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Sex Therapy: Beyond The Physical

 An image from above looking down at man and a woman sitting on a couch facing each other and holding hands.
Sex therapy helps some folks reconnect with their bodies, partners or pleasure.

Sex therapy is a specialized form of counseling that helps folks navigate their relationship to intimacy.

Contrary to how it’s portrayed in popular media, sex therapy is about much more than improving our performance in the bedroom.

Like other forms of counseling, sex therapy involves having conversations with a trained professional – in this case, about the anxieties and obstacles that get in the way of intimacy and pleasure. Sex therapists support couples, polycules and individual clients in exploring the range of identities and experiences that have led to their current relationship with sex. For many people, this involves unpacking experiences of trauma, building confidence around their gender and sexual identities and learning to communicate about their desires with a partner.

In this episode of Embodied, host Anita Rao speaks with three sex therapists about the structure of a sex therapy session, their distinct approaches to the practice and the various aspects of identity that inform our attitudes toward sex and sexuality. Dr. Lauren Walker, a registered clinical psychologist and associate professor at the University of Calgary, walks us through the foundations of sex therapy and the emotional components that influence our view of sex.

Dr. Donna Oriowo, a sex and relationship therapist based in Maryland, explains the connection between sexuality and race and discusses some of the ways sex therapists can be more responsive to the needs and experiences of Black women in particular.

Zoë Kors, a consultant for the sexual wellness app Coral, talks about the ways technology can make sex therapy and education accessible for all.

Thanks to Machel Hunt, Christina Mathieson, Krista Nabar and Dani Strauss for lending their own thoughts and expertise to this episode as well.

The Real Sex Therapy (Debunked by sex therapists from the episode)

Q1: Will my sex therapist use physical touch to demonstrate intimacy? 

Dr. Krista Nabar: ”Sex therapy is talk therapy. Sex therapists just happen to know more about sex than other therapists and are more comfortable talking about it.”

Q2: Is our sexuality only derived from sexual intercourse? 

Dr. Lauren Walker: “I like to think about sexuality as more of a way that we conceptualize ourselves or view ourselves that even if we're not engaging directly in sexual activities, that we can still view ourselves as a sexual person. … You may find that you're dancing, or you're listening to music, or creating art or exercising even in a way where you're feeling empowered and strengthened within your body, and you can still feel sexy, and you can feel sexual. So I do like to look at sexuality as a much more broad phenomenon than just what kinds of activities people are engaging in with their genital organs.”

Q3: Doesn’t sex therapy only cover sex?

Dr. Donna Oriowo: “White supremacist, patriarchal society and it's capitalism — and all the things that sort of come with it — often follow us into the bedroom. It follows us with its ideas of who we are, what type of pleasure we are allowed to access and with whom we're allowed to share that access … I have [my clients] sort of redefine and broaden their own definition of what it means to be sexy, so that they are actually included in sexy — not sexualized in the way that they have already been sexualized, by really, white supremacist heteronormativity.”

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Anthony Howard, a junior at UNC-Chapel Hill and the fall intern for Embodied, is currently majoring in media and journalism at UNC's Hussman School. He has interests in creative writing, musical theatre, and fashion. Whether it be writing for The Daily Tar Heel as an arts & culture staff writer or listening to the latest Megan Thee Stallion, Howard is excited to broaden his experience with Embodied and create impactful storytelling.
Kaia Findlay is a producer for Embodied, WUNC's weekly, live talk show on health, sex and relationships. Kaia first joined the WUNC team in 2020 as a producer for The State of Things.
Anita Rao is an award-winning journalist and the host and creator of "Embodied," a live, weekly radio show and seasonal podcast about sex, relationships & health. She's also the managing editor of WUNC's on-demand content.