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The Toronto Sun CareerConnection


Sex therapists turned on by human behaviour

By David Chilton
Special to The Toronto Sun

Tomorrow is Sexual and Reproductive Health Day in Toronto. And there's nothing Tomorrow is Sexual and Reproductive Health Day in Toronto. And there's nothing its organizer, the Planned Parenthood Federation of Canada, would like better than having everyone talking about sex.

John Henderson will be only too happy to comply. He uses words and phrases such low desire, arousal, erectile dysfunction, ejaculation and so on with the same equanimity others use to talk about the weather or new tires for the car.

But then, Henderson is a sex therapist in private practice in Oakville, Ont., one of a tiny band of professionals in the GTA whose backgrounds in counselling unite them, even if a common college or university-based education doesn't.
"You need good basic training in counselling and therapy," says sex therapist Joan Marsman.

Henderson attended the Toronto School of Theology, University of Toronto, for his BA and master of divinity degrees, later earning a second master's in counselling at Wilfrid Laurier University in Kitchener, Ont., in conjunction with the Interfaith Counselling Centre for Marriage and Family Therapy Training and Research, also in Kitchener.

Toronto's Joan Marsman runs a private practice, too, as well as women's workshops on sexual fulfilment. Unlike Henderson, however, her background isn't in theology but psychology and family studies. She graduated with a BA from McMaster University in Hamilton and an master of science from the University of Guelph.

Two other local sex therapists, Sal Garofalo in Whitby, Ont., and Wendy Trainor in Toronto, have university backgrounds that are different again from those of Henderson and Marsman. Both have bachelor's and master's of social work degrees from the University of Toronto.

Despite the differences in their respective backgrounds, Marsman makes clear anyone considering a career as a sex therapist must have a graduate degree.

"You need a master's," Marsman says. "It could come from social work, nursing or an master of education from OISE (the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education in Toronto). You need good basic training in counselling and therapy."

(Medical doctors and psychologists can and do offer sex therapy, but their professional backgrounds differ and their respective professional bodies regulate them.)

As well as their degrees and other credentials -- such as Trainor's three years of study at the Gestalt Institute -- she, Henderson, Marsman and Garofalo are all members of the Ontario Association of Marriage and Family Therapists (OAMFT) and BESTCO, the Board of Examiners in Sex Therapy and Counselling in Ontario.

BESTCO, despite its official sounding name, has no official status. In 1975, in the absence of any government regulation of sex therapy, a group within the OAMFT developed standards by which sex therapists in Ontario would be deemed qualified as registered sex therapists.

Would-be sex therapists who want to be registered by BESTCO need to complete at least 100 hours of client counselling or therapy for sexual problems with women and men, for example.

They also have to complete, depending on the circumstances, anywhere from 25 to 100 hours of supervision by an accredited BESTCO supervisor; take one semester of a sex therapy course or its equivalent; and undertake a sexual attitude reassessment course or its equivalent.

Henderson, Marsman, Garofalo and Trainor all say they evolved into sex therapists rather than determining that would be their career when they set out.

Rae Dolman has an master's degree in behavourial neuroscience from the University of Waterloo and a certificate in couple and family therapy from the University of Guelph, and is working towards her OAMFT and BESTCO credentials. Since last August, she has worked part-time as the only sex therapist at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, and is cheerfully straightforward about why she chose sex therapy as a career: she likes it.

"It's always interested me. I find it fascinating," Dolman says. I find human behaviour fascinating. I find sexual behaviour even more fascinating. Clearly, I want to help people and it's exciting to be a pioneer."

Dolman admits not everyone is comfortable talking about sex and sexuality, but she is and says questions about her occupation -- whether serious or frivolous -- don't faze her. She's even not adverse to making the odd joke about it.

A common concern that draws people to sex therapists is low sexual desire. Dolman also mentions low desire as a frequent problem, and says helping clients overcome physiological ignorance or strictures about sex -- such as a religious prohibition on premarital sex -- also figures in her work.

Sex therapists also counsel clients who have endured sexual assault, incest and other traumas, and all stress professional ethics: sex therapy involves only talking and is strictly hands off.

Most sex therapists work in private practice and set their own fees. She charges $125 an hour, Henderson $100, but differences in fees shouldn't be misinterpreted as a sign of quality, cautions BESTCO treasurer Garofalo, but as a function of market demand and affluence.

Why there aren't more sex therapists -- there are just 31 registered members of BESTCO in 15 Ontario cities -- is anyone's guess, although Garofalo suggests a promising future for the profession, given that society is becoming more open and many people feel freer to talk about their sexuality.

(Reach freelancer David Chilton at

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