What is Sex Therapy?

By: Dr. Adele Zorn, FAACS

Sex therapy is based on scientific research, and is a specialized professional and ethical treatment approach to problems of sexual function and expression. It reflects the recognition that sexuality is of legitimate concern to professionals and that it is the right of individuals to seek expert assistance with their sexual difficulties and concerns. Sex therapists have specialized clinical skills to help men and women, as individuals or as couples, to deal more effectively with their sexual expression.
At a time in our society when sexuality is being more openly discussed, we in the sexology field are realizing how uninformed many people are about this important personal topic. Problems in sexual functioning can lead to a devaluation of self. Dissatisfaction and unresolved difficulties with one's sexuality can lead to negative feelings and attitudes, which often destroy relationships. 
People seek help for various sexual problems and concerns. A qualified sex therapist is available to those wishing to resolve troublesome sexual fears, inhibitions and undesirable sexual habits. They can also assist those experiencing sexual difficulties as a result of physical disabilities or as the consequence of illness, surgery, aging and the lack of sexual knowledge.
Although sex therapy utilizes many of the same basic principles as other therapies, it is unique in that it is an approach developed specifically for the treatment of sexual problems and concerns. Sex therapy techniques, when applied by an unskilled therapist, might focus too readily only on mechanical sexual behavior. 
The success of treatment depends upon many factors such as the nature of the problem, the motivation of the patient, the therapeutic goals and the therapist's skills. The motivated patient or couple should choose a therapist carefully and establish realistic goals early in the therapy.
Unfortunately, a wide variety of professionals who might not be qualified claim expertise in this field, and the prospective client needs to exercise caution and choose wisely. The therapist must have a sound knowledge and comfort with the subject, and be skilled in understanding the total individual. Extensive post-graduate training specifically within the areas of sexual function and dysfunction is necessary. A weekend workshop or possession of a few sex therapy films does not meet this criterion. The prospective client should feel free to ask for the therapist's training in these specialized areas.


Most qualified sex therapists do not depend on newspaper ads, as most have made themselves and their credentials known to other professionals in the community. Simply finding the title "Sex Therapist" in the phone book does not document that individual's clinical skills. When calling a sex therapist, be sure to ask questions about qualifications, experience and fees. It is also helpful to know if the therapist belongs to recognized national sex professional associations, which have high membership requirements and enforce rigid codes of ethics.
You can expect to be talking explicitly and in detail about sex. You might expect to be offered the opportunity to add to your knowledge by reading selected books and by viewing clinical films designed specifically for use in sex therapy. You will be given homework assignments and every assignment, task or experience should be clearly understood and acceptable. The therapist should be non-judgmental and illustrate comfort in both giving and receiving sexual information. You should also expect to experience a respectful attitude from the therapist toward those values that you do not wish to change.
Unless your therapist is a licensed medical physician, you should not be asked to disrobe in the presence of your therapist. Sexual contact between client and therapist is unethical and is destructive to the therapeutic relationship. Sexual activities should never occur in the therapist's presence, even though the talk, material and assignments must, by the nature of the problem, be specifically sexual and at times bluntly explicit.
In some instances when no sexual partner exists or there is no possibility of the client’s ability to be with a partner, the sex therapist might send the client to a sex surrogate. In this situation the therapist would assign certain exercises for the client to be done with the surrogate away from the therapist's office. The client and the surrogate individually consult with the therapist before each session for further progression of the therapy. This can be quite costly and is usually only suggested in specialized cases. 
Sex therapy is a dynamic approach to very real human problems. It is based on the assumption that sex is good and pleasurable. It is by its nature a very sensitive treatment approach and must be non-judgmental and non-sexist with recognition of the equal rights of men and women. Maximizing one's sexual potential for the full expression and enjoyment of healthy sexuality is the desired goal of sex therapy.

Dr. Adele Zorn is a Diplomate of the American Board of Sexology.