When Taylor G. was 23, she was diagnosed with a few sexual health conditions, including vulvodynia and pelvic floor dysfunction—both of which, among other symptoms, can make it painful to have intercourse. When her OB/GYN recommended she see a sex therapist in addition to receiving medical care, Taylor was surprised. “I always thought sex therapy [was] for couples who weren’t sexually compatible—not for single people like me,” she says.
According to Vanessa Marin, sex therapist and creator of Finishing School, an online orgasm course for women, a lot of the work sex therapists do comes back to clearing up many such misconceptions. As with most things sex-related, there’s a lot of misinformation floating around.
Sex therapists treat people of all ages, be they in relationships or not, and they address physical as well as emotional issues relating to sexuality and health. And considering sexual health is a major part of your general wellbeing, what these therapists do is understandably as varied as the people they treat.
“People tend to think that good sex should just happen effortlessly and naturally, and that myth can lead to a lot of disappointment.” —Vanessa Martin, sex therapist
The No. 1 myth that needs busting? “People tend to think that good sex should just happen effortlessly and naturally, and that myth can lead to a lot of disappointment,” Marin says, adding that most of her female clients want to learn how to orgasm, while her male clients are interested in overcoming performance issues.
It only took Taylor one session to realize there was more to her condition than just physical pain. Before she was diagnosed, Taylor saw multiple gynecologists who didn’t know what was wrong with her. In order to make sex more enjoyable, they said, she should “relax,” “have a glass of wine,” or most infuriatingly, to “find the right partner.”
“It was horrible and dehumanizing to have doctors look at me and tell me there was nothing wrong even though clearly I was in pain,” Taylor says. And because she wasn’t diagnosed correctly for a long time, she had accumulated a mountain of negative experiences and anxiety around sex and dating. The sex therapist “helped me work through all these fears,” she says.
There are also some lingering stereotypes around sex therapy for couples. Going to a sex therapist doesn’t mean your relationship is doomed, says Marin. “It’s actually a great sign of strength, and how much you value your relationship, that you’re willing to seek help,” she says.
“People fear that sex therapy is one hour a week you set aside to fight with each other,” says Carolanne Marcantonio, LMSW, a New York-based sex therapist whose clients are often couples who come to her after the three-year mark, citing mismatched sexual desire. “But it helps to see a therapist in order to work through these issues in a mediated way, so you’re not falling into the same patterns.”
“Going to see a sex therapist actually a great sign of strength.”
Whether you’re venturing in solo or with your partner, sex therapy is a lot like, well, regular therapy. (Despite what you may be picturing: “Professional sex therapy never includes nudity or sexual contact,” says Marcantonio.) And like other forms of counseling, Marcantonio adds, going to sex therapy isn’t a quick fix. You have to put in the time and effort to see a change—Marcantonio says she’ll occasionally give couples homework or exercises to try, ones that aren’t as sexy as you might think (or hope). “Sometimes it’s an article or an excerpt from a book about understanding desire,” she says.
So sex, like most other elements of a relationship, can take time and dedication. But when does “working on it” become forcing it? It’s individual for everyone, says Marcantonio. “It’s not my job to decide whether a couple should be together or not,” she said. “I’m just there to help them explore what they want.”
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