What is Sex Therapy?
Dr. Bailey Hanek answers your questions about sex therapy- what it is, if it's for you, and how to find a great sex therapist.
As a couples therapist, I can tell you that many couples have questions or issues around intimacy. I often get asked things such as- how often should we be having sex? How do we talk about sex without it being weird or upsetting? Are we even allowed to talk about our sex life in therapy? The answers to these questions are- it depends, there are some key strategies I can teach you, and of course you can!
However, I am not a sex therapist. When couples are looking for help mainly around their sex life, I often refer them out to see a specialist. I can help up to a point, but as soon as I think we've reached the limits of my expertise, I won't hesitate to recommend you see a sex therapist.
Sex therapists have comprehensive, specialized training so that they can help clients navigate their sexual lives in the most effective, fulfilling, open way possible.
People usually have questions about what sex therapy is like, who it's for, and how it's different from couples therapy. They also want to know how to find a good sex therapist.
These are all excellent questions.
So I recruited Dr. Bailey Hanek, a licensed clinical psychologist and AASECT certified sex therapist, to answer them.
Here is what Dr. Hanek had to say:
What is sex therapy? Why is it even a thing?
Sex therapy is just that - therapy! Just like traditional talk therapy, sex therapy explores thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and interactional patterns...it just centers around issues of sex and sexuality. Sexual well-being is a vital component of our overall well-being, whether we are partnered or not. Unfortunately, most of us are steeped in a sex negative culture that actively suppresses access to adequate sex education and open, honest communication around sex. Sex therapy provides a sex positive, affirming space in which people can freely explore this healthy, normative part of themselves.
You may be wondering, why can’t I just work with my current therapist on sex and sexuality? If you and your current therapist feel comfortable proceeding, please do! However, most therapists lack sufficient training. Most academic programs do not include it, and, if it is provided, this information is often optional/additional and must be actively sought out by the therapist. Working with a certified sex therapist will ensure that your provider is more than competent to provide the information, interventions, and support for you to reach your goals.
Don’t worry, working with a sex therapist does not mean that you have to end your current work. Sex therapy is often used as an adjunct to general therapy.
Working with a certified sex therapist will ensure that your provider is more than competent to provide the information, interventions, and support for you to reach your goals.
Who is sex therapy for?
EVERYONE (I may be a little biased here). Sex and sexuality are incredibly broad terms that encompass a potentially infinite range of issues. Just like we seek support to improve our emotional and interpersonal well-being, we can seek support to improve our sexual well-being.
Sometimes we seek support because we are experiencing a great deal of distress; sometimes we seek support because we want to increase our understanding of ourselves. All of this can be accomplished in sex therapy.
Sex therapy is available for individual, couples, and other relationship structures, such as polyamorous configurations. While sex therapy can cover an enormous variety of topics, here are some common examples of presenting concerns:
Changes (often decreases) in sexual interest/arousal
Discrepancies in desire between partners
Strengthening sexual self-esteem and communication
Exploration of emerging desires
Sexual empowerment (e.g. overcoming sex negative beliefs and shame)
Out of control sexual behaviors
Exploration of non-monogamy
I’m on the fence. How do I know if sex therapy is a good fit for me?
The good news is that you don’t have to answer this question all by yourself. If you are currently working with a therapist with whom you are comfortable, bring it up with them. You can explore your hopes and trepidations together. If you are still unsure, ask for a consultation with a certified sex therapist.
No matter what your concerns are - how long will it take? Are my issues a lost cause? Does my distress even matter? Will I even be able to talk about such an awkward topic? - a certified sex therapist should be able to address your concerns and help you decide whether or not you want to take the next steps now.
Ok. Where do I even look?
First, wherever you look, you want to make sure that you are searching for a certified sex therapist. The terms “sex therapist” is not yet protected, so anyone can claim that they are one. However, a certified sex therapist must be certified by a governing body in the field that guarantees that its members meet professional standards regarding education, ethics, and experience.
One of the most common is the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists (AASECT). You can use their directory (aasect.org), or use a search engine and check potential providers’ profiles to look for their certifications.
A certified sex therapist must be certified by a governing body in the field that guarantees that its members meet professional standards regarding education, ethics, and experience.
Have More Questions for Dr. Hanek?
So there you have it! In Part 2 of this series, Dr. Hanek will answer some more questions. For example- what the most common reasons for why people seek sex therapy? Can sex therapy help me and my partner(s) fix issues we've had for many years, or is it too late? And much more.
Dr. Hanek is a licensed clinical psychologist and AASECT certified sex therapist in Cambridge, MA. If you would like to contact her, please visit her website.