What is sex therapy?
Sex therapy is a specific branch of psychotherapy devoted to supporting well-being around sex and sexual satisfaction. Contrary to common misunderstanding, sex therapy does not involve sexual contact with or in front of a therapist.
Sex therapy is simply a specialized way of treating sexual concerns from a psychological perspective, including addressing any mental health conditions that may relate to or arise from these concerns.
What sex therapy can help with
Certified sex therapists are trained to help with a wide variety of challenges related to sex, and achieving a healthy sex life, including (but not limited to) the following:
- General stress or anxiety around sex: You may be preoccupied with your worries about sexual behavior, or even find that your anxiety in this area interferes with some aspect of sex.
- Lack of desire or mismatched desires: You or your partner(s) may not feel as much sexual desire as you want to, or you may not experience the same amount or frequency of sexual desires.
- Challenges with sexual arousal: You might have difficulty feeling sexually aroused or achieving orgasm, or you may experience orgasm sooner than you want to. Erectile dysfunction and premature ejaculation fall under this category.
- Sex and/or pornography addiction: Not all sex therapists treat these issues, but some are trained to help you deal with addictive behaviors relating to sex.
- Issues relating to sexual trauma: Individuals who have been victims of sexual trauma often experience ongoing challenges around sex and sexuality. You can find more information about healing from sexual trauma here.
- Challenges relating to sexual orientation or gender identity: If you’re struggling with any aspect of your sexual orientation or gender identity (coming out or facing discrimination, for example), these challenges may affect your sex life as well.
- Painful intercourse: Though it can be caused by underlying medical issues, painful intercourse can sometimes be related to stress or anxiety around sex.
- Body image or self-esteem issues: Especially in a culture that places a high value on sex appeal and physical attractiveness, issues around sex can challenge an individual’s sense of self-worth.
- Sexual changes related to life circumstances: You might find that you need to approach sex differently due to having children, aging, a medical condition, or even just major life changes like a new job or a relocation.
- Exploration of new sexual activities: You and/or your partner might be interested in trying out a new kink or exploring nonmonogamy.
- Feeling generally stuck or unsatisfied sexually: You might stuck in a rut and not quite sure why, or you might be interested in exploring new sides of your sexuality and feel unsure of where to start.
In short, sex therapists can support you around just about any issue related to sex. What’s more, they can also be a valuable resource even if you’re not experiencing a problem, per se; you might just be interested in exploring your sexuality in some way, and a sex therapist can be helpful in that situation too.
Effectiveness of sex therapy
Because so many different kinds of treatments and issues fall under the umbrella of sex therapy, it’s difficult to assess its overall effectiveness. That said, some studies have found that high percentages of individuals who participate in sex therapy report more enjoyment of sex and lower levels of sexual dysfunction after completing treatment.
Different types of sex therapy
For the most part, sex therapy closely resembles traditional talk therapy, though many therapists also assign homework or activities to be completed between sessions. You might attend sex therapy on your own, or you might attend with one or more partners. Some sex therapists may also recommend that partners have one or more sessions separately from each other.
Sex therapy often includes aspects of other therapeutic modalities including cognitive-behavioral therapy, psychodynamic therapy, and mindfulness practices.
In cases where a medical issue may be related to your sexual concerns, your sex therapist (if they are not a medical professional) will likely recommend that you also work with a physician to have a full check-up and manage any necessary medication.
Structure of sex therapy sessions
You can expect a typical sex therapy session to look a lot like any other psychotherapy session, with the difference of an added focus on human sexuality and whatever specific challenges you’re interested in focusing on.
Early sessions are “get to know you” time
In your first session, your sex therapist will likely want to get a sense of the context surrounding your concerns and may ask you questions around the following topics:
- Your sexual history, both as individuals and (if applicable) as partners
- Your general mental health history
- Your sexual orientation
- Any physical or medical concerns that may be causing sexual problems or affecting the current issue
- The course of your relationship and what it’s like outside of sexual activity (if the issue is related to a partnered relationship)
- Your typical sexual habits, including frequency and type of sexual contact and masturbation
- How you show desire and affection beyond sex
If a medical problem might be involved, your therapist may also take a more detailed medical history or refer you to a physician for an examination or medication management.
In later sessions, you’ll dive into more contextual details
As you grow more familiar with your therapist, you can expect to talk about the above subjects in more detail and delve into your feelings (and those of your partner[s]) about them.
Homework is often involved
Your therapist’s job is to help you spot patterns around these issues, gain a sense of security in working on them, and experiment with new courses of action. To that end, most therapists assign homework that may be emotional (such as communication or mindfulness exercises for relationship therapy) or physical (trying out certain kinds of intimate touch at home, for example) to be completed between sessions, and you’ll likely spend some time during each session going over the results of this homework.
Who could benefit from seeing a sex therapist
Just about anyone who has concerns or even curiosities related to their sex life or issues surrounding sex and intimacy might benefit from seeing a sex therapist.
Sex therapy is a great way to prioritize your sexual health and well-being, and it can give you a compassionate, non-judgmental environment in which to explore your sexuality, address sexual dysfunction, and get help to achieve a fulfilling sex life.
Therapy approaches that sex therapists use
Common therapy approaches to sexual health and dysfunction include:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
- Couples therapy
- Mindfulness practices
- Interpersonal psychotherapy
- Psychodynamic therapy
- Psychoeducation around sexual health
What to look for in a sex therapist
Therapists differ in their approaches to treating sexual challenges, but it can be a good idea to find a licensed sex therapist who has training specifically in sex therapy and sexual concerns.
Look for a therapist with specialized training
When looking for a sex therapist, learn about the provider’s education and training and see if they have any specialized training in this area.
For example, you may want to look for a practitioner who has been certified by the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists (AASECT).
AASECT-certified sex therapists have had specialized training and fulfilled academic and licensure requirements, and they are also required to complete ongoing continuing education credits to ensure that their clinical practice is informed by the latest developments in the field.
If you’re seeking help with a particular issue, see if the therapist references it in their profile
You can also read their online profiles or websites for information they share on their specialties — within sex therapy, do they mostly see women who have a history of trauma or sexual abuse? Men who have challenges with performance or sexual dysfunction? Couples who struggle with intimacy and sexual satisfaction? Do they see clients addressing problems with sexual addiction?
While most sex therapists can address a range of concerns that fall into this category, finding a specialist in the particular challenge you are facing may help you address your concerns more effectively.
Learn more about what to look for in a sex therapist here, or to continue your sex therapy education, read our ultimate guide to sex therapy, explanation of sexual health and dysfunction, what to expect in sex therapy, how to choose between ED pills and sex therapy, and/or common questions about sex therapy for ED.
New to therapy? Learn about how to find a therapist here.