For most people, the idea of sex therapy is enough to make them blush or, at the very least, transport them back to their high school sex-ed class with a cringe. Talking about your sex life with a stranger? Nothing could sound more embarrassing, right? Well, maybe talking about the problems with your sex life with a stranger.
But, that’s exactly what sex therapy is all about, and it’s pretty effective if you can get over the stigma and let a professional help you or your relationship.
To understand what sex therapy is, you need to understand the basics of pyschotherapy, which is the treatment of mental health issues. Sex therapy is a specialized discipline of psychotherapy where a patient can address concerns about sexual function, feelings and intimacy. Sex therapy typically happens in one-on-one therapy sessions, with couples, or sometimes in family therapy.
People of any age, gender or sexual orientation can benefit from seeing a licensed psychologist, social worker, physician or licensed therapist with a specialization in sexual and relationship health. Certified sex therapists with graduate degrees can become credentialed by the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists (AASECT). Though you can discuss sexual and intimacy issues with a regular therapist, seeking out one with additional training is preferred, even for a short term duration in addition to regular talk therapy sessions. It’s important to keep in mind that everyone’s treatment plans will depend on the concerns and goals being addressed.
A sex therapist can be a psychiatrist, a marriage and family therapist, a psychologist, or a clinical social worker who is specially trained in sex therapy methods beyond the minimal amount of training about sexuality required for each of those licenses. Currently, there are a few graduate schools that specialize in training for sex therapy, specifically, but some practioners obtain their training through rigorous self-study and attendance at the major sexological organizations' annual conferences. Interestingly, there are about a dozen scientific journals dedicated to exploring and sharing sexual research and about six major organizations that hold regular conferences and training.
One of the key differentiators in sex therapists versus general therapists is that they have a particular awareness and deeper understanding of of sexuality that rises above personal opinion or personal experiences and general formal education. Sex therapists are generally more equipped with a greater breadth of tools and treatments for particular sexual issues. Sex therapists are also better able to tailor treatments and approaches to the person’s specific needs because they have a better, and updated working knowledge of sexological methods to treating sexual issues.
A sex therapist is very similar to a regular therpiast, but they zero in specifically on the sexual side of relationships. It’s important to have someone who specializes in this aspect of a relationship because it’s that intimate zone that is so hard to discuss, yet so crucial to a relationship’s health. A sex therapist’s predominant form of treatment is talk therapy, which is designed to help improve clients sexuality and potential issues that stem from it. They can suggest physical intimacy exercises for couples to try at home in order to teach couples how to become more intimate, or help individuals work through their issues independently of a partner.
Sex therapists can address a variety of issues that pertain to sexuaity and intimacy. For instance, physically, clients may seek a sex therapist because they struggle with reaching orgasm or sustaining an erection. Emotionally, a patient may have problems concerning self-esteem, body image, or an earlier trauma like abuse. There is also an interpersonal aspect, where the patient may disagree with their partner about how often -- or how -- they should have sex.
Before you decide seek our sex therapy for yourself or couples sex therapy for you and your partner, it’s a good idea to do a little prep work. Start by asking your primary care provider or general talk therapist for a referral to a sex therapist. If you don’t have either of those to use as a resource, or you might want to check with a local hospital or medical center to see whether they have a sexual medicine clinic. Additionally, your health insurer or employee assistance program might be able to offer recommendations as well.
If none of these lead you to the right sex therapist, you can always check with a professional organization, such as AASECT, or search a professional organization websites of psychologists, licensed clinical social workers and psychiatrists to locate a licensed and qualified sex therapy provider like Advekit.
Before rushing to schedule an appointment, it’s important to do your due diligence to make sure this sex therapist is a good fit for your personality and specific issues. You should look into their credentials, experience and approach. Consider screening your potential sex therapist with questions like:
What is your educational and training background? Are you licensed by the state? Are you credentialed by AASECT?
What's your experience with my type of sexual issue?
Where is your office? What are your office hours?
How long is each session? How often are sessions scheduled? How long might I expect treatment to continue? What is your policy on canceled sessions?
How much do you charge for each session? Are your services covered by my health insurance plan? Will I need to pay the full fee upfront?
