“Sex therapy has saved my marriage.” These words have been spoken by countless patients who have successfully completed therapy programs with trained professionals. Sex therapy is a specific type of counseling designed to treat sexual problems affecting both individuals and couples. While there is no magic cure, proper treatment can diagnose the underlying issues which lead to unhealthy sexual relationships. Once a proper diagnosis has been made, a treatment plan can be outlined with the goal being to achieve a healthy sexual balance.
The World Health Organization defines sexual health as, “A state of physical, emotional, mental and social well-being related 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…” The desire to attain complete sexual health is inherent within all human beings and sex therapy can help facilitate the process. Dr. Raie Goodwach writes, “Biologically and metaphorically sex is a core experience, and part of the total person, not just the genitals.”
Sexual health is not only important to individuals. Sexual behaviors and its place within our culture are important for society as a whole. Those who lead happy, healthy sex lives are often less likely to harbor insecurities, fears and anxieties. These feelings can sometimes lead to abuse, crime or other destructive behaviors. Those experiencing physical or emotional sexual problems can benefit from a therapeutic process specifically designed to help them.
Where Did Sex Therapy Come From?
Dr. William Masters and Dr. Virginia Johnson are credited with pioneering sex therapy. In the 60s, Masters and Johnson researched and published works which laid out a brand new therapeutic approach to sexual problems. They revolutionized the way these types of issues were viewed by health professionals. They submitted that many sexual problems were caused by external social and cognitive issues. Their work relied on verbal and physical assessments of patients to determine the origin of their problem and the ultimate solution. Dr. Helen Singer Kaplan later expanded on their initial studies, placing more focus on the surface problems and delving deeper only if necessary.
By 1974, over 3,000 organizations were offering sex counseling to those who wanted it. In 1978 Masters and Johnson opened up the Masters and Johnson Institute. The Institute was a huge success and the idea of sexual therapy was so new and exciting that their client list included many celebrities including Barbara Eden and Governor George Wallace.
It’s important to remember these studies were taking place initially in the late 50s, an era which oozed sexual repression and standard sex roles and continued into the 60s: a decade filled with free love and openness. Modern day sex therapy has evolved. Many therapists rely on the basic structure set up by Masters and Johnson while others have taken a different approach. A changing cultural landscape can affect how sexual issues are treated. Things such as the birth of the internet and the portrayal of sex in the media have both contributed to how sexual problems are viewed and treated.
What Does Sex Therapy Treat?
Sex therapy can help alleviate a wide array of issues, both physical and emotional. Before making the decision to visit a sex therapist it’s important to eliminate the possibility that these problems are caused by a physical illness. Some commonly treated issues include:
- body image and self-esteem issues
- conflict with religious beliefs or values
- confusion about sexual orientation
- difficulty experiencing orgasm
- difficulty maintaining erections
- erectile dysfunction
- lack of sexual desire
- negative attitude or fear towards sex due to previous trauma
- premature ejaculation
- painful intercourse
- sexual addiction, compulsive masturbation
- stress and/or anxiety regarding sexual performance
Sex therapy is not limited to sexual issues with your partner. Its purpose is to enrich an individual’s life in preparation for sexual intimacy and enjoyment. While many choose to experience sex therapy as a couple, it’s also very common for individuals to attend sessions alone.
Finding the Right Sex Therapist
Finding a sex therapist can be a daunting task. It’s one of the few forms of therapy which allows many counselors to operate without a license in certain states. Like many industries, the field of sex therapy is vulnerable to those with few credentials or questionable intentions. The American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists (AASECT) is an excellent resource when searching for help in a specific area related to sexual health.
There are a few things to consider when searching for a quality sex therapist.
- Professional credentials matter. Be sure the therapist is accredited by AASECT, The American Psychological Association, or another reputable establishment. Do some homework on the differences between “licensed,” “certified” and “registered.” Be somewhat knowledgeable about the variety of letters after a name such as “M.D.,” “L.P.C.,” “Psy.D,” and the many others. Know specific state requirements to practice counseling or therapy.
- Ask a lot of questions. Always inquire about the therapist’s educational background, professional experience and treatment methods. Ask about their availability and how the front office works. Gather as much information as possible before making a solid commitment.
