Interview with a Certified Sex Therapist – What to Know About This Growing Career
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Certified sex therapists are mental health professionals willing to take extra steps in their formalized psychotherapy training to provide couples and individuals with the help they need to overcome sexual dysfunction, to understand how society impacts the experience of sexuality, and to become authentically empowered in their sexual identity, sexual relationships, and sexual expression.
Although sexuality is something that each one of us experiences individually, sex therapists are committed to garnering a deep broad-based knowledge of issues and topics related to human sexuality that go beyond experience. In addition, sex therapists commit themselves to doing the internal work required to understand their own biases, emotional triggers, and blind spots in regard to human sexuality and human sexual practice.
Sex therapists can come into their profession from a range of backgrounds, including social work, counseling, marriage and family therapy, psychology, psychiatry, and mental health nursing. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (2019), each of these mental health professions is anticipated to grow at a rate higher than the national projections between 2018 and 2028 (5 percent). Of the BLS occupations with predictions, here are the rates of growth predicted for each job type for that decade:
- Social workers – 11 percent growth
- Psychologists – 14 percent
- Mental health counselors – 22 percent
- Marriage and family therapists – 22 percent
- Nurse practitioners (not specified to mental health) – 28 percent
For any of these licensed mental health professions, the road to becoming certified in sex therapy is taken through the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists (AASECT)—the gold standard for sex therapy certification in the US. While AASECT certification is not required to practice as a sex therapist, pursuing certification provides patients and employers with assurance that a sex therapist is practicing with a minimum threshold of human sexuality expertise and sex therapy training, as well as completing sexual attitude readjustment (SAR) activities.
While the road to sex therapy is not always simple or straightforward, well-trained and dedicated sex therapists can play a life-changing role for their clients and for a sexually empowered world.
Our interview with Donna Oriowo, PhD, LICSW, of AnnodRight, LLC, explores how she become an AASECT-certified sex therapist (CST), including her advice for those interested in pursuing this universally useful form of therapy.
Meet the Expert: Donna Oriowo, LICSW, PhD, CST
Dr. Donna Oriowo is the owner of and lead therapist at AnnodRight, LLC, a woman-focused sex therapy and education practice operating out of Capitol Heights, Maryland. She provides sex therapy focused on how colorism and texturism show up in the relationships and sex lives of black women.
Dr. Oriowo began her formalized training in mental health by earning a BS in psychology at the nation’s premier HBCU, Morgan State University, in Baltimore, Maryland. In 2012, Dr. Oriowo earned a dual master’s in clinical social work and human sexuality education at Widener University in Chester, Pennsylvania, and went on to earn her PhD in human sexuality at Widener in 2016.
As an AASECT-certified sex therapist, Dr. Oriowo is committed to making AASECT a better place for people of color. Dr. Oriowo currently serves as the chair of the Communications Committee and chair of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee for AASECT. In addition to her work in sex therapy, Dr. Oriowo is an author, educator, and keynote speaker, with speaking credits that include the National Sex Ed Conference.
She graciously agreed to share her experience in this profession with CounselingSchools.
What is Sex Therapy? How Would You Describe the Practice?
CounselingSchools: If a complete stranger who was fully new to the idea of sex therapy found out you were a sex therapist, how would you describe your job to them?
Dr. Donna Oriowo: I help people to deal with sex and sexuality in their lives. People are sexual beings from birth until death, and yet we have figured out a way to make that part of our lives ancillary. I help people to reintegrate that part of themselves into their lives.
Sex therapy comes in a lot of different flavors. What flavor of sex therapy do you provide?
Over the years, I’ve niched down the type of sex therapy I provide by race. Because the issues in the black community are not the same as the issues in the white community, I work almost exclusively with black people. Specifically, I work with black women to overcome the “Jezebel,” “Mammy,” and “Sapphire” sexual tropes, and I work with clients on the way colorism and texturism impact sexual and mental health.
While these are my main focus, I am also well-versed in treating issues related to trauma, LGBTQ concerns, couple issues, anxiety, depression, body image, self-esteem, ethnic identity issues, and more.
What are “Jezebel,” “Mammy,” and “Sapphire” sexual tropes? What are colorism and texturism?
The Jezebel trope is of light-skinned black woman with wavy hair who is sexually voracious—she wants sex all the time. Because her assumed sexuality borders on masculine, there is this idea that she cannot be raped because raping her is doing her favor by giving her what she wants.
The Mammy trope is of a fat, dark-skinned, nappy haired black woman whose hair must be covered by a scarf. She is asexualized and said not to be desirable by anyone.
The Sapphire trope is related to the “angry black woman” stereotype, in that she is aggressive and hostile. This attitude-having woman can’t keep a man because she emasculates men all the time.
Colorism is the child of racism, and is discrimination based on skin tone. Within colorism, people with lighter skin tones are seen as more desirable and experience better health and wealth outcomes than people whose skin tones are closer to Afrocentric standards.
Texturism follows this same pattern, but with hair texture at the center. The straighter your hair, the better off you’re considered to be. The nappier your hair, the worse off.
Why Pursue a Career as a Sex Therapist?
When you think back on your life, what brought you to choose sex therapy as a career?
On a personal level, I ended up in sex therapy because people kept tellin’ me they business! People would tell me there was something about my face or general candor that made them feel comfortable to say what they wanted to say without judgment. People felt comfortable being in that space with me, and I didn’t want to do them a disservice by not having the right skills for the situation.
