Myth-busting Monday: Sexuality counselors specialize in conversion therapy
Um, no. Not even close.
Conversion therapy is just…yuck. Haven’t heard of it? Probably a good thing, but in case you want to know, that’s the idea that with certain “therapeutic” techniques, you can change someone’s sexual orientation or “non-conforming” (ie not conforming to someone else’s narrow standards) gender.
Conversion therapy is no longer utilized by reputable healthcare practitioners, is discredited and banned by many medical organizations and jurisdictions (List of U.S. jurisdictions banning conversion therapy – Wikipedia), and is spoken out against by the Human Rights Campaign (The Lies and Dangers of Efforts to Change Sexual Orientation or Gender Identity – HRC). Conversion therapy doesn’t work and perpetuates harm towards the individual.
The lingering miasma from past attempts at conversion therapy has stained the public’s perception of healthcare practitioners, including sexuality professionals. When I have mentioned to some that I am in supervision as a sexuality counselor, they have recoiled or looked at me with suspicion (these are gay and/or relationship diverse acquaintances that obviously did not/do not know me well). Those experiences bring to mind parallels of other groups mistreated and taken advantage in medical history (the Tuskeegee experiments ex. Tuskegee Syphilis Study – Wikipedia, women, sexism, and the medical community, ex. Female Hysteria: 7 Crazy Things People Used To Believe About The Ladies’ Disease | HuffPost, the treatment of black women in the history of gynecology ex. Gynecology and the Ungendering of Black Women | AAIHS , the treatment of women in general When Doctors Downplay Women’s Health Concerns – The New York Times (nytimes.com), and gender normalizing surgery on intersex babies ‘You can’t undo surgery’: More parents of intersex babies are rejecting operations (nbcnews.com) to name a few). Medical practice is biased and enforces systems of oppression (implicitly and unintentionally as well as overtly and intentionally – see above), as the people participating in the practice and the systems that support the practice are biased (ableist, sizist, ageist, sexist, heterosexist, racist, etc). Health and wellness providers must be cognizant of the legacy of harm and how it continues to impact individuals and communities. Being suspect then as a sexuality counselor makes sense, given how suspect the entire healthcare and wellness system is for many.
Instead of trying to change someone’s identity, a better endeavor is to co-create a more just, accepting, and loving society. That is part of what a sexuality counselor (as well as sexuality educators and therapists) work towards – normalizing sexuality (including the beautiful diversity of gender and orientation), challenging bias (in individuals, families, and communities), and, thereby, empowering individuals, families (particularly those practicing diverse relationships), and communities.
Besides the big picture of creating a more loving, sex-positive society, sexuality counselors work with individuals, couples+, and families to address their concerns regarding sexuality. We are professionals in a variety of fields (medical and non, such as theology or, in my case, physical therapy) with graduate level degrees, and we address concerns like desire discrepancy, sexual communication, anxiety and stress around sexuality and performance, body image, evaluation of sexual and medical history, sexuality and aging, sexuality and disability, sexuality and chronic disease, sleep impairments and sexuality, physical fitness and sexuality (side note so the above is not read as ablesit or sizist: sex itself is a form of exercise, and while people with a variety of body types, sizes, and abilities can be sexual, maximizing physical form and function where they are can help), pain (genital and non) and sexuality, fantasy vs desire, arousal non-concordance, shame, religiosity and impacts on sexuality, internalized bias and systems of oppression, trauma and sexuality, power dynamics in relationships and healthcare settings, among other issues. Sexuality counselors may or may not be able to prescribe medications depending on their other licenses, sexuality counselors may or may not be able to perform internal exams (ex vaginal or rectal to examine muscle tone, pain, or alignment of the coccyx) depending on their licenses. Sexuality counselors may work as part of a wellness team for the client to address more complicated issues that extend beyond their professional scope of practice.
Speaking of scope of practice, sexuality therapists are different from sexuality counselors. Sexuality therapists are licensed mental health practitioners (counselors are not) with additional training in sexuality. These professionals are great to work with as well, particularly when there are more significant mental health concerns at play that fall outside of the professional abilities of sexuality counselors, such as a marriage on the brink of divorce or mired by a cheating scandal that has not been dealt with, significant trauma history that has not been processed, troublesome compulsive behaviors that threaten employment (there are often underlying disorders such as OCD), and/or personality disorders.
Sexuality educators deserve a mention too as professionals in the field of sexuality. These providers often work with groups or in workshop-type settings across a variety of populations (i.e., not just school aged children, adults need sexuality education too). Because their services are typically group-based, they are often more affordable to individuals (ex. a $25 class on bdsm vs paying a counselor their hourly rate to learn how to talk to your partner about kink) though you might not get your specific questions and needs met.
These 3 categories of professionals are not entirely siloed and can sometimes overlap in their scope and accomplish similar ends/goals, depending on the particular training of the practitioner.
What reputable sexuality professionals don’t do – conversion therapy. If someone is offering you conversion therapy, find the nearest exit.
I am in supervision as a sexuality educator and counselor. I absolutely love this work and feel like I have found my calling. Sexuality is the intersection of all.the.things – individually and collectively (see above, personal history and situation plus societal norms and expectations). We are nurturing, validating, and empowering individuals to return to their bodies and accept their own experiences and needs as well as awakening society to the perfect and beloved (by me at least) diversity of sexuality.
I firmly believe that creating a more accepting, interconnected, and adaptable society that values sexuality (including asexuality) and joyful embodiment does more than “just” better the lives of individuals, it has the potential to also change the world, one erotic and embodied thread at a time.
Forget conversion therapy and praying away the gay. Or, as one social media post I saw suggested, instead gay away the pray.
Happy myth-busting Monday, sexy peeps.
In need of a few resources for accessing sexuality professionals? Consider checking out SSSS (https://sexscience.org/), AASECT (https://www.aasect.org/ ), Sexual Health Alliance (https://sexualhealthalliance.com/ – where I am completing my training), and University of Michigan (https://ssw.umich.edu/offices/continuing-education/certificate-courses/sexual-health )
The above content is written by Dr. Allison Mitch, PT (DPT), sexuality counselor and educator (in supervision); copyright protected, please cite accordingly. The picture is from Pexels. To work with me or for more information, please email firstname.lastname@example.org
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*Please note that none of the above information is specific medical advice, but is meant as educational information only. If you have concerns about your health, please contact a trusted healthcare professional*