What is Sex Therapy?
Sex therapy is a type of talk therapy designed to help individuals and couples address medical, psychological, personal, and interpersonal factors impacting sexual satisfaction and sexual health. The broad goal of sex therapy is to address any physical or emotional challenges impacting sexual health, and create a path for people to live their most meaningful and fulfilling sexual life.
How to Know if Sex Therapy Might be Helpful for You
If you’re finding yourself wondering if sex therapy could be helpful to you, you are not alone! Concerns related to sexual health are incredibly common, and people seek out sex therapists for a variety of reasons including wanting to address sexual functioning or dysfunction (more on that later!), to explore their sexuality, or to increase the overall fulfillment, pleasure, and enjoyment of their sex life, and much more.
When it comes to sexual functioning, it is estimated that some 43% of women and 31% of men report some degree of sexual dysfunction. These numbers also tend to increase as people age due to the changes in physical health associated with aging (Cleveland Clinic, 2023). It is also important to note that regardless of sexual functioning, most people can benefit from some form of sex therapy to improve both the quality of their sex lives and their overall sexual health.
Why Might Someone Go to Sex Therapy
General areas regarding sexual health that may prompt someone to engage in sex therapy generally fall into the broad categories below:
- Desire: Desire encompasses concerns regarding libido, desire, or interest in sex. If you’re finding that you’re not enjoying sex as much as you used to or that you’re not feeling as interested in sex, it could be a sign that you could benefit from sex therapy. Low sexual desire can be caused by a range of factors, including stress, hormonal changes, relationship issues, and medical conditions. A sex therapist can help you identify the underlying causes of your low desire and work with you to find ways to improve it.
- Arousal: Arousal includes concerns regarding physical or emotional arousal during or leading up to sexual activity. If you’re finding it difficult to become emotionally or physically aroused before or during sexual activity, sex therapy can help you address and problem solve strategies that may help you create a more fulfilling sex life.
- Orgasm: Sexual functioning in relationship to orgasms may include delay, absence, or premature orgasm. Difficulty with orgasms and other sexual functions, such as premature ejaculation, delayed ejaculation, or anorgasmia (inability to orgasm), can be distressing for both partners. These problems can have physical, psychological, or relationship causes. A sex therapist can help you explore the root causes of your sexual dysfunction and develop strategies to overcome them.
- Pain: Unwanted pain or discomfort during sexual activity is never something to ignore and can be treated with appropriate support. Pain or discomfort during sex can be distressing and overwhelming and can indicate an underlying medical or psychological issue. Conditions such as vulvodynia, vaginismus, Genital Pelvic Pain/Penetration Disorder, or dyspareunia can make sex uncomfortable or even unbearable. A sex therapist can work with you to identify the cause of your pain and provide you with techniques to overcome it. You can also read more about pain or discomfort during sex in my related article, What is Dyspareunia and the Underlying Diagnoses of Sexual Pain.
In addition sexual functioning, engaging in sex therapy can address and help improve other areas of life related to sexual health including:
- Intimacy and connection to your partner(s). If you’re finding yourself wanting to build greater connection and intimacy with your partner or partners, working with a trained sex therapist can be helpful to build communication skills.
- Accurate and reliable information about sexual health. There is no shortage of information and resources on sexual health, and it can be hard to weed through all of this information to determine what is the most accurate and reliable. A sex therapist is here to help you sift through the material to determine what is the most helpful for you and your personal sexual health journey.
- Healing from past trauma. Sex therapists are trained in providing trauma therapy and can help you heal from past experiences, including sexual traumas, to help you create a more fulfilling sex life with your partner(s).
- Building a sex positive relationship with yourself and letting go of sexual shame. Shame can be pervasive when it comes to sex and can make us believe that we are a bad person for thinking about or acting on sexual urges. A sex therapist can help you explore these thoughts and feelings, and support you in finding ways to let go of shame, to lean into self compassion and self acceptance, and to embrace the healthiest version of your sexual self.
