Sex therapy is a type of psychotherapy that addresses mental health issues and/ or emotional concerns affecting a person’s sexual function, drive, and/or desire for intimacy.
These issues are typically explored with the help of a licensed sex therapist. Some people seek help individually, while others may pursue sex therapy with a romantic partner.
This specialized form of therapy developed in order to help people address concerns related to sexual intimacy. According to Derek Polonsky, a psychiatrist associated with Harvard Medical School, between 35 and 50 percent of people will experience a long-term sexual issue at some point. Thus, while it may not always be easy to bring up the topic of sexual concerns, they are certainly not uncommon.
Individuals can pursue this type of therapy on their own, whether they are single or in a relationship, or with a partner. While many individuals may find it difficult to talk about sex—especially with a professional they do not know well, while their partner is present—sex therapy can often help couples or individuals gain more confidence, restore or improve sexual health, communicate more effectively, and work on achieving a more fulfilling sex life.
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A sex therapist is a professional psychologist, therapist, social worker, or physician who offers comprehensive counseling services for people dealing with some type of sexual issue.
Certified sex therapists will hold an advanced degree in counseling, therapy, psychology, or related field; achieve a number of hours of sex therapy training and clinical experience; and be credentialed by the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists (AASECT). An AASECT certification must be renewed every three years.
Choosing the right therapist will depend on the specific situation of the person/people seeking treatment as well as the therapist's area of expertise. Because certification or licensure for sex therapists has yet to be standardized, it is generally a good idea to ask potential therapists about their professional training in human sexuality and the specific issues they are able to address.
A person who chooses to enter sex therapy individually may be more comfortable discussing sexual issues with a therapist of the same gender. However, all sex therapists are trained to address the emotional, physical, and biological issues that can influence sexual activity in men and women. Many sex therapists also help non-binary, transgender, and intersex people address sexual concerns, but some individuals may find it more helpful to work with a therapist who has experience working with people who are not cisgender. A sex therapist should never attempt to change or deny a person’s gender, identity, or sexual orientation, and doing so would be considered a sign of unethical treatment. Further, the issues that bring non-binary, trans, or intersex people to sex therapy may not be in any way related to their identity, and an ethical therapist will not assume this to be the case.
In session, a sex therapist will work to help a person or couple seeking help achieve an improved mental and emotional state in order for them to enjoy a more satisfying sexual experience and/or relationships. Sessions are strictly instructive and verbal, and all exercises and that involve physical contact are performed outside of the session. Sex therapy does not involve having sex with the therapist or being forced to have sexual contact with anyone else. Therapists may, as part of the process, encourage those in treatment to consider participating in certain intimate activities or exercises with their partner, but a person is never made to do so as part of therapy. Sex therapy is largely a mental and emotional reflection of one’s own internal conflicts, concerns, and/or questions about sex.
In many cases, people participate in sex therapy on a short-term basis (though in some cases, an ongoing or longer-term approach to counseling is needed). A specific treatment plan will rely heavily on the individual needs of the person or couple in therapy.
There are several reasons why a person might choose to seek sex counseling, but it is most often recommended for anyone whose quality of life is affected by their sexual function or desire and/or for anyone having problems with intimacy within a relationship, regardless of age, gender, or background. Adolescents who are confused or concerned about sexual matters may also seek the help of a sex therapist, in some instances.
Adequate and comprehensive sex counseling can have a positive impact on the psychological and sexual health of a person or couple in therapy, even after only a short period of time. Still, the effectiveness of the therapy ultimately depends on the willingness of the person in therapy to accept the concepts presented to them during a session.
Most experts agree that sex therapy—like other modes of therapy—is most helpful when all parties honestly consider the concerns raised and make a considered, collaborative (when applicable) effort to work through them. Most experts agree that sex therapy—like other modes of therapy—is most helpful when all parties honestly consider the concerns raised and make a considered, collaborative (when applicable) effort to work through them.
Sex therapy can be used to address:
- A lack of sexual desire
- Intimacy after infidelity
- A couple’s disparity in sex drives
- Intimacy after having children
- Painful intercourse
- A paraphilia, or desire that cause a person distress
- Sex addictions and/or compulsive behavior
- Difficulties achieving orgasm.
Sex therapy is not limited to these issues, but these are some of the most common reasons a person or couple may choose to seek out a qualified sex therapist.
Because sex can be a controversial subject that may challenge personal values in addition to political and religious views, sex therapy may be difficult for some people. Sex therapists are specially trained to balance their professionalism with these factors in mind, but the effectiveness of sex therapy ultimately depends on the quality of the therapeutic relationship and on the goals and motivation of the person or couple in therapy. One or more of these factors may be compromised by the person in therapy’s belief system, which is why it is important for individuals to carefully select a sex therapist they feel comfortable with.
- Baldauf, S. (2008, September 2). How therapy can help your sex life. U.S. News & World Report. Retrieved from http://health.usnews.com/health-news/family-health/sexual-and-reproductive-health/articles/2008/09/02/how-therapy-can-help-your-sex-life
- Certification overview. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.aasect.org
- Myers, W. (2016, June 30). 7 things you should know about sex therapy. Everyday Health. Retrieved from http://www.everydayhealth.com/sexual-health/sex-therapy.aspx
- Sex therapy. (2016, January 15). Retrieved from http://www.mayoclinic.org/tests-procedures/sex-therapy/basics/definition/prc-20020669
- What is a sex therapist? (n.d.). American board of sexology. Retrieved December 18, 2014, from http://americanboardofsexology.com/whatis.ht
Last Update: 06-14-2018
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