Sex Therapist Tells Us How You Can Tell If Sex Therapy Is A Good Option For Your Relationship

Therapy is having a moment, and it's about time. Once something that people shied away from going or didn't talk about, many folks are finally getting on board with just how beneficial therapy is. It's become so mainstream that a 2023 survey by dating app Pure found that 92% of people would prefer to date someone who has been to therapy. Let's be honest: people who put their mental health first are sexy.

But therapy that focuses on our emotional and mental health certainly isn't the only type out there. No matter what part of our life needs tweaking, there's a brand of therapy for it — and that's why sex therapy exists. Sex therapy is a form of therapy that focuses on sexual health. This could be anything from physical issues like painful sex or menopausal symptoms, to mental concerns like sexual anxiety or arousal dysfunction. "As sexual beings, we all carry complex sex histories [that] include lifelong family and societal messages that affect our sexual functioning, body image, and relationships," AASECT-certified sex therapist Jenni Skyler, Ph.D., LMFT, CST told Well + Good. "Sex therapy can help a person explore their past sex history and find solutions to enhance the present and future."

Whether you're thinking about approaching your partner about sex therapy or considering going just for yourself, there are some things to keep in mind. In exclusive commentary with Women, Dr. Jennifer Litner, sexologist and founder of Embrace Sexual Wellness, shared her incite on sex therapy and how to tell if it's a good option for your relationship.

Why might someone seek sex therapy

Human sexuality is complicated. Sexual health isn't merely about the physical act of having intimate contact, but something much bigger that encompasses dozens of variables. Because of this, why someone might be interested in sex therapy really runs the gamut.

As Dr. Jennifer Litner, sexologist and founder of Embrace Sexual Wellness, exclusively told Women, some of those reasons could be "loss of intimacy, change in sexual desire, orgasm difficulties, pain during sex, sexual identity exploration, performance anxiety, sexual trauma," as well as many other concerns that are sex- and sexuality-related. "Think about how many transitions and experiences we go through in our adult lives: dating, breakups, infidelity, traumatic events, fertility challenges, pregnancies, postpartum recovery, health crises, natural aging, and beyond," relationship expert Kimberly Sharky told Well + Good. "Each of these moments has potential to interfere with our connection to our sexual selves and with our sexual partners."

When we step outside the cishet, mainstream concept of sex just being penis-in-vagina (PIV) penetration and look at it as a whole, there's a very good chance that most people probably have something that they'd love to discuss with a sex therapist. It's just a matter of realizing the enormity of the subject and its influence on us in ways we may not fully understand, which is likely to open the doors to more interest in sex therapy.

Who are the best candidates for it

Who are the best candidates for sex therapy? Anyone. If you've ever been sexually active or just find yourself mulling over sex-related topics, then sex therapy is for you. You also don't have to be in a relationship to seek it out. "Typically sex therapists work with adults either individually or as a couple," Dr. Jennifer Litner, sexologist and founder of Embrace Sexual Wellness exclusively told Women. "If a concern is affecting the relationship, partners may experience greater [benefits] attending sex therapy together. Many people seek sex therapy individually to work through a particular issue and sex therapy can be helpful for individuals too."

While sex therapy is an option for anyone who thinks it might be an asset to their sexual, physical, and mental health, not enough of those people even give it a try. According to a 2023 study published in Plos One, although sexual dysfunctions (SD) — arousal, orgasm ability, ejaculation issues — affect up to one-third of people, only 20% of those who experienced SD within the past year sought medical attention for it. It was also found that only 53% of women living with an SD, most notably lack of sexual desire, have reached out for professional treatment. As the researchers of the study surmised, the reasons could be the nature of the subject (sex is still tragically taboo) or simply not knowing due to insufficient sex ed. It's hard to be aware that there's a sex-related issue if you haven't been taught how these things work.

The benefits of sex therapy

It's important to realize that while sex therapy may help you deal with an aspect of your sex life, the benefits reverberate. As is the case in traditional therapy, fixing or learning to manage certain feelings or situations means other things fall into place in a healthier, more productive way. It's the same with sex therapy.

"Sex therapy can address some of the psychological and behavioral aspects of sexual functioning concerns," Dr. Jennifer Litner, sexologist and founder of Embrace Sexual Wellness, exclusively told Women. As Dr. Litner explained, this could mean that someone with vaginismus, a condition in which the vaginal muscles involuntarily contract at the start of penetrative sex, could learn how to emotionally and mentally prepare their body through mindfulness. In doing so, this could help alleviate pain through muscle relaxation. Similarly, someone with erectile dysfunction (ED) can learn the necessary cognitive behavioral tools so they can overcome performance anxiety. "Sex therapy can also help fill in the gaps from absent or limited sexuality education by providing clients with educational information about bodies, sex, and sexuality," Dr. Litner said. Considering only 39 of the 50 U.S. states have mandatory sex education, per Planned Parenthood, this can be a major asset for people.

Wherever there's a sex-related problem in your life or relationship, sex therapy can help. From the most minimal concerns to complicated issues that might involve fetishes, kink, or sexual trauma, sex therapists work with their patients to understand, first of all, the "why" of the equation, then how to manipulate it all in a way that makes it easier to handle.

What to expect in your sessions

First and foremost, there's no touching or any sort of hands-on approach in sex therapy. If you're looking for something along those lines, then you'll want a sex coach. "[A sex coach] may enter your bedroom and guide you or couples in the moment," AASECT-certified sex therapist Jenni Skyler, Ph.D. told Cosmopolitan. "Some sex coaches even touch their clients, and for some people who don't mind having a third person guide them in the bedroom, these experts can be valuable."

Sex therapy, on the other hand, is strictly talking and getting to the psychology of the matter. As Dr. Jennifer Litner, sexologist and founder of Embrace Sexual Wellness, exclusively told Women, this is done through an initial assessment that's followed by setting goals for the therapy's duration. "[We] introduce interventions and skills to practice outside of session, and review progress and eventually work towards closure," Dr. Litner said. Sex therapy isn't unlike traditional therapy in the way it's approached, the only major difference being the topic. "Some relationship therapists have training in sex therapy, but not all do," added Dr. Litner.

What you get out of sex therapy is what you put into it: if you don't do the work, you will have wasted time and money. While sex may not be the most important thing in a relationship, it's still part of the fundamental human experience. If the fundamentals aren't working, then everything else can feel a little off too. That's why even small sex-related issues are worth being brought to the attention of a sex therapist. Staying a step ahead of possible complications is the best route to take in any situation.