What's A Sex Therapist?

Updated February 19, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content Warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

There are many reasons an individual or a couple might seek out a "certified sex therapist near me". Sex can be a significant part of people's lives, and challenges or sexual issues like sexual dysfunction, pain, traumatic experiences, or other sexual concerns can be difficult to manage independently. Some people also visit a sex therapist for sexual education, tips to improve intercourse or intimacy exercises they can learn with their partner. What does a sex therapist do? Note that sex therapy does not involve any sexual activity with the therapist. Instead, it is a talk therapy that allows clients to discuss their concerns and develop a treatment plan. 

For many, sexual problems or challenges like sexual shame are related to mental health. Physical sex difficulties, such as pain during intimate sex, may also have mental and emotional aspects that can be alleviated through sex therapy.

If you are experiencing sexual challenges, support is available, and you're not alone.

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Can a sex therapist really help me?
The role of sex therapists

A qualified sex therapist is a licensed mental health professional certified through the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists (AASECT). Certified sex therapists may be psychologists, social workers, or counselors with specialized training in treating individuals and couples coming to them for support. They are sexual educators and mental health professionals with a license in their state to practice therapy and help people through sexual difficulties or sexual function issues. A sex therapist can also often offer other types of counseling, as they have the same education as other licensed mental health providers at their level. 

How do you become a sex therapist?

To become a sex therapist, one must comply to the requirements outlined by AASECT. Expectations to become a sex therapist include earning at least a master's degree in mental health with training in psychotherapy and holding licensure as a counselor, clinical social worker, or marriage and family therapist. Requirements for education involve extensive coursework in human sexuality, sexual health, sexual functioning, and sexual orientation. In many states, a sex therapist must also obtain marriage and family therapist licenses. 

How can sex therapists help? 

Talking about sex may feel awkward and uncomfortable at first for many clients. However, sessions with a sex therapist can ease these feelings of discomfort for many. Sex therapists are trained in various areas and often have extensive experience in treating concerns such as the following: 

  • A lack of sexual desire

  • Premature ejaculation

  • Anxiety about sexual contact

  • A traumatic sexual history or abuse* 

  • Difficulty finding healthy relationships 

  • A lack of intimacy in a relationship 

  • Difficulty communicating about sex with partners

  • Body image concerns

  • Mismatching sexual fantasies or desires in a relationship 

  • Mismatching libido in a relationship 

  • Confusion about sexuality or gender identity 

  • Pain during sex

  • Difficulty having an orgasm 

If you are facing or witnessing abuse of any kind, the National Domestic Violence Hotline is available 24/7 for support. Call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or text "START" to 88788. You can also use the online chat

Sex therapists often work to help clients have a healthy sex life, regardless of their goals. However, some clients may also work with a therapist to have self-confidence, feel comfortable in their bodies, or understand their sexual needs and identity more profoundly. Sex therapy may not only be focused on sexual activity. For many, identity and self-esteem are tied to these topics. 

Common Topics Sex Therapists Offer Support With

Below is further clarification on the topics that a sex therapist might offer support with. However, the list is not comprehensive. You can contact one of these professionals anytime if you feel their services could support you. 

Sexual arousal challenges 

Sexual arousal challenges like erectile dysfunction, vaginal dryness, or difficulty feeling sexual attraction can be addressed in sex therapy. Sexual arousal challenges are not limited to gender, and sex therapists may use various techniques to address them, such as conversational activities, discussion of past events, and communication lessons, depending on whether the therapy is individual or for a couple. 

Performance frustration

Sexual performance challenges can be addressed in sex therapy. 43% of women and 31% of men report sexual dysfunction in their relationships. Challenges like struggling to pleasure a partner or find pleasure during sex can cause frustration and other unwanted emotions. Physical issues like pain or difficulty getting an erection can also cause challenges with performance. 

A sex therapist can help individuals or couples understand any potential underlying causes of their sexual challenges. If the individuals are a couple, they can learn exercises to try at home to increase arousal, comfort, and intimacy in their interactions. Removing pressure from sex may help many individuals feel safer exploring their bodies. 

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Intimacy issues

Intimacy issues might make it difficult for individuals to feel close to one another. Intimacy can be sexual, emotional, or physical. At times, people may struggle to have healthy sexual lives because they feel their emotional intimacy or love is lacking. Without love, sexual intimacy may not be possible for some partners. A sex therapist can help these individuals or couples increase love and emotional connection in their lives. 

For some individuals, intimacy may be scary and cause feelings of anxiety. They might feel so nervous about sex that they avoid sexual encounters or have panic attacks or pain during intercourse. A sex therapist can help them understand the root of their sexual fears and feel safer setting boundaries and saying "no" when they don't want to have sex. Consent can be crucial to a healthy encounter, and many people may struggle with having sex when they do not want to. 

Body image

Many intimacy concerns may be related to body image. For some, that might be gender dysphoria. For others, it could be low self-esteem or insecurity about a part of their body. People are not always comfortable with being naked in front of others. Couples may face conflict if one partner wants to see more of their partner's body, but the individual isn't comfortable. In these cases, the therapist can help the couple understand consent, discuss body image, and partake in safe exercises and activities for both people. Body image issues may be overcome with time, but the pressure to be naked before one is ready may cause a worsening feeling of shame or guilt. In these cases, a therapist can help the individual work up to what they're comfortable with.

