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Sexual Health Center

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What Is a Sex Therapist?

If you’re having problems in the bedroom, sex therapists can help.
WebMD Magazine - Feature

The couple arrived at my office with a common problem. They had an 8-month-old and a 3-year-old. The husband was starved for physical contact and had been since baby No. 1 was born. But between the nursing infant and the clinging toddler, the wife was getting just about as much physical contact as she could stand.

Over the course of several sessions, I explored what might be affecting their sex life by asking them some gentle questions. Could the mother have postpartum depression? Was the couple aware that prolactin, the breastfeeding hormone, suppresses sexual desire? And what was sex like before kids?

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The Role of Sex Therapists

This case is typical of both the kind of people who visit sex therapists and the type of work therapists do. Sex therapists focus specifically on the sexual side of relationships -- that intimate zone that is so hard to discuss but is so crucial to a relationship’s health. Their chief treatment method is talk therapy, designed to help clients explore issues that may affect their sexuality. They suggest touching exercises for couples to try at home and teach couples how to become more intimate. (They don’t touch their clients in an erotic way.)

Sex therapists -- who most often are certified by one of two professional organizations in the United States -- address a variety of issues. Physically, clients may have trouble reaching orgasm or sustaining an erection. Emotionally, they may have problems concerning their self-esteem, body image, or an earlier trauma, such as abuse. And, interpersonally, they may disagree with their partner about how often -- or how -- they should have sex.

Treating Sexual Dysfunction

Take the couple described above. I discovered that the wife was indeed feeling depressed, overwhelmed, and badly out of shape, and that she resented her husband for not doing more around the house. The husband’s frustration about her “coldness,” in turn, was partly triggered by his own upbringing, in which he never felt he got as much physical affection as he wanted.

Once we were clear on these issues, we came up with a plan: The husband would pitch in more, which included giving the wife time to exercise. The wife would try to touch her husband more (both in and out of bed). And both said they would be more honest about what they needed. It was hard work -- and took honesty and courage -- but after several months their sex life was back on track.

If your own sex life is in the doldrums, try reconnecting with your passion -- and your partner -- with these strategies:

  • Make a date. Time with your spouse is crucial for rekindling romance, especially for women, who often need emotional closeness to get physically close.
  • Snuggle up. Nonsexual touching triggers the release of the hormone oxytocin, which has a calming effect.
  • Get help. Call on friends, family, or professionals to help lighten your load, whether it’s from childcare, housework, or overwhelming emotions.
Reviewed on August 21, 2008

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