Telling people in my personal life that I am training as a sex therapist elicits a range of strong reactions. Nervous laughter, raised eyebrows, coy looks, and insinuations of wanting to know ‘my secrets’ abound. While part of my training as a sex therapist is building a knowledge base on human sexuality, as well as supporting individuals as they discover and explore their own sexuality, it is important to clarify the limits of sex therapy, particularly what it is and is not.
As we have evolved as a society, there has been a shift for physical, emotional, and now sexual health as being more than the absence of disease or dysfunction. There is a demand for and interest in health promotion and establishing well-being and vitality, and exploring what that looks like for us as individuals and within and across various cultures. According to the World Health Organization, addressing sexual health “requires a positive and respectful approach to sexuality and sexual relationships, as well as the possibility of having pleasurable and safe sexual experiences, free of coercion, discrimination, and violence.” (see WHO: https://www.who.int/topics/sexual_health/en/). Learning about pleasure, within the context of the beauty and ugliness that can abound in sexual interactions, is a key element that is so often missing from conversations of what sex, love, and romance can mean for us, which is part of where my role comes in.
So what exactly is sex therapy? Sex therapy is….
- Tailored to the client
- All about exploration – of your desires, your hang-ups, your relationship to the space that is your body, how you view others to whom you are attracted, what it means to have craving for connection in your body, how you shut down and inhibit or allow and feel into desire, etc.
- Grounded in exploring the context of cultural values, societal beliefs, family rules and roles, trauma, access to accurate and non-judgmental sexual health information, exposure to and influence of pornography or sexual imagery, etc., and how these inform our beliefs on sex
- Exciting, scary, interesting, and sometimes both uncomfortable and relieving, especially when it means shaking up the way that we have looked at and held onto things taken as truth, particularly if that truth is no longer serving us
- Intended to help educate, empower, and enliven you
- Something that promotes leaning in to your power as a man, woman, human being, or whatever identity(ies) you take on, as well as exploring the ways that gendered roles may inhibit or limit our beliefs regarding sexual freedom
- Open to exploring the pain and conflicting experiences and meanings we may have with sex and sexuality, as well as being gentle in exploring things that have felt dangerous, taboo, off-limits, or frightening to us, with the therapy room being a safe space to talk these through
- Affirming of individuals identifying as LGBTQIA+, as well as any sexual orientation and gender identity, particularly when it involves working through shame, disenfranchisement, discrimination, or being treated as ‘othered’ or ‘less than’ due to any combination of these identities
- Somewhere to hold space for the ways that our racial and cultural identities, as well as areas of privilege related to age, ableism, socioeconomic status, education, etc. intertwine with and influence our sexuality
- Where you can ask questions you feel like you cannot ask anywhere else!
Sex therapy is not…
- Having sex with clients – this goes against ethical codes for any type of licensed mental health therapist, and as such, goes against our principles and beliefs on how to help people
- Hands-on or something that is involving bodywork – we are not touching or having any type of close proximity/touch normally reserved for sexual exchanges with others
- Telling you how to have sex – while some therapists are more directive and others are more egalitarian, telling you how to DO something is far less powerful than inviting you in the process of exploring the potential and possibilities of what you want your sexuality and sexual expression to look like, in addition to understanding the barriers and messages that have kept you from pursuing or putting this into effect
- Shaming – you probably got enough of this from cultural and societal messages. If anything, our goal is to help you sort through and unpack the shame that has gotten attached to various experiences, feelings, and conflicting beliefs, so as to help you to find your own healing in your journey
So if you find yourself having questions, concerns, hopes, fears, etc. related to sex, gender, relationships, etc., I encourage you to find someone to speak with who helps you to feel safe, and also has done work with what you are hoping to explore further. The American Academy of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists (AASECT) is one of many reputable organizations focused on credentialing therapists for this work, with therapists who complete this process earning the title of Certified Sex Therapist (a lengthy but ‘worth it’ process I am in the midst of myself). The most important thing is that you are able to have space and support to explore your own desires, wants, and needs, and have someone that you trust to accelerate and deepen the process of re-learning what sexuality means for YOU!