What is couples sex therapy like?

Many challenges with sexual intimacy may arise from couples struggling to connect, communicate, and understand each other's needs. Couples sex therapy aims to assist in overcoming barriers like anxiety, past adverse experiences, or body image issues may add emotional blockages to sexual intercourse, adding a layer of shame or guilt to communication that makes it difficult to tell your partner what you need. Many couples benefit from putting sex on the back burner while working with a therapist to discuss these concerns in more detail.

Two people may love each other very much but still experience sexual challenges. Having these challenges does not mean either partner is "wrong" or "bad." A sexual therapist can lead these individuals through exercises like the following.

Sensate focusing 

In  sensate-focused therapy, both partners learn to touch non-sexual areas of the body, such as the arm, to know what it's like to give and receive consensual touch in a safe environment with communication.

Hugging and cuddling 

Partners may learn to hug each other, cuddle, and lay in silence without sexual intercourse to increase intimacy. 

Eye contact exercises 

Partners can learn to find intimate feelings by looking into each other's eyes and connecting emotionally before sex. 

Consent exercises 

In consent exercises, the partners take turns asking for non-sexual touches, such as "can you touch my arm?" In the first round, partners say "no" to every request. In the second round, they practice saying "yes" to every request. In the third round, they only say "yes" to what they want. Doing so can help them understand what it feels like to say "yes" or "no" when you don't want to. Understanding this technique can allow them to further understand consent and accept a "no."  

Experimental sexual touching

With experimental touching, couples can go home and practice consent with sexual touch. Instead of having sex as usual, they might play the consent game again with sexual touches. However, in this exercise, they respond honestly or practice saying "no." For example, they could ask, "can I kiss you there?" The partner then responds with "yes" or "no," and they continue the exercise. Sexual exercises are not performed in session with a therapist but at home or in a safe, non-public location outside of sessions. 

Discussion about barriers 

A sex therapist may also help couples understand any barriers to healthy sexual intercourse. For example, if they struggle to communicate or one partner has a lower sex drive, these causes can be discussed. The therapist may also help the couple understand that how often they have sex doesn't necessarily define how healthy or "favorable" their sex life is. Some couples may feel best with a lower frequency of sex, and as long as both partners are consenting and happy, it can be healthy. 

Can sex therapists help those with sexual trauma? 

Many clients may come to sex therapy to learn how past experiences may impact sexual desire or performance. As studies show that the body can remember the trauma and cause physical pain and other distressing symptoms, sex can be challenging, shameful, or painful for someone with sexual trauma. Trusting an intimate partner can require vulnerability that may be challenging for a survivor. 

The statistics show that one in six American women have experienced an assault or attempted assault in their lifetime. For many, talking about these experiences can be vital to a healthy sex life. Sex that is not comfortable to these individuals may be challenging to cope with and could cause flashbacks during sex, which can lead to panic or distress with a partner. Sex therapists can help these individuals address trauma and feel safe. 

Talking about these challenges and learning to feel comfortable again can take time. A compassionate psychologist can be an ally to survivors of sexual abuse and open the conversation to whatever they need to discuss. 

Can sex therapists support those with a sex addiction? 

Sex addiction is a psychological dependency on sexual behavior that a sex therapist may treat. Compulsive sexual behavior can cause distress, emotional consequences, and difficulty with intimacy. It may also accompany compulsive porn watching or masturbation, which can be distressing for those who experience it. For some, sex addiction accompanies infidelity or unsafe sexual risks. 

Sex can be a healthy activity for many, but it may be unhealthy when it comes with distressing psychological compulsions and behaviors. A sex therapist can help these individuals understand the motives behind their behavior, make changes in their relationships, and feel healthy. Support groups may also be available in your area.

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Can a sex therapist really help me?

Counseling options 

Talking about sex with an in-person therapist can feel overwhelming and embarrassing for many. In these cases, online therapy can be a more comfortable alternative. Both couples and individuals can talk to a sex therapist online over the phone, via video, or through live chat sessions. In addition, you can get a nickname when signing up for some platforms, allowing you to remain discreet as you receive support. 

In addition, studies have found that online sex therapy has the potential to benefit clients in similar ways to in-person therapy. One study researching sexual function after a medical diagnosis found that individuals could increase sexual activity, improve sexual function, feel comfortable using sexual aids, and engage actively in treatment. 

If you're interested in meeting with a sex therapist, consider signing up for a platform like BetterHelp for individuals or Regain for couples. Both platforms offer thousands of therapists, and you can note your intentions for therapy as soon as you sign up. 

Takeaway

Sex can involve many emotions, sensations, and connections. Sex therapy with a licensed sex therapist takes a healthy, integrative approach to dealing with any challenges that might arise throughout these vulnerabilities. If you're interested in trying sex therapy, consider contacting a licensed professional to learn more about this type of treatment. 

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