Once you feel like you’ve found a good match, gather together personal information ready to share at your first appointment. It will help your sex therapist identify your issue and help put together a treatment place quicker if you arrive at your first session with the details of your problem written down, including when it started, whether it's always present or comes and goes, professionals you've seen, and treatments you've tried and their outcomes. Also be ready to provide key personal information, including your medical conditions, any major stresses or recent life changes. If you are taking any medications or supplements, it’s a good idea to have a list ready to give your sex therapist so they can take them into consideration with your plan. Lastly, if you have any specific questions about your sexual concerns, write them down so you don’t forget. It will help maximize your time with your sex therapist.
At the first appointment, you'll likely begin sex therapy by describing your specific sexual concerns, which is why it’s a good idea to have written them down first. Sexual issues can be complicated and sensitive in nature, and your sex therapist will want to get a clear idea of all the factors involved. You can expect an initial in-depth assessment of your background and presenting sexual or relationship concerns. It may take a couple sessions for your sex therapist to truly understand your case and formulate a way to resolve concerns and improve communication and intimacy.
It’s completely natural for initial sex and intimacy discussions to feel awkward or anxiety-inducing, but trust that your carefully selected sex therapist is trained at putting you at ease and skilled at identifying and exploring sexual concerns. If you're in a relationship, couples sex therapy is preferred, with both you and your partner present at sessions. If you’re doing couples sex therapy, your therapist will likely assign you and your partner a series of homework exercises that help work on communication, slowing down to focus on intimate encounters, education about sexual health, and generally changing the way you interact with your partner both sexually and platonically
It’s important to keep in mind that sex therapy is usually short term. Some concerns can be addressed in just a few visits, but typically several counseling sessions are needed.
As sex therapy progresses, you can use your home experiences to further identify and refine the issues you'd like explore.
Remember, sexual coaching that involves physical contact is not part of mainstream sex therapy and is against the ethics of licensed mental health professionals. With the exception of when separate sexual surrogate therapists are added (in a very small number of cases), sex therapy is completely talk therapy.
Sex therapy is for everyone. Humans are innately sexual beings and it’s completely normal for issues and frustrations to arise in and out of relationships. No matter your gender or sexual orientation, sex therapy is beneficial for anyone struggling with sexually related issues. Sex therapy can help you resolve various sexual problems, from sexual functioning and erectile dysfunction to difficulties in a sexual relationship.
Through sex therapy, you may focus on issues surrounding desire and behavior such as sexual arousal, sexual interests or sexual orientation, impulsive or compulsive sexual behavior. It’s also very beneficial for physical performance problems that can create emotional issues like erectile functioning concerns, premature ejaculation, difficulty with sexual arousal, trouble reaching orgasm (anorgasmia), or painful intercourse (dyspareunia). Lastly, sex therapy is great for identifying and resolving issues around intimacy or concerns regarding past unwanted sexual experiences.
Human sexuality can be complicated. Sex therapy can help anyone learn to express their sexual concerns clearly, and better understand the sexual needs of themselves and their partner. Just keep in mind that concerns about sex and intimacy are often linked to other underlying emptional issues, such as stress, anxiety, depression, sexual trauma or relationship issues. Painful sex, previous experiences with sexual abuse and issues with intimate relationships can prevent sexual satisfaction. In some cases, sexual function is affected by physical issues like chronic illness, medication side effects, surgery or aging.
Depending on your concerns and physical health, seeking sex therapy may be enough — or it may be only part of your care. For some sexual concerns, medication may be helpful but a complete medical evaluation with a physician can help determine the nature of your problem and appropriate treatment option.
Remember, to see real results from your sex therapy, it requires trust and good communication with your therapist. It also asks that you be open with your issues. When those two things are available, sex therapy treatment can be swift and effective for anyone seeking relief.
Alison LaSov, LMFT
Alison LaSov is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist with experience treating clients struggling with anxiety and depression. She predominantly focuses on mental health intervention for children and adolescents, particularly those who are in crisis. She has worked within the Los Angeles education system treating students with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs), as well as supervised a non-profit Teen Crisis Hotline out of Cedars-Sinai Hospital. Alison earned her B.A. from UCLA and M.A. from Pepperdine University. She is a native to Los Angeles and co-founder at Advekit.