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Sex Therapy & Counseling

Dr. Lisa Lawless

Dr. Lisa Lawless, CEO of Holistic Wisdom
Clinical Psychotherapist: Relationship & Sexual Health Expert

Finger Puppets Couple with Heart, Sex Therapy & CounselingWhat is Sex Therapy?

Understandably, many people wonder what sex therapy is and how it works. There are many types of sexual health professionals, making it even more challenging to discern what is a legitimate field of study and what is just someone who thinks they know a lot about sex. The most prominent professions within sex therapy are sex therapists, sexologists, or clinical sexologists with degrees in psychology, human sexuality, social work, counseling, and the medical profession. Degrees of this kind can lead to professional roles as practitioners and/or researchers.

Here we will review the different therapeutic professions in sexuality, what types of issues you can address within sex therapy and where you can get a referral to a reputable sex therapist.

If you are looking to have medical questions about your sexuality answered it may be easiest just to ask your physician. See our How to Talk To Your Doctor About Sex Guide for helpful tips about how to bring up sexuality. 

If you want to learn about therapy in general, see our Types of Therapy Guide.

Sex Therapist Licensing

A reputable sex therapist will provide their credentials upfront for you to easily see their educational background and how they can help you. If they do not reveal to you what degree they have, what school they went to, or their professional experience, you may want to avoid their services.

The only state that provides licensing for sex therapists by law is in Florida. Therefore, it is impossible to find a state-licensed sex therapist in another state unless they are licensed under a different related professional degree such as psychologist, physician, social worker, or counselor. There is, however, an organization that nationally certifies and verifies professional education in the field of sexuality called the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists (AASECT.org). Researchers of sexuality typically affiliate with their sister organization, the Society for Scientific Study of Sexuality (SexScience.org).

Types of Sex Health Professionals

Below we will review what some of the more common types of sexual health professionals are and what their qualifications are when it comes to assisting their clients:

What is a Sex Therapist?

Sex therapy can take many forms, however, legitimized sexual therapy is typically provided by a clinician in psychology, counseling, medicine, or social work. They can also be a sexologist.

What is a Sexologist?

The study of sexology typically blends a variety of educational components, which includes such studies as psychology, biology, statistics, medicine, sociology, epidemiology, and in some cases, criminology. Official boards for a sexologist include the American Academy of Clinical Sexologists and the American Board of Sexology, in addition to AASECT.

What is a Sexpert?

A sexpert is a nonacademic, self-given title that indicates that they are knowledgeable about the topic of sex. There is no educational requirement for this title. If you work with a sexpert, you should determine other forms of education they have had to discern if they are qualified to address your needs. Many organizations like to use the term sexpert to provide a collective title for professionals in sexual health. For example, some sex toy manufacturers have sexpert programs where they ask various professionals to review their products and provide feedback before it is offered for sale to the general public. They call people that participate in this program sexperts. None of these people are required to have any training in sexuality at all; rather, they may just sell sex toys or have a blog.

What is a Sex Surrogate?

A sex surrogate can have a varied amount of education in sex and engage in physical relationships with their clients to help them achieve a sexual goal. More established sex surrogates have professional certification in sex education, psychology, or counseling. This is not considered a traditional form of sex therapy as clinical sex therapist does not have sexual relationships with their patients, nor is there any nudity involved.

What is a Sex Educator?

There are no formal qualifications, certifications, or licensure to be a sex educator. One can refer to themselves as one or take something as basic as a sex education workshop. However, some sex therapists also teach and refer to themselves as sex educators, and therefore, they can also be highly educated and qualified in the area of sexuality. Therefore, if you work with a sex educator, you should determine what level of education they have had to decide whether they are qualified to address your needs.

What Does a Sex Therapist Do?

Sex therapy can address a broad spectrum of sexually related issues. Below are examples of topics that sex therapists can address:

  • Sexual Preference Concerns
  • Sexual Identity Confusion
  • Physical Disabilities Impacting Sexual Functioning
  • Healthy Sexual Development in Children
  • Sexual Addictions
  • Medications that Impact Sexual Ability
  • Aging and Sexual Performance
  • Relationships & Intimacy
  • Sexual Abuse & Rape Issues
  • Low or Absent Libido
  • Chemical Addictions & Related Sexual Issues
  • Dealing with Mental Illness & Sexuality
  • Sex Education
  • Body Image Issues
  • Sexual Incompatibility for Couples
  • Sexual Dysfunction in Men & Women
  • Sexual Exercises & Enhancers
  • Porn Addiction
  • Extreme Fetishes that Cause Harm to Self of Others
  • Sex Offender Treatment

Legal Accountability of a Sex Therapist

The legal accountability of a sex therapist will vary based on their degree and certification requirements. For example, someone with a degree in social work has the option of not just becoming a member of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW: socialworkers.org) but also obtaining credentialing. To practice and be covered by insurance, a social worker (with a master's degree: MSW or doctorate degree: DSW) must be licensed with the state. Becoming credentialed is further verification of education, supervision, and experience.

