The Surprises of Being a Sex Therapist
by Jessa Zimmerman, LMHC
I love being a sex therapist because sex is important. Our sexuality is a birthright. Expressing it can be an experience of pleasure, connection, playfulness, creativity, and love. It taps into a life force that is powerful and healing. Being cut off from our sexuality or being unable to express it, alone or with others, separates us from a part of ourselves that matters. People suffer when they are missing a sexual connection with their partner.
My respect for couples working through intimacy issues grows every time someone is willing to come to a stranger for help with such a personal and integral part of themselves. Perhaps sharing some of my surprises will provide a glimpse into the kind of work I do in my office.
There are many misconceptions – from how long sex should last to how people should orgasm.
It is because I believe sex matters that I undertook the training and commitment to become an AASECT certified sex therapist. Now, my practice is about 95% working with couples and sexual issues. It’s hard to describe what I do. Even with such a specialty, I see an incredibly diverse group of people and presenting problems. I do talk about sex all day, but the work is so much more than that.
I was surprised how broad of an age range my clients were.
I have many couples in their 20s and 30s who have a hard time talking about sex, so they haven’t been able to address their sex life. Some clients have so much fear that they can’t achieve penetration. Others are haunted by the idea that they can’t “do it right” or that they aren’t “normal.” My oldest clients, so far, have been in their late 70s and are still actively working on a satisfying sex life. Frequently there are physical changes that have occurred by then that affect sex, but there is still so much to enjoy. I appreciate the value of sex all the way through our lifespan. I help people get creative about how to connect with their partner.
I was surprised how much my comfort in talking about sex is contagious.
I do try to match my clients’ language and meet each one where they are, but most people quickly feel at ease and are able to open up about intimate details.
I was surprised how much an obstacle it is when someone won’t speak up about their sexual needs and wants.
Many people grew up in households where they long ago learned not to want anything sexual. Thus, today, these clients have no idea about “wanting.” A lot of people hesitate, or even revolt against, taking up space in a relationship and receiving. Good sex requires both people to take pleasure and to advocate for their desires. Clients need to learn how to be selfish, in a good way. I use exercises that allow people to practice accessing and verbalizing what they want.
I was surprised by the expectations so many people have about sex.
There are many misconceptions – from how long sex should last to how people should orgasm. Furthermore, there is pressure for both men and women to “perform.” People have ideas about what sex should look like and what is supposed to be good or perfect. I help people let go of these ideas and just relax. Pleasure and connection are the only goals.
I was surprised by how often, in heterosexual couples, it is the woman who wants more sex.
Both people tend to expect the guy to be ready to go at the drop of a hat and wonder what’s wrong when that isn’t happening. My role is to help them process this and design ways to explore sex together, balancing the needs of people who want different amounts of sex.
I was initially surprised by the variety of things people find arousing and erotic.
I have come to appreciate the breadth and complexity of our inner sexual worlds. I spend time normalizing that for clients so they can harness the power of their sexuality and enjoy what turns them on.
I was surprised by how little the physical functioning of sex really matters.
People certainly come to me who are experiencing sexual dysfunction, and we do address that as much as we can. But our physical limitations don’t have to have a huge impact on our ultimate enjoyment in being sexual with a partner. I help redefine what sex is so they can enjoy what they have.
I was surprised how significant this work is. I knew that sex was important and that I had a calling to help people with it.
Now that I have been in practice, I have seen relationships transformed, and I have witnessed the joy and connection that people were able to rediscover with their partner. I feel humbled and grateful to have found work that makes such a difference.
Jessa Zimmerman, LMHC, is an AASECT certified sex therapist and couples’ counselor with a private practice in downtown Seattle. She is also a supervisor for Washington State and for AASECT. To receive her newsletter, read her blog or get more information, please visit her website at www.jessazimmerman.com.
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