Sexuality Helping Professions
If you are interested in a career in human sexuality or you are looking for help with a sex question or problem it can be difficult to navigate the different terminologies sexuality professionals use for their jobs. Sexologist, sex therapist, sex educator are just a few of the many terms that get used by people of varying educational and professional backgrounds who make a living talking, teaching and counseling about human sexuality.
Most sexuality professions are unregulated, which means that anyone can use these job titles regardless of their training or credentials. This makes it especially important, before you engage the services of any sexuality professional, to understand what, if any, training they have had, and whether or not they are associated with any professional body that requires them to adhere to a code of ethics. Having a college or university degree doesn’t mean someone will be good at what they do. It also doesn’t mean they only know theory. There isn’t one background you should look for. What’s most important is that you understand what you’re getting when you pay for any kind of sexual help services.
Below is a brief description of some of the different sexuality helping professions. Follow the links for more information.
The broadest umbrella term for sexuality professionals, a sexologist is simply someone who studies sex. Anyone can call themselves a sexologist, and many people with no formal training or education in sexuality use this term to describe themselves as someone who is interested in sex professionally and not just personally. A sexologist might be someone with a PhD in anthropology who studies sexual practices and cultures. A sexologist may also be someone who has written a book and wants to make themselves sound scientific. If we want to use the term to distinguish a sexologist from someone who is interested in sex, we might say that a sexologist is someone who has set out to study sex in a systematic way.
Sex researchers, as the name implies, are folks who do research in sexuality. Most often sex researchers work at colleges and universities and conduct academic research. As the market for sexual pharmaceuticals expands, you may find more sex researchers employed by for profit companies as well. Sex researchers come from all disciplines (social science, bio-medical, humanities, etc…). While again, anyone can call themselves a sex researcher, most sex researchers have specific academic training that they are now applying to the study of sexuality. A sex researcher with a medical background might be studying the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, a sex researcher with a sociology background might be looking at the way sexual orientation is treated in families of different backgrounds, to give you two examples.
Sex educators teach about sex. They usually work with groups of people in a classroom or other kind of institutional setting, or with organizations, developing curriculum or policy. The American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors, and Therapists has a process whereby one can become a certified sexuality educator, but not all sex educators are certified. Some sex educators were teachers first, others come from nursing or rehabilitation, and others have no formal education on sexuality. As with all sexuality professions, it’s good to ask about credentials and whether or not a sex educator has any professional affiliations.
Sex therapists usually work one on one or with couples, and tend to focus on sexual problems or dysfunctions. Many sex therapists first receive training in general counseling or psychotherapy and then seek out specialized training in human sexuality. While most couples therapists will have some degree of comfort and knowledge talking about sex, a sex therapist should have training in diagnosing and treating sexual dysfunctions. In most cases sex therapy is done within a medical model, meaning that they isolate a problem and treat it as if it something that can be resolved or cured. Sex therapists may be certified by a sex therapy organization or by a college or association of counselors or therapists. But in most countries and states in the U.S. anyone can call themselves a sex therapist and some sex therapists have no certification or professional affiliation at all.
A sex surrogate, or sexual surrogate, is someone who has received training to work in conjunction with a sex therapist, to address sexual concerns or sexual dysfunction with an individual or, less often, with a couple. A sex surrogate is different than a therapist in that they will not have received as much training in therapy and they will work in a “hands-on” way with clients. This may involve them touching clients and having clients touch them, it might involve them being sexual with clients. Sex surrogacy isn’t commonly practiced, but there are still some surrogates working and the International Professional Surrogates Association still maintains a website that advertises training and a referral service.
A sex coach is the newest of the terms being used by people who identify themselves as working in a helping sexuality profession. The term sex coach was coined in the late 90’s to describe a combination of sex education and personal life coaching. A sex coach is not a sex therapist. But the differences are hard to pin down as sex coaching is so new and the people who are practicing it all come from different backgrounds. One difference seems to be that a lot of sex coaching takes place in phone sessions, whereas most sex therapy involves people being in the same room. As well, sex coaches seem to talk less about sexual dysfunction, and most of them wouldn’t likely diagnose. Another important difference is that while there are well established training and certification programs for sex therapy, no such programs exist (yet) for sex coaches.