I am a graduate student in Psychology and also involved in the BDSM community. The problem is that I’m in a small town. Would it be unethical or problematic to run into a client at the local fetish ball, even if there is no “play” between him and me? I’d talk to my professors about this but I don’t want them knowing my personal business.
I shared this question with Dr. John and he immediately asked for your email. He also wanted your age and measurements, then proceeded to explain the difference between a G-spot vibrator and a dildo. When I said that I don’t believe those specific sex toys are mandatory within the BDSM community he told me that’s he’s been to “countless” parties of this type and I should bow to his greater expertise on the subject. Whatever. The truth is that Dr. Pete can’t tolerate a client waving hello from across a busy New York City street without dry heaving into a dumpster so he might be the most qualified of all to ask about potentially awkward meet ups.
Is your situation potentially problematic? Absolutely. I’ve discussed the inherent power differential between therapist and patient and this encounter could possibly blow any perceptions your client has about you completely out of the water.
That said, I am a firm believer in the notion that a shrink should not, within reason, have to alter her life because of her clients. This is especially true for visiting places and attending events that are important to your non-shrink life. Like kinky sex parties, for example. Small town or not, you don’t need to stop frequenting your favorite grocery store because your client shops there as well, nor do you need to avoid the local theater because he might be there. However, as a professional-in-training within your local community you should be respectful and aware of appropriate boundaries given certain circumstances. Don’t sit down at the bar right next to your client when there are plenty of open booths available. Sign up for a different Spin course if you know that your client is one of only a handful of people in the class. And respectfully decline to share a ride with him in the local car pool if another option is available.
Assuming you know for a fact that your client is going to be breaking out the whips and chains at the same soiree as you and that you are likely to be noted by him, the most honest and professional thing you can do is to tell him that you intend to be there as well. Of course this could create an awkward moment in the therapy, but it should be out there for honest discourse, rather than causing him potentially greater distress upon seeing you with a gag ball in your mouth. He may not want to work with you anymore, and that is his choice, but the fact that he brought it up in the session suggests to me that he is an open person regarding his and others’ sexuality. In other words a conversation of this sort doesn’t necessarily have to be the end of your work together.
More conservative shrinks will disagree with my entire take on this. They embrace the role of “Psychologist in Any and All Settings” and they are intensely aware of the power differential between therapist and client at all times. They would choose to avoid the party altogether and not put the client in the potential position of choosing between his recreation and his therapist. “There is simply no way the therapy can continue after a meeting like that,” said a colleague. There is merit to this opinion, especially given the unusual nature of the setting you describe. But while it would be magnanimous of you to change your social calendar to avoid any awkwardness or alter your therapeutic relationship, you are not obligated to do so. If you choose this route, monitor yourself for any resentment you might feel toward your client, your profession, or even your small town, because not being able to use your free time as you wish can generate very negative emotions that might ultimately impact the quality of your work.
If you do decide to attend the party, one word of caution: you better be straight up when you say that there will be no “play” between you and him, and I’d advise you not to interact at all, save for a brief hello (do not comment on his Chaps). Sexual liberation is not synonymous with lack of ethics. Keep it clean unless you want to kiss that professional dignity good-bye.