What does it mean to be a sex therapist, sexologist or sex coach? Different things to different people, since the field of sex therapy is largely unregulated.

Florida is the only state to license sex therapists. Licensed mental health professionals there can obtain the additional specialty license by completing 120 hours of training and 20 hours of supervised clinical practice.

Outside Florida, sex therapists are generally licensed in such fields as counseling, social work or psychology. Some receive additional training and certification from organizations such as the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors, and Therapists (AASECT) and the American Board of Sexologists (ABS). However, no such certification is needed to practice sex therapy.

Even practitioners have conflicting views about their occupation. Some consider sex therapy a distinct profession; others, like San Francisco clinical psychologist Lonnie Barbach, see sex counseling as simply one aspect of a standard psychology practice.

"I don't think there's anything that should be called a sex therapist," said Barbach. "If you could do sex therapy and that was it, you would be too limited to do a good job with most of the clients you're going to get."

But William Granzig, founder of ABS and dean of health sciences at Maimonides University in North Miami Beach, Fla., disagrees. He said the model for sex therapy, created more than 30 years ago by William Masters and Virginia Johnson, calls for therapists to refer patients to sex therapists when sexual issues arise. Granzig said that sexual matters cannot be addressed by just any therapist, so it is beneficial to train people to deal with them specifically.

Within the field, titles of sexual health professionals sometimes offer clues to their philosophies but are not reliable indicators of their educational background.

Among those claiming the title sexologist, for example, are people certified as such, alumni of the few schools with graduate programs in human sexuality and people who have taken a few classes -- or maybe none.

Sex counselor, the term preferred by groups such as Planned Parenthood, describes a person trained to dispense information about sex, and who works with clients on a short-term basis, according to AASECT.

Sex coach -- a term whose use AASECT's president-elect, Barnaby Barratt, said has grown substantially in the past five years -- suggests someone who helps clients navigate their lives the way a personal trainer helps clients through a gym regimen.

Despite uncertainties about titles and credentials, many sex therapists are legitimately educated and trained professionals. Thomas Nagy, a psychologist and sex therapist who teaches at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., says consumers can best protect themselves when choosing a sex therapist by considering the following:

* the therapist's primary profession;

* affiliation with a university or hospital;

* membership in a professional organization, such as AASECT, that dictates ethical guidelines;

* education and training;

* any complaints with state licensing boards or consumer welfare organizations.

-- Jason Feifer