- Consider your budget. Therapy costs money. Research the costs and price differences between seeing a therapist versus a counselor or psychiatrist and keep in mind personal budget. Each potential patient will have a different idea about what to spend. Choosing a pricey therapist initially may prove counterproductive once the bills begin to pile up.
- Be comfortable. The most important part of finding a sex therapist is the level of comfort. Since the patient will be sharing intimate details, it’s important to establish a mutual bond that will help the process of therapy. Rely somewhat on chemistry and first impressions. Getting a genuine feel for a potential therapist is important as the patient must be at ease in order to be honest and forthcoming. Part of being comfortable also includes deciding which gender one would prefer and, if a couple is attending together, be on the same page about what they’re both looking for in a therapist.
What to Expect
Depending on the therapist you choose, each patient is going to have a different experience in sex therapy. There are varying degrees and methods used in modern day therapy so the experience often depends on the practices of the individual therapist. Despite that fact, there are base approaches to treatment which remain at its base.
Masters and Johnsons Approach
Masters and Johnson pioneered sex therapy thus many of their practices are still used today. If a therapist is taking a Masters and Johnson approach to treatment it will typically begin with extensive questions about sexual history and explicit details about the physical nature of sex acts. Patients will be accompanied by both a male and female therapist. This therapy may take place at a clinic or workshop which can last several days. Those who partake in the Masters and Johnson approach are often required to have a physical before treatment and the counseling can be intensive. There may also be the suggestion of certain techniques such as “sensate focus.”
Kaplan’s approach relies on many of the same techniques as Masters and Johnson such as talk counseling and psychoanalysis. This approach tends to focus more on the surface elements and delves deeper only if necessary. Dr. Helen Singer Kaplan believed that many sexual issues had superficial causes. For example, a patient may be having sexual problems simply because they lack knowledge and understanding. If this is the case, simply offering information and instruction can be helpful. If a therapist is taking Kaplan’s Approach, couples or individuals will generally meet once or twice a week and continue to live at home.
The PLISSIT Model Approach
PLISSIT is an acronym for Permission, Limited Information, Specific Suggestions, Intensive Therapy. The approach relies on four very specific methods of treatment each one specifically designed to take the patient deeper and deeper into the therapeutic process.
The Cognitive Therapy Approach and The Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Approach
Cognitive therapy (CT) is a form of psychotherapy. Therapists use CT to change how patients respond and behave. A person’s beliefs are questioned and assumptions are challenged. An example of CT can be offered using a patient who suffers from stress related premature ejaculation (PE). The patient worries about not satisfying their partner which adds stress and causes PE. The patient’s condition becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The therapist’s role is to break the negative cycle. The goal is to identify the root causes of the stress and relieve them over time.
Allowing Sex Therapy to Work for You
The gaps between human beings—culture, gender, age, religion—often make it difficult to connect with one another in a healthy social manner, let alone a physical one. Sex today is more visible than ever and the process in which we consume it, engage with it, and ultimately connect with it in a healthy way has changed. This level of visibility has set standards for our own sexuality which can heighten the guilt, embarrassment, anxiety and fear associated with sexual problems. Sex therapy today is more necessary than ever. It allows those who were once isolated by embarrassment to enter into a process which gives them hope.
Sex therapy can be frightening and confusing. Generally, the outcome will depend on the patient’s willingness to submit to the process. If a patient works hard it can bring about real, fundamental change. The therapeutic process will depend on what one personally wants to gain from it. One must decide how much they’re willing to emotionally put into it. Entering sex therapy with an open mind, an optimistic attitude and a strong desire to work with the therapist will always achieve the best results. Sex therapy can be the first step in enriching lives, setting goals and building up to complete sexual health.
Center for Healthy Sex
The Center for Healthy Sex is a specialized group of highly trained professionals who focus on providing sexual addiction treatment and sex therapy in Southern California. CHS is led by Alexandra Katehakis, MFT, CSAT, CST. She is a nationally renowned lecturer who has offered presentations throughout the country at universities, conferences and medical centers. She is an author and has appeared on radio shows such as WebMD. Her dedication and focus is what has built CHS into a world-famous provider of sexual therapy. We invite you to take advantage of our free consultation if you or a loved one is experiencing any sexual health issues.