When I hear the term sex coach, the first thing that comes to mind is a paunch-bellied older dude in gym shorts and tube socks pacing beside a mattress. His wraparound sunglasses slide down his sweat-slicked nose as he shouts energetically at the couple fornicating below him.
Maybe he has a bull horn, like my swim coaches of yore; definitely, he has a whistle. “Sex coach” conjures up the kind of blustery athletics instructor whose overbearing presence on the sidelines constituted one central reason why I always hated sports.
Luckily, sex coaching does not seem to involve having someone bark criticisms at you while you bang to the best of your abilities.
WHAT IS A SEX COACH?
The job’s actual requirements, however, are malleable: What exactly a sex coach does depends on the sex coach in question. Some will , watch you work, and give you pointers; others stick to a talk-based method like the kind pioneered by Patti Britton, Ph.D., a certified clinical sexologist and sex educator, and the mother of sex coaching. These coaches offer insight into how clients can improve their sex lives and overcome erotic barriers. If that sounds like therapy to you, well, it isn’t—not quite.
SEX COACH (noun): Offers insight into how clients can improve their sex lives and overcome erotic barriers.
“Most people have some form of difficulty and challenges surrounding sexuality that they need to work through,” says Annette Gates, a certified somatic sex educator (CSSE), certified hypnotherapist (CHT), and sex and relationship coach. Her job, as she sees it, is to create a safe space in which people can talk about sex—their fantasies, their traumatic experiences, their insecurities, their fears—without shame.
She integrates the client’s story into treatment with an eye “toward practical application,” she explains. As a sex coach, she doesn’t get to the root of emotional or psychological blockages; instead, she takes the client’s situation as a starting point and works from there to find practical steps forward. More on those steps below.
WHAT DOES SEX COACHING ENTAIL?
Gates aims to help her clients figure out what they want sexually and then make roadmaps to get there: They meet in her office, and based on their conversations, Gates develops an actionable plan and sends her coaching subject home with assignments to complete between sessions. Many of these involve breathing techniques (to practice mindfulness and relaxation), and controlled genital touching (to help the client explore their body, and what turns them on.)
So, for example, Gates might work with a woman who has been married for 20 years and never had an orgasm. In an introductory session, that client would answer questions about her masturbation practices—like how often she does so and whether or not she's open to using sex toys.
She would teach this woman how to track her arousal cycle and offers step-by-step relaxation methods; the woman would then practice on her own, and once she gets to know her body a bit better, she and Gates would move on to incorporate the client’s needs during sex with a partner.
HOW IS A SEX COACH DIFFERENT FROM A SEX THERAPIST?
Sex therapists approach sexual issues from a psychological perspective. Ian Kerner, Ph.S., a psychotherapist and sex therapist, explains that while there is no specific license for sex therapy, there are stringent standards for candidates seeking certification.
SEX THERAPIST (noun): Approaches sexual issues from a psychological perspective.
Certified sex therapists are bound by a code of ethics; they’ll have the requisite degrees and clinical experience to secure therapy licenses; and they’ll often accept insurance. “You have a lot of guarantees built in about the quality of the work and the education and framing of the person you’re getting that work from,” says Kerner.
ARE THERE DRAWBACKS TO SEX COACHING?
In contrast to sex therapy, “there isn’t really a clear philosophy behind sex coaching.” Pretty much anybody can take on that title if they want to, and while some—like Gates—come to the profession with educational and therapeutic experience in human sexuality, others don’t.
"I think that, because sex coaches aren’t therapists, they’ll tend to think of themselves as more practical, like what’s going on and what’re you going to do differently,” says Kerner. They offer clients the “meat and potatoes” of sexual improvement, but their programs are not necessarily backed by the education, experience, and certification that a sex therapist’s would be.
Without that training, says clinical psychologist David Ley, Ph.D., sex coaches can “sometimes get in over their heads” when confronting issues that fall outside the scope of their practice: mental health conditions, high-conflict relationships, recognizing provider-patient boundaries. “I think the coaches ultimately, can be a very important component of the service delivery system in sex therapy and and mental health therapy,” he says, “so long as they receive support, supervision and guidance.”
WHO MIGHT BENEFIT FROM A SEX COACH?
At its base, sex is a deeply subjective thing, and one person might find that their problems are better solved by massage, in-person coital coaching, or tantric instructions, than by psychoanalysis, says Kerner.
People who see coaches, Gates explains, tend to do so because “they don’t necessarily want to be diagnosed or put in a dysfunction category.” They don’t necessarily want to be put on a treatment schedule, because they don’t want to feel like there’s something wrong with them. Instead, they want someone who can help them improve their situations, immediately. (That said, anyone looking for help with their mental health, severe depression, or a psychiatric diagnosis would do better to bring those concerns to a licensed therapist.)
“You could find somebody who’s really amazing but is not a licensed therapist but, wow, maybe the person you spoke to really has a unique point of view and a passion for sexuality,” Kerner notes. “In the end, it’s buyer beware.” Do your homework before signing up a sex coach.
This article originally appeared in Women's Health US.