What Does a Sex Therapist Do, Anyway?

by Jerry Kennard, Ph.D. Medical Reviewer

In one form or another, sex therapy, spanning many cultures, has been around for thousands of years. Of course, older approaches to therapy are somewhat different to what we’re used to today. Ancient practices may well have involved spells or aphrodisiacs, but also exercises, instructions, and techniques, some of which are still around today.

One thing remains a constant: So long as there is a need for something, there’s always someone who will try to offer a solution. A quick internet search will rapidly reveal a thriving market in devices, pills, lotions, and potions, all claiming to either cure or enhance sexual function. The merits and ethics of such approaches can leave something to be desired, but it’s clear that many people continue to seek help for conditions or situations that negatively affect their sexual health.

What is a sex therapist?

A safer, more productive approach to sexual issues is to seek help from qualified practitioners. These specialists are known as psychosexual counsellors, or, more commonly, sex therapists. Sex therapists are licensed mental health professionals who have undertaken specialist training, according to the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists (AASECT).

Normal sexual functioning is a complex issue that involves biological, psychological, and socio-cultural issues. Because issues involving sex, sexual arousal, and pleasure often remain taboo subjects, one role of the sex therapist is to find out whether particular beliefs or attitudes contribute to the current problem.

The role of the sex therapist is to help people resolve sexual difficulties. The process typically begins in the form of an interview, in which the therapist obtains both your medical history and current social information. Referral to a medical professional for an exam or testing may then be made to rule out physical causes of specific sexual dysfunctions. For example, erectile dysfunction is quite common in men with diabetes. Age is sometimes a major factor for both men and women. Sexual dysfunction is also associated with the side effects of some medications, but also substance and alcohol misuse.

What causes a sexual dysfunction?

Therapists know that our early years can influence the way we view sex as adults. Strict upbringings, where basic physical intimacy is lacking, or even punished, can result in guilt and shame. Sometimes, there is confusion over sexual identity. Sometimes, people with dysfunctions have little knowledge about the physiology of their own body or their partner’s body. What “insights” they have may have been gleaned from pornographic or related websites, or even early abuse, which provide a distorted view of human sexuality. At minimum, this can lead to performance anxiety and poor communication.

Treatment for sexual dysfunction

Forming an understanding of the problems underpinning sexual dysfunction is the first step in treatment. Then, treatments can target specific needs and, if necessary, the most appropriate sex therapist can be assigned. Typically, however, therapy may include discussion and educational materials as well as homework tasks.

Problems that can be treated typically include:

When sexual dysfunction occurs in relationships, results are most successful when both partners accept the principle of mutual responsibility. In other words, the couple shares the sexual problem, regardless of which person has the actual dysfunction.

It’s also worth mentioning that some types of sexual practices must be approached in a completely different way. Sexual activity with minors, animals, or sexually sadistic acts, for example, require very specialized forms of therapy, often monitored and directed within multidisciplinary settings.

Myths and concerns about sex therapy

Most sex therapists find themselves having to reassure potential clients as to what their role is as a therapist, as well as what will be expected from the clients. First, it’s important to find a qualified sex therapist; try searching the AASECT directory. Once you’ve first made sure your therapist is properly qualified, you’ll find:

  • You will not be expected to expose yourself to or attempt to have sex in front of the therapist.

  • The therapist will not get involved in any form of sexual contact with you, their client(s). This includes touching, hugging, or kissing.

  • Sex therapy is not just for people with serious problems. Many people seek therapy simply to enhance their sex life.

  • There is nothing you can tell the therapist that they haven’t, in some form, heard before. They understand that talking about sex can be difficult and intimidating, but they are there to help. The clearer they understand your needs, the easier it will be to help.

  • You do not have to be in a relationship to seek sex therapy.

While many myths may surround sex therapy, qualified professionals can help you deal with myriad sexual issues. Seeking help for sexual problems from a sex therapist can be a helpful step toward a healthier, happier sex life.

Jerry Kennard, Ph.D.
Meet Our Writer
Jerry Kennard, Ph.D.

Jerry Kennard, Ph.D., is a Chartered Psychologist and Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry’s work background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of positivityguides.net.