You won’t need to do the deed in front of your therapist—or with your therapist
You may have heard rumors that you’ll have to show, rather than tell, your problem in sex therapy. And if you’ve watched the series Masters of Sex, that’s definitely what happened there—along with sex surrogate therapy, in which the researchers or their staff engaged in sexual contact to help patients.
But sex therapists say that they won’t be watching – or participating – in your sexual activities: They’ll just be helping you recover that loving feeling. “Professional therapy never includes sex, touching, or removal of clothing,” says Shannon Chavez, PsyD, CST, a licensed clinical psychologist and AASECT certified sex therapist in Beverly Hills, California. “It is similar to traditional therapy, other than dealing primarily with sexual health, solution-focused and short-term. I describe my therapy approach as talk therapy with an eclectic use of coaching, adult sex education, and behavioral approaches and exercises. We are learning tools for mindfulness, stress management, and self-care.”
There may be a medical reason for sexual issues
Sex therapy will help with many sexual problems, but there could also be a health issue that requires medical intervention—such as erectile dysfunction or female sexual dysfunction. “Many couples do not know that the cause of some problems with sexual desire or arousal may be caused by a medical condition,” says therapist Pepper Schwartz, PhD, professor of sociology at the University of Washington and the author of 22 books, including American Couples: Money, Work and Sex. “If a woman’s relationship is strong, but she has been experiencing persistent sexual problems lasting six months or longer, it may be a medical issue, rather than a relationship issue. The most common female sexual dysfunction is low desire that causes distress, or hypoactive sexual desire disorder (HSDD). A therapist or health-care provider can go over a long checklist of possible reasons for the loss of sexual desire and help determine what the cause might be. The solution might not be solved in a few sessions, but the first step towards changing a sexual issue that is interfering with one’s happiness or relationship is to admit it is a problem and find out what appropriate options for treatment are available.”
Communication is the key to a healthy sex life
Talking about sex can feel awkward for a lot of couples—whether they’re having a perfectly healthy sex relationship or not. But experts say that communicating can help stave off problems. “Talking about sex is just as important as having sex,” Chavez says. “It helps you assess what you want and builds the language in which you can describe it. If you feel uncomfortable talking about sex openly and honestly with a partner then it will be difficult to share your desires or disclose when there are concerns.” Chavez advises that sex talk doesn’t just have to happen in the bedroom. “I recommend talking about sex over a morning cup of coffee or tea, while making a nice walk, or snuggling in each other’s arms.”
It’s OK to be sexually attracted to other people
Attraction happens – even if you’re happily married – and you don’t have to feel guilty about feeling it. “Making a commitment does not suddenly rewire our physiology to no longer experience desire or notice attractiveness outside of your partner!” says Shadeen Francis, MFT, a marriage and family therapist specializing in sex therapy.
“If you were attracted to people before getting into the relationship, you will very likely be attracted to people during. It doesn’t mean you want to pursue anything sexual – or physical, or emotional – with that person. The belief that all sexual stimuli must be acted on is a fear-based myth that underlies problematic sexual behaviors like assault and infidelity.” So feeling it is one thing – but acting on it is another.
You should feel like your therapist is a good fit
Just as general therapists often have different types of training and approaches, sex therapy practitioners may have different types of education and approaches. You’ll want to ensure that you feel comfortable with the treatment methods and with your therapist. “Take time in the first session to ask any questions that you might have about the therapist’s training, background, approach, or anything else that you feel would be helpful for you to know,” says Kelli Young, MEd, BScOT, a sex therapist and psychotherapist practicing in Toronto. “Think of the first session as an assessment interview for both you and the therapist. At the end of the first session you should have a good sense whether the therapist is right for you, and the plan for working on the issues that brought you to therapy.”
You shouldn’t judge your mate’s preferences
You may not always see eye to eye with your mate on what’s a turn-on – but judging your partner for feeling that way isn’t constructive to your relationship. “If your partner is into something you’re not, don’t bring shame into the discussion,” says sex therapist Carla Rosinski, MA, LMHC. “We have enough baggage about sex as it is. Just as with any communication in a relationship, you want both you and your partner to feel safe to talk about feelings and desires without judgment. If your partner brings up something you’re not into and really not willing to try out, be kind and honest about it. Or just take the risk and experiment!”
Never let problems fester
Many people let sexual problems go on for months or years unaddressed – experts advise that the sooner you get help, the better. “My best advice is not to let the problem go on too long,” Schwartz says. “Sometimes years go by and the longer couples deny the problem or do nothing about it except skip sex or engage in ‘mercy sex,’ the harder it is to solve the problem.”
You should mix it up to get out of a rut
Therapists say that you shouldn’t take sex so seriously. “Good sex is fun and playful, so when you reach a bump in the road, try to have a sense of humor and think creatively,” Young says. “Trying something new can add fun and excitement to your sexual relationship: a new position, sexy music, romantic lighting, colognes, lotions, lubricants…the possibilities are endless.”
You won’t have to do anything that makes you uncomfortable
Sex therapy is about helping you have a more fulfilling sex life – not forcing you to engage in behavior that makes you squeamish. “Sex therapy is about meeting your client where they are at,” says Chavez. “It is about creating a safe and comfortable environment where you can explore sex. Discomfort and shame are the first things we want to reduce. The benefit of sex therapy is that you will have access to many resources, tools, and options for sexual healing.” Need a boost in your sex life?
Scheduling sex isn’t a bad idea
Penciling in sex on your calendar may seem a little ridiculous, but the experts say that it’s often the key to maintaining the spark in a long-term relationship – especially one where life demands are getting in the way of their relationship.
“Scheduled sex can be just as erotic, passionate, and pleasurable as spontaneous encounters,” Francis says. “Plus, as your responsibilities increase, scheduling sex makes it more likely to happen.”
You don’t need to be in a relationship
While sex therapy practices mostly deal with couples, people who aren’t currently in a sexual relationship will benefit as well – especially if they have problems that prevent them from being intimate with other people, such as a history of abuse or negative thoughts about sex. “Sexuality is a vital part of all our lives and we can greatly benefit from individual work around it and how it intersects with other areas in life,” Rosinski says.
Therapy doesn’t mean your relationship is doomed
Many people imagine that therapy means that they’re failing at their relationship—and that it’s the last stop before breakup. “Actually, the opposite is usually true,” Young says. “Most of the couples who come to see me care deeply about each other, and they have decided to take steps to move their relationship forward to the next level. Recognizing that your sexual relationship is not where you want it to be, and seeking support to overcome obstacles is a sign of strength. The right therapist can help couples to make significant improvements and lasting changes in their relationship.”