Five Tips for Psychology Graduate Students for Talking to Clients About Sex and Sexuality

This SCP Student Blog piece was written by Jessica Cowan, SCP/Section 10 Campus Representative, and Leja Wright from Antioch University in Seattle.

Talking to clients about sex and sexuality in psychological interventions has been a sensitive topic throughout the history of our field. However, as we become increasingly aware of the complex interactions of biopsychosocial factors in the lives of our patients/clients, it is difficult to argue against the important role that sex/sexuality can play (Burnes, Singh, & Witherspoon; Cruz, Greenwald & Sandil, 2017). Still, many psychologists and psychologists-in-training, report significant discomfort when it comes to discussing sex/sexuality with their clients (Cruz, Greenwalk, & Sandil, 2017; Hanzlik & Gaubatz, 2012). Prevailing theories suggest that this is partially due to a general lack of education on these topics in psychology training programs, and that increased education and training are needed in these areas to increase confidence and competence for discussing sex/sexuality with clients (Asher, 2007; Cruz, Greenwald, & Sandil, 2017; Hanzlik & Gaubatz, 2012; Miller & Byers, 2009; Wiederman & Sansone, 1999).

While support is increasing for integration of these important topics in psychology training programs, many clinicians, and clinicians-in-training are tasked with finding ways to increase their own knowledge and comfort, if only to feel more confident if or when clients broach the subject in treatment. We are two such clinicians-in-training who did not want to be caught unprepared if or when these topics arise in client interactions, and we wanted to share some of the resources and best practices that we have acquired in our ongoing quest to become sex-positive clinicians:

Join a Sex-Positive Psychology/Counseling Organization

American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counsellors & Therapists (AASECT) International Society for the Study of Women’s Sexual Health

International Society for Sexual Medicine

Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality

Society for Sex Therapy and Research

World Association for Sexual Health

International Academy of Sex Research
Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality
Women Of Color Sexual Health Network

Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States

The Foundation for the Scientific Study of Sexuality

The Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction

Connect with a Sex-Positive Clinician-Mentor

Find an experienced sex-positive clinician (many of the resources listed above have membership directories or mentorship matching tools) who is willing to mentor or to consult (with the permission of your supervisor).

Review Relevant Journals/Books/Research

American Journal of Sexuality Education

International Journal of Sexuality and Gender Studies

International Journal of Sexual Health

Sexual and Relationship Therapy

Journal of Sexuality and Disability

Practice Confident and Direct Sex-Positive Communication

Modeling is a great way to increase your own comfort around topics of sex/sexuality, increase clients’ comfort around potentially sensitive topics, raise awareness of the importance of sexual health, and provide an open non-judgmental environment to have healthy conversations with clients and fellow clinicians. This can be practiced in supervision, consultation, peer-mentoring groups, and in your own daily life such as discussing sex/sexuality with your own therapist. Having a healthy relationship with your own sex/sexuality, whatever that may entail, will help you better understand your clients’ experiences and needs.

Question Your Assumptions

It is easy for clinicians to assume that sex/sexuality is only important to certain clients, like adolescents, emerging adults, or those struggling specifically with a sexual dysfunction, but research shows us that sex/sexuality is important to every individual across the lifespan (Omole, Fresh, Sow, Lin, Taiwo, & Nichols, 2014). Because of this, it’s important to check in with any client about sex/sexuality, and many clinicians include it as a routine component of every client intake (Cruz, Greenwald, & Sandil, 2017).

We hope that you find these resources and tips helpful in your own growth towards becoming a sex-positive clinician, and we’d love to hear of any others that you’d like to share in the comments section below.

References

  1. Asher, R. L. (2007). Has training in human sexuality changed over the past twenty years? A survey of clinical psychology, counseling psychology, and doctor of social work programs. Spalding University.
  2. Burnes, T. R., Singh, A. A., & Witherspoon, R. G. (2017). Sex positivity and counseling psychology: An introduction to the major contribution. The Counseling Psychologist, 45(4), 470-486.
  3. Cruz, C., Greenwald, E., & Sandil, R. (2017). Let’s talk about sex: Integrating sex positivity in counseling psychology practice. The Counseling Psychologist, 45(4), 547-569.
  4. Hanzlik, M. P., & Gaubatz, M. (2012). Clinical PsyD trainees’ comfort discussing sexual issues with clients. American Journal of Sexuality Education, 7(3), 219-236.
  5. Miller, S. A., & Byers, E. S. (2009). Psychologists’ continuing education and training in sexuality.
  6. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 35(3), 206-219.
  7. Omole, F., Fresh, E., Sow, C., Lin, J., Taiwo, B., & Nichols, M. (2014). How to discuss sex with elderly patients. Journal of Family Practice, 63(4).
  8. Wiederman, M. W., & Sansone, R. A. (1999). Sexuality training for professional psychologists: A national survey of training directors of doctoral programs and predoctoral internships. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 30(3), 312.

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