Should I see a sex therapist? What exactly can they help with?
Who do you turn to when you’re struggling with your sex life? If we’re lucky, we have partners, friends, or family to talk through our sexual hang-ups with. But not everyone is comfortable, open-minded, or informed enough to have these kinds of conversations. Even if you have the most sex-positive and supportive people in your life, they may not know how to actually help solve these problems. And while a healthcare provider might know how your sexual and reproductive systems work, they aren’t as helpful when it comes to helping you communicate with your partner about any issues concerning them.
When you’re dealing with an issue that is negatively affecting your sex life, whether physical or psychological, it can be best to go to a sex therapist. While regular talk therapy has (thankfully) become more normalized, sex therapy is still widely misunderstood. Just like regular therapists, sex therapists provide counseling for clients. The major difference is that sex therapy focuses on, well, sex.
Here’s a breakdown of how sex therapists can help and how to know whether you should see one.
What exactly do sex therapists do?
Sex therapists are licensed mental health professionals who use talk therapy to help clients address physical, psychological, and interpersonal factors impacting sexual satisfaction. A sex therapist can be a psychiatrist, a marriage and family therapist, a psychologist, or a clinical social worker. However, they are specially trained in sex therapy methods beyond the minimal amount of training about sexuality that is required for each of those licenses.
Sex therapists treat individuals and couples. You don’t have to have a partner to see a sex therapist. While a sex therapist can help couples talk about sex with each other and improve or restore intimacy, they can also help individuals improve their sexual satisfaction. They can diagnose whatever is causing issues in your sex life and also get to the root of the problem. Most importantly, sex therapists offer a confidential, judgment-free space to talk about your desires and anxieties when it comes to sex.
One of the most common misconceptions is that sex therapists engage in or are present for sex with their clients. Much like traditional therapy, clients usually meet in the sex therapist’s office. Sex therapy does not involve any physical contact or sexual activity with the therapist or your partner during the session. Some forms of sex coaching include these techniques, but this isn’t an accepted practice for certified sex therapists and is against the ethics of mental health professionals. Sex therapists are not sex surrogates, although in some cases they may suggest or facilitate working with a surrogate. Sex surrogates are trained to act as a surrogate partner for clients, engaging in sexual exercises to help them address their issues.
What is sex therapy like?
It’s totally normal for clients to feel a bit awkward or anxious about talking to a sex therapist, especially for the first time. However, sex therapists are aware of how difficult it can be to be vulnerable about your sex life with a stranger. Remember, they are specially trained for this and they have heard everything. They are here to help you, not judge you!
If you go as a couple, a sex therapist may initially have individual sessions with you and your partner to make it easier for you two to open up in session together. In addition to asking about your specific sexual concerns, they may also ask you and your partner about your health and sexual background, what kind of sex education you received, and what beliefs you hold about sex. Sessions can be different depending on whether they are for individuals or a couple, and the length and frequency of sessions can vary as well. However, most clients can expect a shorter term commitment than traditional therapy because sex therapy is usually focused on addressing specific sexual issues.
Sex therapists usually assign homework — practical activities that clients are expected to complete in between sessions. This homework might include physical assignments, such as experimenting with new types of sexual activities or positions, or sensate focus, a multi-stage technique designed to build trust and intimacy. Homework can also include educational exercises, such as informative readings or videos, or even using a mirror to learn more about your body. Another kind of homework can focus on communication strategies, in which clients practice talking about and asking for what they want or need sexually or emotionally from their partners.
What can I get out of sex therapy?
Having a safe outlet to express your sexual fears and frustrations, as well as an educated professional to normalize them, can be enormously helpful to your sexual confidence. By helping you reframe your sexual challenges and implementing techniques to address them, a sex therapist can help you achieve greater sexual satisfaction. You can learn how to improve communication with your partners, identify and express your desires, and get to know your body better. The more effort and commitment you make to your sessions and homework, the better results you will see. Like any kind of therapy, you’ll get out what you put in.
When should I see a sex therapist?
Sex therapists can help with a variety of issues, and none are too small or big. If your quality of life or mental and emotional health are significantly negatively affected by any part of your sex life, sex therapy could help.
Some examples of sexual issues that sex therapists help with include:
Low or mismatched libido
Lack or fear of intimacy
Communication with partners
Premature or delayed ejaculation
Polyamory and open relationships
BDSM and kink
Sex with a disability or chronic illness
Sexual trauma or abuse
Breast, ovarian, and prostate cancer survivors
Impulsive or compulsive sexual behavior (i.e. porn, masturbation, or sex addiction)
How do I find a sex therapist?
If you would like to work with a sex therapist, make sure they are licensed and certified by the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists (AASECT). You can also find sex therapists in your area through Psychology Today’s site. If your insurance covers sex therapy, they may have a list of therapists that take your insurance. You can even ask your healthcare provider, gynaecologist, or urologist for a recommendation.