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Talking about sex can be uncomfortable, even when things are going well. When you’re experiencing problems with sexual function or satisfaction, it can be even more challenging to talk about what’s going on. But issues with sexual performance and a low sex drive are common, and there are ways to help ease your concerns and improve your sexual satisfaction.
A healthcare provider can address physical concerns, while a sex therapist can help you improve emotional and mental barriers to sexual satisfaction.
You can do sex therapy on your own or with your partner to help improve intimacy, communication, and satisfaction with your sex life. Keep reading to learn more about sex therapy.
What is sex therapy?
Sex therapy is a form of therapy designed to improve an individual’s or a couple’s sexual satisfaction. It is a type of talk therapy, meaning you will sit and talk with a mental health professional about thoughts, beliefs, or behaviors. Talk therapy helps transform negative patterns into more beneficial thoughts, beliefs, or actions (Pereira, 2013).
The goal of sex therapy is to help address medical, mental, personal, and relationship factors impacting the quality of your sex life.
Sexual dysfunctions are problems that affect your physical or psychological ability to perform sexually. Here are some examples of sexual concerns (Mallory, 2019):
- Trouble reaching orgasm
- Low libido (sex drive)
- Lack of interest in sex
- Lack of response to sexual stimulus
- Premature ejaculation
- Low self-esteem or confidence
- High libido
- Performance anxiety
- Erectile dysfunction
- Hypoactive sexual desire disorder (HSDD)
- Unwanted sexual behaviors, thoughts, or fetishes
Sex therapy can’t help treat any physical problems or hormone imbalances that may be impacting sexual function. For those, you will need to work with your healthcare provider. Still, sex therapy is effective in helping to change thoughts, emotions, intimacy, and behaviors that could be affecting your satisfaction with your sex life.
Sex therapy can also help address mental health and thoughts about one’s sexual orientation, gender identity, sexual functioning, or a history of sexual trauma.
How does sex therapy work?
Sex therapy helps reframe your thoughts and beliefs around sex and intimacy to increase your sexual satisfaction. It doesn’t involve sex, just talking about sexual problems and intimacy concerns.
It works like any other type of psychotherapy. You will sit down with a trained mental health professional to talk through your past experiences and current relationship to sex and intimacy (Pereira, 2013).
Whether you are single, dating, or in a committed relationship, sex therapy can help you with any challenges you are experiencing. The skills you learn during sessions can help with future partners or strengthen your current relationship.
What to expect
A therapist is there to provide a neutral perspective. They won’t take sides to say whether anyone was right or wrong. They also won’t judge you for anything in your past. Instead, the therapist is there to listen and guide you. (If you feel your therapist is not maintaining a neutral stance, it’s probably time to look for a new therapist).
During your initial appointment, your therapist will help you decide on a treatment plan that is right for you. For most types of therapy, you’ll need several sessions to see improvements in your mental health and satisfaction. Your therapist may assign homework to do between sessions. Your therapist is there to guide and support you, but you’ll need to work on your thinking and habits daily to see the best results.
As you progress through your sessions, your therapist may extend your treatment plan if more work would be beneficial. On the other hand, if you’ve seen significant improvement in your sexual health, your therapist may recommend decreasing session frequency or releasing you from care.
If you have any physical conditions affecting your sexual health, your medical healthcare professional and therapist can consult to help provide you with the best care possible.
Depending on your condition, you may need a combination of sex therapy and medical treatment to improve sexual function.
How to find a sex therapist
Any trained mental health professional can likely help you work through some of your issues around sex and intimacy. Still, you may find the best results by working with a certified sexual therapist. The American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists (AASECT) offers certification for sexual health practitioners. You can check their referral directory to find a certified sex therapist in your area.
Your healthcare provider (primary care or gynecologist) may have a list of providers they can recommend. It’s also a good idea to contact your insurance provider to see if your plan covers any sex therapists in your area.
