21 September 2015

So, you want to be a sexologist... (part 1)

I love being a sex researcher: I have no dull days! People with new ideas email to share them and ask questions. People with sexual problems call for help (or re-assurance). Law enforcement ask for trainings on better ways to prevent sexual abuse. Activists (of all persuasions) blog and tweet about whatever either agrees or disagrees with their political goals. (How often do you meet people who are neutral about a sexual issue?) And, of course, there is the natural fascination we have for the material itself. As my father would say,

“If you’re going to think about sex all day anyway,
you may as well get a job at it.”

No, you don’t have to be a psych major. Sexology is probably the most interdisciplinary science in the world. All fields of study—anthropology, biology, psychology, sociology, neuroscience, …—have relevant perspectives to contribute to our understanding of sex.

Although psychology is probably the most common academic background (for people who want careers in sex therapy), my experience has long been that many or even most of the top sex researchers came from other fields. They brought to sexology techniques and ideas from outside behavioral science, analyzing things in a new way. Even people with backgrounds in math/statistics and computer science have a leg up. Indeed, people from math/statistics and computer science have a leg up especially: Data analysis is at the core of behavioral science, and someone who can think statistically can attack a novel problem with novel analyses instead of a canned method built into SPSS. Indeed, these people are often the most highly valued, with almost all research teams benefiting from a stats consultant collaborators.

Careers in front line research are many and varied. Few (if any) academic departments think of sexology when faculty positions opens up, but they are often open to the idea once presented with a good candidate. Sexology classes are often the most popular among undergrads. Faculty members qualified to comment on news items about sex (there is always a news item about sex…) bring positive attention to the university. Local experts are highly valuable for the many sex-related issues and controversies that occur on college campuses. It is because these opportunities rarely occur to hiring committees, I would advise any budding sex researcher to spell this out in you applications and coverletters.

Careers as sex therapists are fascinating and rewarding. Sex is the source of some of the most common and profound of human problems. Yet, few psychologists, psychiatrists, or social workers receive any training in it. Twenty years into this career, and I am still amazed by how little attention is given to sexual behavior by graduate schools as well as professional associations. When I get the chance to speak to audiences of mental heath care providers, I ask:

“How many of your have clients with sexual issues?”

and almost always get a unanimous yes, but after

“How many of you had human sexuality in your training?”

one could hear a cricket chirp.

As much as we mental health professionals like to think we’re comfortable with all aspects of humanity, there is still an unspoken avoidance of sex in even doctoral-level training (a rant I’ll save for another day). For sex therapists, however, this leaves a huge practice opportunity.

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