The Benefits of Sex Therapy for Families
A sex therapist, in the simplest terms possible, is a person who is "comfortable talking about sex. Period, end of sentence. They're people who have been trained to understand a whole other realm of sexual practices that may not be their own."
This explanation is courtesy of Jane Fleishman, Ph.D., author of the Nautilus award—winning book "The Stonewall Generation" and a sexual educator certified through the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists.
While nonspecialized therapy may touch on sexual elements of a person's life, sex therapy augments a clinician's knowledge.
"Marriage and family therapists have told me repeatedly they feel their training has left them wanting more understanding of sexual concerns in the bedroom, sexual concerns in the relationship and sexual concerns in the family," Fleishman said. "There are some marriage and family therapists who have now developed dual-track training for people in marriage and family therapy to learn about sex therapy."
Fleishman concedes not all therapists or licensed clinical social workers (LCSW) are interested in the extended education, but emphasizes sex therapy as "a way you understand the fundamental nature of sexual life and sexuality within an individual, and within a relationship or set of relationships."
A sexual education
Fleishman refers to Dennis Dailey's 1981 "The Circles of Sexuality," a strengths-based model to understand holistic sexual well-being.
"He developed a model that's sort of an umbrella for thinking about sex and sexuality that includes intimacy, relationships, communication, taking care of your sexual health, your gender and your sexual identity," Fleishman said. "In the center of this circle of sexuality is you and all the values and thoughts and feelings you have about it."
This perspective calls for an understanding of sexuality that exists mentally, physically and socially. Compare this to people growing up with the topic of sex as restricted or totally off-limits based on arbitrary elements such as age or social setting, and the individual and communal benefits of sex therapy become clear.
Sexual understanding doesn't begin at puberty for sex therapists. Talking about sex with a toddler may strike some as taboo or bad parenting, but age-appropriate sexual education is possible and essential.
"I say to parents, you need to start talking to your kids about sex before they're born, start talking to your kid about their sexuality right when they're born and throughout their life," Fleishman said. "Sex to an infant or toddler is naming your parts. What is your genitalia? How do we represent those parts of the body in our family, instead of just 'down there' or some other label?"
Obfuscating a child's understanding of their own body with inaccurate euphemisms sets up a child to have a possibly lifelong uncomfortable relationship with sex. For children more familiar and open with conversations about sex, those skills and practices are more likely to carry on into their adult life, where they'll most likely be more understanding of their own sexuality and the sexuality of others.
Therapy for trauma
Not all sex therapy is education for a positive sexual identity. A great deal of the work addresses trauma. A sex therapist may work with an individual on their own trauma, but they also may be hired to help entire familial units cease cycles that have persisted for generations.
"There's the part where the parent has been a survivor of abuse or a perpetrator and has their own trauma," Fleishman said. "They have been harmed or have harmed [others], and now the trauma is in their bones. They're not sure how to talk about sex with their child except in a very protective, 'don't take any risks' kind of way. That's where intergenerational trauma really shows up. Of course, we see that with kids of color and parents of color who have so much stuff they're holding around race, microaggressions and invisibility, and being passed over. They're holding on to trauma they don't want to give to their kids."
Sex therapy is as multifaceted as sex itself, and just as everyone is entitled to their own sexuality, this work addresses many different types of trauma. Whether for the individual, a couple or an entire family unit, sex therapy acknowledges the inner and outer idiosyncrasies of people and the relationships we form as clues for emerging from trauma into pleasure and joy.