105 a pop, women across the country can schedule a single hourlong Skype conversation to discuss everything from sex to career and family. “I’ve gotten so much shit online, like, ‘Why would anyone pay Alexi Wasser?’ I totally get that,” she says. “I even say it on my podcast: ‘I’m completely unqualified. I didn’t even go to college.’ All I know is the facial expressions and the vibe that I get from the girls that I talk to.”
If Wasser has received any training at all, it is from the school of Free & Native, a popular one-stop manifestation mecca that counts Hollywood stars, famous designers, and influencers among its ardent followers. Started by Lacy Phillips, Free & Native sells access to workshops and “deep imagining” meditations (starting at $40 each) focused on topics like wealth (“Opulence”), relationships (“Partnership”), and boundaries (“No”). There is also a $295 primer package, which is recommended before graduating to any of the more advanced and specific offerings. An e-commerce page features links to a copper tongue scraper, a silicone menstrual cup, and two different types of natural toothpaste.
Phillips tried acting, teaching, and working as a holistic private chef before she took on the role of full-time “manifestation adviser.” She was just that good at making things happen. “I could write lists, and down to a T what I wanted would come to me,” she remembers. Within a year she was teaching workshops around the globe and booked out for four to seven months, she says. That was five years ago, and she’s stayed busy ever since. Although Phillips has studied Eastern spiritual philosophy for years, her formula—a combination of positive thinking and self-discipline—doesn’t follow any particular ideology. “It’s all kind of channeled through me, through watching patterns,” she says. “A lot of breakups, and being broke for a long time—those are my teachers.”
For many believers this lived-experience curriculum is precisely what the doctor ordered. Schuster, for one, doesn’t care much about her sexuality doula’s qualifications or lack thereof. “Ev’Yan is very open about the fact that she’s been through trauma in this area. She’s not some professional who is like, ‘I’ve read about people like you in books. Here’s what I know,’ ” she says. “She’s been in the trenches. I can see how people might find a negative slant, like, ‘Oh, it’s like working with a friend. That’s weird.’ But for me, the fact that someone was like, ‘Yeah, me too, girl,’ was helpful—comforting almost.”
But should emotional comfort ever rival traditional therapy? As critics of Goop-like brands that offer alternative health information and products have pointed out, anyone hawking their wares has some responsibility to separate fact from fiction. (Goop recently paid $145,000 in civil penalties after being sued for making unsubstantiated claims about vaginal eggs and floral essences.) Buckingham says the key to peer-to-peer wellness lies in moderation. “If you’re just going to say, ‘I’m going to add this to the mix of advice I’m getting,’ that may be OK,” she says. “If you’re saying, ‘I’m doing this because this person told me to,’ and that person doesn’t have the right qualifications, that could be a big problem.”
Whitney does not recommend her services in lieu of traditional treatment. “I’m always telling my clients, ‘Please be in therapy,’” she says. Others put the onus back on their clientele. Phillips has highlighted the work of Teal Swan, a spiritual guru whose controversial views on suicide became the subject of an investigative Gizmodo podcast. But Phillips says she wasn’t aware—“You won’t find any of those messages here,” she says—and trusts that listeners will do their own research. “I hope that they are not looking to idolize everything I’m saying,” she says. “That would be the last thing that I would want.” Buckingham suggests that what these new-age entrepreneurs are tapping into is the feeling of deficiency many millennials experience. “There’s this pressure of ‘I need to be better. My life isn’t good enough. My performance isn’t good enough,’ ” she says. “And there’s also the idea that anything is worth improving, and you can pay for any possible fix.”
In addition to perpetual self-improvement, much of what these gurus are selling is a nonjudgmental ear or a place to unload anxiety. For Wasser, the commodity is a maintenance-free friendship. For Phillips, it’s a much needed confidence boost. For Whitney, it’s a safe space to explore shame. Buckingham understands the appeal of these arrangements. “We’re losing that personal connection in our lives yet don’t want to invest in a full friendship,” she says. “If you have a real friend, sometimes you fight, and you have to help and give back to someone who helps you.” These gurus make “friendship” remarkably easy: “It’s a one-way relationship,” Buckingham says. “You only have to do so much.” She stops short of calling it selfish. “But it is self-focused in a way that may not ultimately be healthy,” because it can short-circuit the process of learning coping skills or slogging through the steps that lead to personal growth. “You can become a little lazy because you can become dependent,” she says.
Still, many women feel these unconventional experts may help them fast-track their path to a more authentic self. “It’s not for everyone,” Schuster says. Her intimacy issues returned when she stopped working with Whitney, and she has recently resumed sessions. “It’s my money and it’s my investment and it’s what feels good for me,” she says. “If therapy was going to fix it, then it would have fixed it. If I could have figured this out with my brain, I would have. It’s not really about the brain. It’s about being vulnerable enough to be open to be helped.”
Molly Oswaks is a freelance writer in Los Angeles. Justine Harman is the features director at Glamour.
Opening photos (from left): LACY PHILLIPS: COURTESY OF FREE & NATIVE; EC'YAN WHITNEY: CELESTE NOCHE; ALEXI WASSER: JANEL SHIRTCLIFF