There are also other licenses for degrees based on the laws of each state and even just for basic professional counseling without a degree. For example, in the state of Colorado, there is a law that requires anyone that practices any form of mental health therapy professionally to take and pass the State of Colorado's Mental Health Jurisprudence Exam. This exam covers the legal system pertaining to the therapist's professional behavior and legal accountability. Different states have different requirements, and some have none.

What Happens in Sex Therapy?

Sex therapy is like traditional therapy, but it focuses specifically on sexual issues. The same rules regarding therapy apply. Sex therapists do not fix problems; instead, they assist you in providing you with insights, education, and resources to help you address your concerns. They offer a safe, confidential place to define sexual challenges, review healthy options to manage them, and assist with relationship issues.

Why Choose Sex Therapy?

Sex therapy is a more specialized form of therapy that can provide an intensive focus on the core issues of sexual challenges. It provides a nonjudgmental arena that can help you fully embrace your sexuality and share it with your partner(s) in a healthy manner. Just as you would go to see a specialist in the field of medicine for a specific issue, those who wish to address sexual issues are best served by qualified sexual therapists.

Be Aware Of Psychology Bias

When you choose a therapist to work with, remember that much of psychology's research and history is based on the framework for heterosexual, cisgender, white men. Such men established psychology and sexology: Albert Moll (1862–1939), Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), and Magnus Hirschfeld (1868–1935). These are who many academics consider the most influential sexologists of the twentieth century.

This is important to consider because Western psychology is based on the study of how individuals act in social situations. When research is centered around only the experiences of one group of people, such as white, hetero, cis men, they can ignore crucial aspects of those in marginalized groups such as women, people of color (POC), the LGBT+ community, and disabled people.

For example, women have often been excluded from a great deal of medical research based on claims that their natural hormone fluctuations can make them too complicated to study. Because the experiences of a woman are underrepresented or excluded, it means they may receive ineffective care. It is sexist to ignore over half the population and biased to ignore other marginalized groups.

Thus, if you are not a heterosexual, cis-gendered white male, you may wish to ask a potential therapist about their understanding of your specific group. To ensure you are getting the care you deserve, ask them about their views concerning your gender, sexual orientation, sexual identity, ethnicity, or disabilities to ensure they are open to and in line with meeting your needs.

Trauma & Abuse Specialists

If you are a victim of trauma or abuse, even if it were not sexual, it may be helpful to work with a therapist specializing in this area. A therapist who specializes in trauma and abuse will have a much deeper understanding of an individual's mental and emotional well-being. They can provide a safe and non-judgmental environment to talk about traumatic experiences and emotions can be highly beneficial for trauma survivors.

They can also help identify patterns and behaviors related to the trauma and provide empowering tools and strategies for coping with triggers and symptoms to promote healing and recovery. They will be trained with specific therapeutic approaches that are more effective in treating trauma, such as:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

  • Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT)

  • Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)

  • Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT)

  • Somatic Experiencing (SE)

  • Prolonged Exposure Therapy (PE)

  • Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Therapy

  • Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)

  • Interpersonal Therapy (IPT)

Things To Look For In A Sex Therapist

  • Qualifications such as licensure, certification, education, and experience.

  • An approach to therapy that aligns with your needs and goals.

  • The therapist's availability to you, such as office location, scheduling, and flexibility.

  • Fees and insurance coverage.

  • The therapist's communication style and your comfort level with them.

  • Positive reviews or references from other clients.

  • The therapist's approach to issues related to diversity, such as race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, and ability.

  • Their training related to issues related to trauma and abuse.

Find A Sex Therapist

To find a sex therapist in your area, utilize the AASECT.org database for a referral and then research them to discern if they are right for you. You may also request an initial phone consultation to review if they are a good match for your sex therapy goals.

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