Sex is a natural part of life—as are the occasional sexual health concerns. According to Dr. Derek Polonsky of Harvard Medical School, between 35 and 50 percent of all people will experience a long-term sexual issue (anything from difficulty reaching orgasm to mismatched sex drives between partners) at some point in their lives. With rates that high, you’d think we’d all be well-versed in the different ways we can confront our concerns—like seeing a sex therapist.
Yet despite the frequency of sexual issues, sex therapy isn’t something we tend to open up about. A lot of us aren’t entirely sure what sex therapy even entails. That makes the idea of engaging in it pretty scary. To learn more about what it is and how it can improve our experiences, we spoke with Alina McClerklin, LICSW.
What Is Sex Therapy?
Right off the bat, what is sex therapy? According to McClerklin, it’s “talk therapy that focuses on sex and sexuality, and on the negative emotions, behavior, attitudes, and/or difficulties creating connections” that intersect with it. In other words, sex therapy looks at the feelings and beliefs we associate with sex and how they impact our encounters.
And yes, you read that right—it’s a form of talk therapy, centering around conversation rather than action. “Reputable sex therapy never requires nudity or sexual activity,” McClerklin reassures us. You may be discussing an intimate subject with your therapist, but your physical and emotional boundaries should always be respected.
It can be understandably intimidating to seek help with sexual issues. After all, sexuality is a subject that many of us have been raised to consider taboo. Yet “sex is an important part of many people’s lives and plays a big part in our mental health and wellbeing. Too many people suffer in silence because they are embarrassed or ashamed.” Stigmas aside, everyone deserves to feel secure and happy in their intimate attachments. Sex therapy can help you achieve that.
Should I Go to Sex Therapy?
If your issue is related to physical pain or performance, you may want to start by seeing a medical practitioner like a gynecologist or urologist. If your concerns are more emotional, chances are that a therapist is the right person to consult. It’s important to note that some physical issues actually have emotional origins. As a result, you might end up seeing a few doctors to figure out what’s going on.
McClerklin often sees people concerned about one or more of the following:
- Feelings about sex that are hard to discuss with one’s partner, family, or friends;
- Guilt or embarrassment in one’s sexuality;
- Feelings of dissatisfaction with a current sexual partner;
- Issues with sexual dysfunction as a result of trauma, stress, medications, or medical procedures; and
- The inability to enjoy sex.
Some of these issues may look familiar. But what stands to be gained from seeing a sex therapist about them?
On an individual level, therapy can increase your experience of pleasure during intimate activity. It can also increase your knowledge of yourself. You may discover certain tools that help you feel more secure or able to assert your needs during sex, which can majorly improve your experiences. Conversely, you may also identify certain things that make it difficult to enjoy sex, things you can get rid of in the future.
With a partner, you may find that therapy has improved your physical and emotional connection. A therapist can help you communicate needs or concerns that you’ve struggled to convey in the past. Having a safe space where you can dedicate time to improving your sexual relationship can bring you closer together.
So the question might more accurately be stated as such: what’s not to gain?
Finding the Right Sex Therapist
At the most basic level, anyone advertising themselves as a sex therapist should be a graduate-level mental health professional certified by the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors, and Therapists (AASECT). AASECT certification ensures that they’ve undergone significant education and training in sex therapy and related subjects like ethics, intimacy skills, and more.
For people whose oft-marginalized identities play a major role in their sexual interactions, such as LGBTQA individuals, finding a therapist with substantial experience working with related concerns, like kink, ethical non-monogamy, gender identity, or homophobia, can make a difference. If you’re not sure whether a therapist has received substantial training in a certain important topic, it’s okay to ask! A good therapist will be happy to detail where they studied and for how long without hesitation.
Finally, it’s important to find someone you feel safe and comfortable with. No matter how qualified they are, if a therapist makes you feel judged or uneasy, they are not doing their job correctly. It’s perfectly normal for you to shop around, checking out different practitioners, until you have found the right fit.
Sex therapy isn’t as scary as we might have believed—and it can have myriad benefits. If you’re still not sure whether it’s right for you, you can find plenty of information at AASECT’s website, or you can contact us with any questions via email (Alina’s is firstname.lastname@example.org). It is your right to have safe, enjoyable sexual encounters.