Obituaries

Gina Ogden, sex therapist who emphasized woman-positive approach, dies at 83

Dr. Gina Ogden
Jo Chaffee
Dr. Gina Ogden

In the early 1980s, Dr. Gina Ogden, a doctoral candidate at the time, set out to find a new approach to female sexuality, one that would be both sex-positive and woman-positive — one that could encourage women to explore their sexuality freely and without any shame.

She wanted to interview 50 women who identified as “easily orgasmic” to ask them a variety of intimate questions, from “What kinds of stimulation really turn women on?” to “Is orgasm really all it’s cracked up to be?” She figured finding the women would require a bit of searching. She just didn’t realize how easy the search would be. She ended up finding everything she needed at a single conference in Pittsfield.

“I invited the participation of anyone in the audience who felt she fit the description, expecting that a courageous few of the hundred or so women present would sidle down to the podium at the end of the talk to sign up,” she wrote in “Women Who Love Sex,” one of her books. “Instead, there was something like a stampede. When the dust had cleared I had my entire research sample of fifty.”

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Dr. Ogden, a longtime family therapist, author, and researcher who was a pioneer in sex therapy and female sexuality, died Nov. 2 from lung and colon cancer at her home in Cambridge, where she had lived for 29 years. She was 83.

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Clients, friends, and mentees from around the world agreed: Fifteen minutes with Dr. Ogden was worth 15 years of therapy, said Kamara McAndrews, a sex therapist from Colorado who met Dr. Ogden at one her workshops in 2011.

One of Dr. Ogden’s most significant contributions to the field of sex therapy was her four-dimensional wheel approach, which encouraged people to explore sexual experience beyond the physical act and instead focus on all four dimensions: body, mind, heart, and spirit. Dr. Ogden encouraged patients to physically step around the four quadrants on the ground and tell their stories with a particular focus on each dimension.

From that method she built a community of professionals committed to exploring and using the approach, called the 4-D Network.

“When you step into the wheel with her, she is so utterly present that all of a sudden, you feel like you’re in another dimension, and you go into a space that you didn’t even know you had, and things become altered forever in that space,” McAndrews said.

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Virginia Helen Lavalle was born in Boston in 1935, the only child of John Lavalle and Virginia Wilson Lavalle. Her father had previously been married, and Dr. Ogden had four half-siblings. When Dr. Ogden’s mother was six months pregnant with her, a four-alarm fire ripped through their family home on Marlborough Street in Boston. Dr. Ogden’s grandmother and two of her half-sisters died. Neither of Dr. Ogden’s parents was home at the time. They divorced when she was 5.

She went to school in Boston and attended Smith College, where she studied English and graduated in 1957.

Many years later, when she decided she wanted to go into marriage therapy, she attended Goddard College and graduated with a master’s in family therapy. Her doctorate in sexology is from the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality.

She ultimately wrote more than a dozen books and countless articles, and she frequently traveled to conferences and workshops to speak about her methods. She appeared on an episode of “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” in 2000.

Dr. Ogden married Philip Saunders in 1959, and they had two children. They later divorced, and her second marriage, to David Ogden, also ended in divorce.

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As a mother, Dr. Ogden was the “fiercest advocate” for her children, said her daughter, Cathy Saunders of Providence.

“She was a very powerful woman, and she definitely modeled for me — and I think for others — no limits for women in a professional career,” Cathy said.

Dr. Ogden was a school therapist at Berkshire School in Sheffield when she met Jo Chaffee, who was working in development at the boarding school. After a few years, they realized their bond was more than friendship, Chaffee said, and they had been a couple for 37 years.

Chaffee was drawn to Dr. Ogden’s passion and empathy.

“She was always drawing people out,” Chaffee said. “Encouraging people . . . to be open to the possibilities, to speak up for yourself. ‘Come, come, share it with me.’ ”

The spiritual aspects of Dr. Ogden’s research were largely shaped by her interest in Peruvian shamanism, a form of spiritual mindfulness involving instruments and other items. Her mesa room, on the top floor of her Cambridge home, became a legendary place for friends to gather and share in spiritual rituals.

Dr. Ogden also took joy in small adventures, like finding the perfect lilac or searching for the perfect scarf, Saunders said. She went through a myriad of creative phases throughout her lifetime, including caricaturing and poetry, Chaffee said, and she had an eye for color. Dr. Ogden also loved to swim and spent a lot of time at Walden Pond.

She and Chaffee loved to travel, and made annual trips to California for conferences and workshops.

Nearly a decade ago, while at a conference in Sweden, Dr. Ogden met Tina Nevin, a midwife who works in sexual and reproductive well-being. The two bonded over their work, and after a few years, Nevin began helping Dr. Ogden lead workshops. They quickly became friends.

“She was my mentor that became my sister and my best friend,” said Nevin, who spent five weeks with Dr. Ogden at the end of her life to help care for her. It was a request from Dr. Ogden for Nevin to be her death doula — a midwife for her end-of-life transition. And though it was difficult, Nevin couldn’t say no.

“Her legacy, she was a bit worried. What would happen with it?” Nevin said. “And we said, ‘We promise we will keep doing what you’re doing. You can let go.’ ”

Dr. Ogden was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer on Jan. 2. She called the diagnosis “The Guest,” and said she would decide how much space “The Guest” would take up in her life. She was diagnosed with colon cancer shortly after.

In an effort to document her life, particularly her last several months, Dr. Ogden wrote a final book, which she published on her website, called “Act III, Stage IV: Re-Membering My Life.” She called it her “first attempt at a memoir.”

“I am not afraid of dying — whatever that means, but I do not want to have the rest of my life defined by the medical story,” Dr. Ogden wrote to a doctor in Canada, introducing herself shortly following the diagnosis. The letter was republished in the online book. “I would like some time to experience the sweetness of moving between the worlds . . . and maybe helping others along the way.”

In addition to Chaffee and Cathy Saunders, Dr. Ogden leaves a son, Philip Saunders of San Francisco; a half-sister, Elaine Lavalle Freeman of Wakefield, R.I.; and two grandchildren.

Dr. Ogden wrote that death was the “ultimate transition.” Her spirituality made her comfortable and curious about what would come next, ready to experience the next adventure.

“I am SO READY,” she wrote in a farewell to colleagues in June, republished in her online memoir. “No more forms to fill out. No more computer glitches to obsess over. Just letting go. Just think. If orgasm is known as the Little Death, I can hear the Universe cranking up with another message: BUT WAIT — THERE’S MORE!”

Felicia Gans can be reached at felicia.gans@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @FeliciaGans.