“I can’t believe how long we waited to get help!” is something I often hear from clients who, after months, and sometimes years, finally find the courage to make an appointment and face their problem. It is that sudden realisation that they are not alone and that everyone, at some point in their life, struggles with some aspect of their sexual or relationship life.
But why would someone specifically choose to see a sex therapist as opposed to a general counsellor or psychotherapist? What sets sex therapy apart from the more traditional talking therapies; why is it different?
- Sex therapists are comfortable talking about sex.
Most people, and couples, have trouble talking about some aspect of sex. How often do you discuss your sexual fantasies with your partner or explore with your friends how best to bring your lover to orgasm? There are some things which feel simply too embarrassing or which remain taboo in our culture. A sex therapist can help clients navigate through these tricky subjects in a safe space and without fear of judgement or ridicule. They can also help couples talk about sex with each other in a more open and honest way.
- Sex therapists understand how distressing a sexual difficulty can be.
Research demonstrates that sexuality is strongly associated with mood, physical health and sense of self. Therapists working in this field have undergone rigorous training around sexuality and relationships, attend regular supervision and appreciate the complexity involved not to mention the anxiety, frustration and shame which can accompany a sexual problem.
- Sex therapy gets to the root of the problem.
You have tried absolutely everything under the sun, or buried your head deep in the sand in the hope that the problem will magically disappear. The feelings of disappointment, hurt, anger and resentment have set in and make it difficult for you both to move forwards in resolving the issue. Sex therapists are trained to work ‘holistically’ with clients and consider them from a biological, psychological and social (or bio-psycho-social) perspective. This means that we will ask questions about your mental and physical health, your current relationship, and aspects of your childhood, your parents’ relationship and what they taught you directly or indirectly about sex – all in a bid to reveal the possible factors which have played a part in creating your problem and in maintaining it. We believe that sexuality begins at birth and that your early (or primary) relationships can have a strong influence on the way you develop as an adult.
- A chance to (re-)learn about human sexuality.
In spite of the relatively liberal climate that we live in, many people have little understanding of their own bodies and sexual functioning. Seeing a therapist is an opportunity to explore what sexuality (and sensuality) mean to you personally and to better understand the physiological processes of desire, arousal, and orgasm as well as the impact that pain or anxiety can have on these. It is also a chance to talk about the role of pleasure and play in sex and relationships – concepts that we seldom discuss in traditional sex ed.
- Keeping it real.
Sex therapy is also about myth-busting. We live in a world where, unfortunately, sex is portrayed as easy and hot and spontaneous, all of the time! The role of the therapist is to gently challenge people’s assumptions and beliefs and to paint a more accurate and realistic picture: that sex is not perfect; that it can be messy or emotionally loaded; that it doesn’t have to end with orgasm; that sometimes it needs timetabling; and that it can be earth-shattering and deeply disappointing from one encounter to another. Setting more realistic expectations for clients often helps them feel more happy and fulfilled in themselves and within their relationships.
- Sex therapy supports medical interventions.
There are a number of illnesses which can be associated with sexual dysfunction. For example, heart disease, diabetes, depression and certain cancers have all been shown to impact directly on sexual functioning, and some of the medication used to treat these conditions can also affect sexual function. Sex therapy can be used to complement a patient’s medical treatment by addressing the sexual, psychological and relational components of their condition. Indeed, research demonstrates that psychosexual therapy can significantly help improve the quality of life and relationship dynamics of prostate and breast cancer patients and their partners.
Relationships are constantly evolving, moving and changing; an ongoing work in progress, so to speak. Some people engage in sex therapy because they are interested in finding out how they can improve or enhance their sexual relationship. They want to see how far they can go in their own personal development and want to learn how to improve communication or become a better lover. Sex therapy is an opportunity to explore and try new things out. This can be an immensely rewarding and creative experience. However, you need to be prepared to take risks and step outside of what feels familiar to reap the benefits.
I have rarely come across a problem between two ordinary people that I didn’t feel was somehow workable or resolvable. Sometimes just verbalising – simply talking about it – helps make sense of it all.
If you are concerned about your sexual functioning, or want to expand your horizons and reach your sexual optimum, why not book a session with a psychosexual and relationship therapist?