- Identifying unhelpful intergenerational patterns around bodies, sex, and sexuality. When parenting, it can be difficult to know how to create a sex positive environment for your child so they can grow up with minimal shame and guilt surrounding sexual health. A sex therapist can help you identify and unpack what your ideal parenting journey might look like when navigating this complex topic with children and adolescents.
- Navigating sexual health and desire throughout various reproductive life stages: attempting to get pregnant, possible infertility, pregnancy, postpartum, perimenopause, and menopause. Sexual desire and arousal can change dramatically during these times, and a sex therapist can help you proactively address concerns that arise during each unique stage.
- Medical concerns including cancer, heart conditions, physical disabilities, gynecological, or urological issues impacting sexual health. A sex therapist can support you in navigating these challenges as effectively as possible while maintaining a healthy and fulfilling sex life.
- Overall, a sex therapist can help you create a more fulfilling and enjoyable sex life that is in alignment with your most authentic self!
*Please note: The above is not an exhaustive list of presentations or reasons why someone might seek sex therapy, but it includes some common presentations that people might be experiencing.
When thinking about whether sex therapy might be helpful for you, it is important to keep in mind that a fulfilling and meaningful sex life is a healthy and natural part of the human experience. Sexual health is a core component of physical and emotional health that has been recognized by the World Health Organization (WHO). In fact, since 1974 the WHO, as well as many other organizations, has worked to develop a more inclusive definition of sexual health: “…a state of physical, emotional, mental and social well-being in relation to sexuality; it is not merely the absence of disease, dysfunction or infirmity. Sexual health requires a positive and respectful approach to sexuality and sexual relationships, as well as the possibility of having pleasurable and safe sexual experiences, free of coercion, discrimination and violence. For sexual health to be attained and maintained, the sexual rights of all persons must be respected, protected and fulfilled.” (WHO, 2006a) Ultimately, you deserve to have a fulfilling and meaningful sexual life that is in alignment with your sexual values and health goals!
What exactly does sex therapy look like?
Sex therapy is a type of talk therapy where you and your therapist talk through your experiences, worries, thoughts, feelings, hopes and dreams. Together, you and your therapist identify areas of concern that you would like to address. Over the course of treatment, you will acquire skills and learn strategies aimed to target your specific needs and goals. A sex therapist will also attune to any other related concerns if applicable during the treatment process. Your therapist may also refer you to additional providers, such as a pelvic floor physical therapist, OBGYN, sexual health medicine doctor, urologist, etc. to create the most comprehensive care plan to address your areas of concern. Most importantly, a sex therapist is a trusted expert who can guide you through the sex therapy process with thoughtful skill and grounded knowledge.
How can you find a sex therapist in your area?
If you are looking for a sex therapist, a great place to start is the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists (AASECT). This organization is responsible for overseeing clinical training, certification, verification, and credentialing of sexual health providers. A Certified Sex Therapist (CST) will have gone through years of extensive training and educational programs and ongoing supervised clinical work with an experienced Certified Sex Therapist who has verified the therapist’s skills and knowledge. There are many things to consider when starting therapy and trying to find a therapist that might be the best fit for you. Finding someone you feel confident and comfortable with is of utmost importance. If you’re wondering what else might be helpful when considering therapy or finding a therapist, check out Wildflower’s Demystifying Psychotherapy Guide!
About the Author:
Kate Ernstrom, LCSW, CST, PMH-C is a Certified Sex Therapist who is passionate about providing accurate and reliable reproductive and sexual health knowledge to the community. To learn about scheduling an appointment with Kate, contact Wildflower’s Intake Department.
Wildflower Center for Emotional Health is a therapy practice with offices in Chicago (River North) and Oak Park, IL. We offer in-person services at each of our locations as well as online therapy to anyone in Illinois. We specialize in perinatal and reproductive health, trauma and PTSD, anxiety and depression, relationships, sex and intimacy concerns, and more.Learn More