Some of the best sex happens when we’re just having fun and enjoying our bodies. But what happens when it’s not so fun and carefree? Whether it’s past trauma, having your sex drive not line up with your partner’s, or body shame that’s getting in the way of you getting on top, it can be tempting to go through rough patches in silence. After all, the snags in our sex lives and relationships sometimes work themselves out without much outside interference. And it can be daunting to imagine sharing intimate details with a stranger. But when a hurdle turns into an obstacle that turns into a problem you can’t get over by yourself, it’s okay to ask for help. That’s where a sex therapist comes in.
What exactly is sex therapy? It’s a kind of therapy that addresses sex-related issues by changing the patient’s thought processes or behaviors. It usually involves seeing a clinical counselor, clinical social worker, or psychologist who has been certified as a sex therapist.
Sex therapists are specially trained to help people solve their sex-related problems and improve their views about sexuality. But seeing a therapist about sex doesn’t have to be limited to serious difficulties. We could all use someone to talk to about our sex lives every once in a while, right? At heart, a sex therapist is a professional who helps guide individuals toward whatever a healthy sex life looks like for them.
There are a lot of reasons people may have for seeking sex therapy. Here are just a few:
1. Processing sexual trauma
Sex therapists can help people process sexual trauma, like rape or sexual assault, and assist them as they begin to heal from it. Keep in mind that not all therapists have experience with trauma, so before seeing someone new, it’s a good idea to ask if they do.
2. Aligning mismatched libidos
Couples who can’t quite meet in the middle about when and how often to have sex may use sex therapy to figure out how to better align in this area and work through any hurt feelings. A sex therapist can help couples uncover a variety of ways to be intimate with one another and can also act as a mediator, moderating discussion and keeping the conversation productive.
3. Developing sex-positive thinking
All sex therapists aren’t automatically sex-positive by definition. But a sex therapist is a good resource for people who recognize that their hang-ups about sex — like shame about their desires, for example—might come from sex-negative teachings. Clinicians can help challenge people’s harmful perceptions about their bodies or about the “right” way to have sex (spoiler alert: there’s no one right way) and broaden their perspective.
4. Addressing difficulties with orgasms
Depictions of sex in popular media are everywhere, and they often help perpetuate misconceptions about how orgasms “should” happen. For example, society teaches people with vaginas that penis-in-vagina (PIV) intercourse is the most valid (or only valid) way to have sex, which can be distressing for those who are not a part of the 18 percent of vagina owners who can orgasm through vaginal penetration alone. Sex therapists may be able to educate clients on how human bodies tend to respond to sexual stimulation and help them overcome any thought patterns that are holding them back.
5. Helping treat the psychological and emotional aspects of painful sex
One thing sex therapists can’t do is touch patients to diagnose a physical, sex-related issue. Another medical professional, like a gynecologist or a urologist, would have to do that. But for problems that are worsened by emotional or psychological reactions to sex or sexual situations, sex therapy can play an important role in addressing painful intercourse. A sex therapist can also work in conjunction with a gynecologist, urologist, and/or pelvic floor physical therapist on a treatment plan.
Think of a sex therapist as a super-knowledgeable coach who can give you sideline pointers on how to remove the stress from sex and sexuality. Therapy in general can work wonders for our mental health regarding intimacy. After all, as a nurse once told us, “Your brain is also a sex organ.”
P.S. Does that whole mismatched libidos thing ring a bell? Check out our tips for how to deal when your partner isn’t feeling it.