How to Become a Sex Therapist or Counselor
Growth Trends for Related Jobs
Though you may have seen sex therapists in the movies or on TV, the truth is that Hollywood doesn't always get it right (shocker, we know!) In fact, our cultural representations of sex therapy are often inaccurate and unrealistic, to say the least. It can be a tough career to portray on screen, mostly because it's such a diverse, and slightly unconventional, field.
Sex Therapy as a Career
People who identify as sex therapists or clinical sexologists can have extremely different training, backgrounds and credentials. For example, some sex therapists are psychologists with doctorate degrees; some have master's degrees in counseling or social work; some have medical degrees or psychiatry backgrounds; and some may even be medical doctors with research interests in human sexuality. The amount of schooling that's required, as well as a therapist's specific clinical approach and daily schedule, can vary widely from person to person.
The path to becoming a sex therapist isn't a one-size-fits-all endeavor. For those interested in sex therapy as a career, it's important to understand what type of degree, certification and training are required, in addition to knowing what to expect in terms of salary and job growth trends. No matter what your personal journey to becoming a sex therapist looks like, one thing is for certain: This can be a highly rewarding and fulfilling career for those with a deep interest in human sexuality and a desire to help people connect and grow with each other.
What Does a Sex Therapist Do?
A sex therapist is a mental health professional who treats sexual dysfunction through counseling. Sex therapists can be licensed psychiatrists, clinical social workers or psychologists trained in sex therapy methods. They have advanced training in sexual and relationship health, and they're able to address sexual issues from a scientific perspective.
Sex therapists provide comprehensive counseling services to both couples and individuals, and they assist in diagnosing sexual disorders and problems, as well as helping people explore their sexual identities and overcome past traumas and sexual shame. In addition to encouraging sexual experimentation and thoughtful discussion about sexual issues, sex therapists work with couples on their communication strategies and conflict resolution skills.
A trained sex therapist is a compassionate, empathetic professional with a nuanced awareness of sexuality and a much greater-than-average knowledge about the physiological processes that are a part of human sexuality. Above all, sex therapists are committed to helping people better understand their own sexual needs and their partner's sexual needs.
Accredited sex therapists build on their existing backgrounds in psychology, social work, medicine or graduate-level work in sexuality. To become a sex therapist, one must first obtain a master's or doctorate degree in psychology, sociology, social work, clinical counseling or a related field. By becoming a mental health professional with an advanced degree, a sex therapist can gain the tools and knowledge needed to understand how the human brain works and how they can best help people discover the root causes for their sexual behaviors and desires.
Other sex therapist requirements include undergoing specific sex therapy-related training and getting certified by the American Association of Sexuality, Educators, Counselors and Therapists. Before you embark on your degree program and subsequent training, it's highly recommended that you speak to several practicing sex therapists, so that you have an in-depth understanding of what's required of you.
AASECT Certification Programs
Through a proper sex therapy certification program, therapists can learn how to help individuals on a deeper level. The American Association of Sexuality, Educators, Counselors and Therapists offers certification of sexual health practitioners in four categories: sexuality counselor, sexuality educator, sex therapist and supervisor of sexuality educators, counselors and therapists. To determine which type of AASECT certification is best for you, consider your field of expertise and chosen career path.
Once you've reviewed which certification type is right for you, check out the specific requirements needed as outlined on the AASECT website. The AASECT requires therapists to have clocked hours of education, training and field-related experience for each category of certification, in addition to meeting rigorous academic criteria and becoming members of the organization. (If you're curious about AASECT-approved programs online, review the list of AASECT Approved Continuing Education Providers.)
To learn how to be the best clinician possible and to provide the best care to your patients, it's important to obtain the proper sex therapy certification. Plus, by becoming AASECT-certified, you'll be joining a national community of progressive, sex-positive, like-minded professionals.
Job Description of a Sex Therapist
Once an aspiring sex therapist has obtained a master's degree in a related field, undergone sex therapy training and received AASECT certification, the real work can begin. So, what does a typical sex therapy session look like, from a therapist's perspective?
Contrary to popular belief, movies and TV, sex therapists do not have sexual contact with their clients in the office or anywhere else. Whether you're a certified sexual counselor, educator or therapist, what goes on in the office with your patients looks much like any other form of counseling or therapy. Of course, therapists will often assign homework for couples or individuals, such as communication exercises, educational videos about sexual health, and mindfulness techniques.
Sex therapists work with both individuals and couples struggling with a range of sexual issues. Some of the more common issues include: impulsive or compulsive sexual behavior; difficulty with sexual arousal, premature ejaculation and concerns about desire; identity and intimacy; and the ability to reach orgasm. This is just the tip of the iceberg, of course, as human sexuality is wide-ranging and fluid in nature.
The Sex Therapy Industry
Accredited sex therapists can go into private practice or provide therapeutic services at an existing psychotherapy clinic – many do choose to work for themselves. In private practice, therapists may offer specialized services or choose to focus on a range of mental health issues. More and more sex therapists are also utilizing technological- and web-based tools to help their clients, whether they have their own practice or not.
In addition, sex therapists may choose to take on more of a public educator role. They may visit inpatient and outpatient clinics or nursing homes, speak at community events, provide workshops about healthy sexual behaviors, work with sexually abused or traumatized patients and hold free seminars for social service organizations.
A sexologist's salary can vary widely depending on experience and education, and the AASECT does not state a median salary for therapists. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2018, marriage and family therapists made a median average salary of $48,520 per year. The states with the highest employment level in this occupation were California, New Jersey, Florida, Pennsylvania and Arizona.
Job Growth Trend
In terms of job growth trends, sexual therapy is often grouped into larger categories, like psychiatry or social work. It's been widely estimated that social worker roles are growing at a faster-than-average rate, and the same goes for psychology and psychiatry.
It's safe to say that, as long as people are having sex, the need for mental health professionals who specialize in sexual therapy will continue to grow. As sexual taboos become less common, and societal attitudes toward sex and gender evolve, people will continue to seek professional help in confronting their own beliefs and biases around sex and relationships.
<!--StartFragment-->Justine Harrington is a writer based in Austin, Texas. Her work has been published in Forbes, USA Today, Fodor's, American Way, Marriott Bonvoy Traveler, Texas Highways, Austin Monthly, and dozens of other print and online publications.