That being said, I didn’t know sex therapy was a thing until I saw “Meet the Fockers” and did some research!
From a career standpoint and as a first-generation Nigerian child, my ideas about the right career path were chosen for me before my parents even knew they were pregnant. As a child of immigrants, my career choices growing up were lawyer, doctor, or engineer. My temperament and love for reading were pushing me toward lawyerism—and while pursuing that possible future, I took a psychology course in high school that moved me onto my own path.
As I was pursuing psychology as a way to reach sex therapy at Morgan State, my career path would shift again because of a psychology professor being honest with me about his experience as a psychologist. He shared that if he could go back and do his master’s level work again, he’d do so in social work instead of psychology because it was less time, less money, and more versatility. Because of the nudge from my Morgan State professor, I realized that there was a lot of opportunity in social work. I also learned that I could do sex therapy with a social work degree.
On Whiteness, Tokenism, and the Journey to Becoming a Certified Sex Therapist
When you think about earning your training in sex therapy, what struggles did you encounter?
It was exhausting for everything in my coursework to be spoken about in a way where whiteness was seen as the default. It meant that for every course I took, my professors weren’t able to offer how the concepts they were teaching applied to blackness. I had to engage in this process of double learning, where after class I’d have to find out how what I was learning impacted communities of color.
In addition, while there are many people of color in the therapy space, there are few in the sex therapy space. Because there are so many tropes about black people and their sexuality, most black people distance themselves from spaces like this in the name of respectability.
Being the only or one-of-few people of color in classrooms was frustrating because I’d constantly find myself in the position of teaching instead of just learning, and I’d find myself being looked at as the “magical negro” for students who had never shared a classroom with a student of color. It was equally frustrating when people would comment on their appreciation of my viewpoint in a space and then there were no moves made by professors to incorporate these wider viewpoints in subsequent courses and classes.
Is there anything you wish would’ve known about becoming a sex therapist before you started?
I wish I would’ve known how much it costs, because I would’ve slowed down my degree attainment and thought about student loans much differently. When I enrolled in my dual degree program, I was trying to figure out how much time it was going to take to complete work for the two programs and have a social life. I decided to take out loans so I didn’t have to get a job. To avoid what has now become a huge student loan debt, I might’ve done my social work program locally instead of moving—and I definitely would’ve borrowed much less.
In addition to the costs associated with school, getting AASECT certification in sex therapy can also be quite expensive. In addition to the application costs, I had to earn 50 supervision hours. Twenty-five of these hours can be attained in a group setting, and the other 25 of these supervision hours must be earned one-on-one with an AASECT-certified sex therapist. Some AASECT supervisors charge up to $200 per hour for supervision.
On Client Epiphanies and the Freedom of Running Her Own Business
What do you like about being a sex therapist? What brings you joy, pride, or excitement?
I love the work I do and the people I serve. I especially love when my clients have epiphanies! I love it so much that when my clients say something profound and beautifully stated; I make it cute and send it to them in a meme. My favorite is when a client reads what I send and says, “Who is this?” I get to be like, “You! You said this! You said these words in this exact way. All I did was quote you, make it cute, and now you’re looking at yourself in wonder.”
I also love the freedom of running my own business. I have the ability to create a schedule for myself that suits me. I like to take midday naps, so I split my schedule into morning and evening shifts. I only see clients three days per week so that I can spend the other days building my business or resting. I’m working for my freedom and pursuing what I want to pursue in a way that honors me and my clients.
I’m proud of running my business according to values I’ve decided are important, focused on serving the people I want to serve. Although there are challenges, it feels great more than it doesn’t; feels like home more than not; and often doesn’t feel like work at all.
Advice for Those Looking to Do Sex Therapy for Marginalized Groups
If you had to give advice to someone who is looking to become a sex therapist for marginalized groups (people of color, LGBTQ folks, people with disabilities, etc.), what would advice would you give?
My biggest piece of advice would be to reach out to those who are already doing what you’re looking to do. There is no need for anyone trying to treat marginalized populations to think that they’re alone. I don’t know anyone in this work who is closed to answering questions, so reach out. So many of us have found our way to sex therapy of this kind in so many different ways. We can help you determine the right path for you instead of you having to suffer your way through only the most-known pathways.
Dr. Oriowo’s Five Tips for Aspiring Sex Therapists
If you had to give advice to someone who is thinking about starting a program or starting the journey to become a sex therapist, what advice would you give?
- Get a therapist!
There is no use thinking that you can help others if you don’t know what it’s like to sit on a therapist’s couch before you sit in a therapist’s chair. Getting therapy offers so much knowledge and can help you build empathy for your future clients.
- Be ready for the work.
Being a therapist is about so much more than listening. Therapy is a learned skill, and there is a lot of work you’ll need to do in order to figure out how to do it.
- Go to a sex therapy conference or gathering before you commit.
Sometimes we think that we want to do something, but we really don’t know the reality of what it entails. Meeting people who are already doing the work can help you to understand the craft and understand how people came to it.
- You don’t need a doctorate or an AASECT certification to become a successful sex therapist—but honorifics like these help.
You don’t need a PhD or to earn your AASECT-CST to be an effective sex therapist. However, investing in these honorifics may help you to spend less time working to prove your legitimacy in a world that doesn’t quite understand the field.
- Learn on your own time, attend talks and lectures that interest you, and keep up with conversations on social media. These are all useful.
I believe it is elitist, classist, and inaccurate to believe that academia is the only place where you can garner knowledge to become an effective sex therapist.