Choosing a therapist can take some time; expect some trial and error. Therapists and their styles are unique. If you don’t click with one, don’t give up. It may take a few tries, but finding someone you trust and connect with is essential for successful therapy.
Who is sex therapy for?
Sex therapy is for anyone whose emotional wellness or life is affected by their sexual function or satisfaction. Problems with sexual performance or satisfaction are common and nothing to be ashamed of.
Sexual satisfaction and emotional intimacy play a significant role in overall quality of life (Flynn, 2016). So if trouble connecting in relationships, lack of intimacy, and sexual dysfunction are your primary concerns, sex therapy can help.
The skills you develop during sex therapy, while oriented around your sexual health, can be transferred to other areas of your life. However, a different type of talk therapy may be better if other areas of your life are more pressing.
You’ll want to consider whether couples therapy or individual therapy will be better for you. In some cases, your therapist may recommend doing some sessions as a couple and some individually, depending on your needs.
For some people, sex therapy for just one person is enough to improve their sexual satisfaction. But, sometimes, going to therapy together helps the couple work through any struggles and build a stronger connection.
Again, a therapist shouldn’t take sides in any arguments. Instead, they will offer suggestions to help you both communicate better and increase insight into the other person’s experience.
Benefits of sex therapy
Sex therapy helps improve both physical and mental health. Here are some of the benefits of working with a sex therapist:
- Better communication: Whether you choose to complete individual or couple sessions, sex therapy focuses on how you relate to other people. Your communication skills are important for how you connect to other people and your intimacy levels. The skills you learn in therapy will help you communicate more effectively and understand other people better (Mallory, 2019).
- Increased sexual satisfaction: Sex therapy and mindfulness techniques help to increase sexual desire and genital arousal (Brotto, 2016). Intimacy and communication are increased after successful sex therapy, which research shows can lead to more pleasurable sex (Mallory, 2019).
- Improved sexual function: One study showed that sex therapy decreased sex-related pain and increased orgasms (Pereira, 2013).
- Improved mental, emotional, and physical health: Stress around sexual function and satisfaction impacts all areas of your life. Sex therapy helps resolve problematic beliefs and behaviors to increase your happiness. Since sexual health is important to your overall quality of life, therapy can help improve your health and wellbeing (Faubion, 2015).
If your sexual function is negatively impacting your life, don’t be afraid to ask for help. There are trained mental health professionals who can help you with concerns about your sexual function, satisfaction, or any other concerns.
Sexual health problems are common. Asking for help is an important first step that could help to improve your happiness long-term.
- Brotto, L.A., Chivers, M.L., Millman, R.D. et al. Mindfulness-based sex therapy improves genital-subjective arousal concordance in women with sexual desire/arousal difficulties. Archives of Sexual Behavior 45, 1907–1921 (2016). doi: 10.1007/s10508-015-0689-8. Retrieved from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10508-015-0689-8
- Faubion, S. S., & Rullo, J. E. (2015). Sexual dysfunction in women: A practical approach. American Family Physician, 92(4), 281–288. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26280233/
- Flynn, K. E., Lin, L., Bruner, D. W., Cyranowski, J. M., Hahn, E. A., Jeffery, D. D., et al. (2016). Sexual satisfaction and the importance of sexual health to quality of life throughout the life course of U.S. adults. The Journal of Sexual Medicine, 13(11), 1642–1650. doi: 10.1016/j.jsxm.2016.08.011. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5075511/
- Mallory, A. B., Stanton, A. M., & Handy, A. B. (2019). Couples’ sexual communication and dimensions of sexual function: A meta-analysis. Journal of Sex Research, 56(7), 882–898. doi: 10.1080/00224499.2019.1568375. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6699928/
- Pereira, V. M., Arias-Carrión, O., Machado, S., Nardi, A. E., & Silva, A. C. (2013). Sex therapy for female sexual dysfunction. International Archives of Medicine, 6(1), 37. doi: 10.1186/1755-7682-6-37. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3849542/
Dr. Steve Silvestro is a board-certified pediatrician and Manager, Medical Content & Education at Ro.