Anna Ismagilova

Sexuality in Conversation

Anyone Can Be a Sexpert—But Some People Shouldn't

A hooker is not a sex therapist. Nor is a sexual surrogate, explains Dr. Sally Valentine, a licensed clinical social worker and certified sex therapist in Boca Raton, Florida. But that doesn’t keep people from getting the professions mixed up. “Sex therapists are totally hands-off,” Valentine explains. “They do not touch their clients... A sexual surrogate or partner surrogate [is] someone that actually will do hands-on.” It’s important to note that “hands-on” in this context is different from what prostitutes provide; professional surrogates coordinate care with sex therapists, who are professional psychotherapists that specialize in sex.

Confused? You’re not alone. Although her website clearly says she’s a licensed therapist, Valentine says she still gets “phone calls from people who are looking for an escort.” She has horror stories that go the other way, too: clients in need of true psychological help who "end up getting a escort, thinking that they're getting a sex therapist... Some people get confused, and they're not sure—and they're not sure what to expect in sex therapy.” 

Can you blame them? When it comes to sexual healing, there are as many separate professions as there are ways to have sex: sex counselor, sex therapist, partner surrogate, sexpert.

If the terminology is confusing, try finding the right professional online. Valentine’s “about me” page details her doctorate in clinical sexology, a license from the State of Florida, and four different certifications, including one from the American Association of Sexual Educators, Counselors, and Therapists (AASECT), where Valentine is vice president of membership. If ever a woman were qualified to counsel you about sex, her credentials say she’s it.

But when you check out Valentine’s peers, many of them seem qualified, too—just in completely different ways. The illustrious Dr. Ruth Westheimer has a master’s in sociology and pursued a Ph.D. in family and sex counseling at Columbia. Physician Dr. Drew Pinsky has an MD and is a diplomate of the American Board of Internal Medicine.

Anybody can call themselves a sex expert. That doesn't mean at all that they have training, education [or the requisite] skill level.

As a patient, what does that really mean for you? While one might expect most sex therapists to have similar qualifications, many of them have no formal training at all, and some have completely unrelated backgrounds. YouTuber Laci Green—who produces remarkably professional videos providing advice on everything from anal toys to consent and after-care in BDSM—has a bachelor’s in legal studies.

“Anybody can call themselves a sex expert,” says Valentine. “That doesn't mean at all that they have training, education [or the requisite] skill level.” Yes, Valentine is AASECT certified—as are 555 other sex therapists, 73 sex counselors and 134 sex educators at the time of writing—but what does that even mean?

Valentine claims AASECT is the only nationally recognized certifying body for sex educators, counselors and therapists. That doesn’t necessarily mean that non-AASECT-certified therapists aren’t properly qualified, however, and not every sexpert wants that certification. In fact, only 45 percent of AASECT’s own members have the credential.

“I didn't think [certification] would be beneficial for me at this stage in my career,” says a San Francisco-based therapist who asked to remain anonymous. “[Y]ou don't need an AASECT certification to work as a sex therapist.” That’s true: While Florida issues a state license, certification isn’t required for sex therapists or counselors to practice in any other state. Getting AASECT-certified takes time; it requires a minimum of 50 hours of supervision. If you’re trying to grow a practice, that can feel like a lot. Between an Ivy League degree in human sexuality, a master’s in counseling psychology and state licensure as a marriage and family therapist, she says, “I've already done a ton of supervision...Personally, it didn't make any sense for me to get certified.”

Others in the sex therapy community don’t believe in conventional training at all.

“[AASECT isn’t] educated worth a damn,” says Ted Mcilvenna, founder of the American College of Sexologists, Inc (ACS), which is not an accredited college. “They're people who go to conferences to get laid and that's about it. I don't have any respect for them at all.”

Mcilvenna boasts that ACS employees were “thrown out of AASECT years ago because we happened to believe in the fact you shouldn't mutilate little girls,” ostensibly referring to female genital mutilation. ”We objected to them and the fact that they don't train people in bodywork.” By “bodywork,” Mcilvenna refers to the fact that ACS students are encouraged to physically touch clients, even sexually. AASECT, on the other hand, expressly forbids its members from touching past, present or potential clients in any manner.

Prior to his time with ACS, Mcilvenna founded another unaccredited institution, which was accused of defrauding the GI Bill by taking government money to teach veterans about sex. San Francisco-based ACS does not have a business operating license from the State of California and the license of its parent organization, Exodus Church, is suspended. When Playboy’s reporter asked about the suspension, Mcilvanna responded, “Just be a good girl and I'll hold a piece of erotic art for you,” referring to his personal porn collection of more than four million items.

Patients who seek professional sex therapy are looking for more—like how to end a sexless marriage, overcome childhood trauma or move past rape.

Mcilvanna wouldn’t explain ACS’s requirements when asked, but for AASECT certification, Valentine says therapists must be educated in different “ethics; ethical behavior; developmental, sexual and biopsychosocial perspectives...Things like culturally where you came from, maybe what your understanding is of sexuality, and the different sociocultural factors...because people come with all kinds of sexual issues and some of them can be as a result of the way they grew up and a result of the messages they got--or what happened to them as a child that might be impacting their sexual life today.” Furthermore, AASECT-certified therapists must prove knowledge of “sexual anatomy and physiology, how the body works, and sexually what is normal and healthy sexual functioning or what isn't.”

The task, Valentine says, is to impart this knowledge and understanding to individual patients in a non-judgmental fashion.

YouTube personalities and movies often portray sexperts as mere tipsters who share how to give a better blowjob or 99 ways to make her cum. But the patients who seek professional sex therapy are looking for more—like how to end a sexless marriage, overcome childhood trauma or move past rape. The luckier ones live in New York, California, Pennsylvania or Florida, where most AASECT-certified professionals are based. “There are some certain states in the country that might only actually have just one certified person,” Valentine shares, leaving those desperate for help searching online.

Whether it comes in person or over YouTube, Valentine says bad advice can be dangerous: “It's possible that if you don't have enough information or understanding, that you might say something that might be harmful for the person that's coming to you for help.” Take someone considering open marriage for the first time: “If you are inadvertently passing along your judgements about sexuality, about sexual orientation—that kind of thing can really affect a person that's coming for help. They can leave feeling shamed. They can leave feeling humiliation or embarrassment.” Damage from a bad therapist only makes a patient’s difficult reality harder.

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