These behavioral techniques involve physical exercises that clients do on their own outside of the therapy setting. “Nothing should happen in the therapist’s office of a sexual or physical nature,” Myles emphasizes. (Sex therapists should not be confused with sexual surrogates, who do engage in sexual relations with clients. They are only licensed in certain states and are becoming less popular due to AIDS.)
One popular technique used in treating many sexual problems is called sensate focus, in which couples caress or massage each other without sexual contact. The goal is to help both partners learn to give and receive pleasure and feel safe together. As the partners become more comfortable, they can progress to genital stimulation.
As a result of performing this exercise, many couples discover new ways to experience pleasure other than sexual intercourse. “Some of my patients find that they become better lovers,” says Dennis Sugrue, Ph.D., a sex therapist at the Henry Ford Behavioral Services Program in West Bloomfield, Michigan.
Other exercises treat specific problems such as women’s inability to have orgasms and men’s erectile problems. Common complaints like these can usually be resolved in two months to a year of treatment, therapists report.
Performing these exercises often evokes strong feelings that are then explored through psychotherapy. People who have experienced sexual trauma or are confused about their sexual identity may need to spend more time working through their feelings. For couples, who make up the majority of clients, the focus is on improving communication and developing greater intimacy.
Finding a therapist
When looking for a sex therapist, it’s critical to find a practitioner with the proper credentials to deal with this sensitive subject area. A sex therapist should be an experienced psychotherapist (licensed social worker, psychologist, psychiatrist, or psychiatric nurse) with training in sex therapy from a reputable program, such as those offered by teaching hospitals or institutes.
These programs include instruction in sexual and reproductive anatomy and treatment methods. Other topics covered include sexual abuse, gender-related issues, and sociocultural factors in sexual values and behavior.
Sex therapists can become certified through the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors, and Therapists (AASECT). Certified therapists must meet rigorous requirements and adhere to a strict code of ethics.
You can obtain referrals for sex therapists from AASECT and other professional organizations such as the National Association of Social Workers and the American Psychological Association. (See Organizations listing below for contact information.) or ask your primary care physician, gynecologist, urologist, or therapist.