Shrinks at a Sex Party

Dr. Rob,

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.

Robin


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.

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29 Responses to “Shrinks at a Sex Party”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Ctrl Alt Delete failed me!
    Next time you use terms like BDSM, can you put the definition right there in your post?!
    I don’t know if I should be more embarrassed by not knowing what BDSM is, or the fact that I when I clicked the link to find out, my work computer conveniently froze on the BDSM wikipedia definition for all the Doctors, my co-workers and patients to see!
    I have to go recover from my heart failure and the trip under my desk to yank the plug from the wall!
    wt

  2. Anonymous says:

    I would be so happy if I ran into my therapist at a place like that. I think its cool when therapist still do the same things they did before even if they will run into their clients. I run into my therapist all over town, I just havent been able to run into him at a sex party yet. Might have to discuss that one with him.

  3. Joe says:

    Dr. Rob, I have been to one of these parties and I have to say it was hilarious. I stumbled into a bar that was hosting one, along with several equally inebriated Caps fans and one of my friends and had to follow the girl wearing panties and electrical tape.
    In any case, I think I know the answer to this question, but I’ll ask anyways. Were this event to involve blindfolds, it would then be improper for the shrink to get involved, as they could not know for sure who they were ‘playing’ with, correct?

  4. On the one hand it humanizes the clinician, but on the other you may be mid-whip and realize the person looking at you is your 2pm….awkward!
    If a patient sees me (or I see them) in a public place, I only respond if they seek me out and acknowledge me. Even then I keep it short and typically excuse myself as I do not want to taint the therapeutic relationship by allowing for another avenue to interact outside of our professional work.
    -TR
    http://notesfromthecouch.blogspot.om

  5. Alice says:

    Thank you so much for the mental image I now have of walking into a BDSM party to find my therapist standing there in suspenders (which I believe are called “garters” in America?) and a ball gag.
    It might also be wise for a shrink to avoid being tied up, which might make it difficult to get out of the way of a client wielding a whip or something – I get quite angry with mine sometimes…
    Seriously, lots of trust and the ability to relax are kind of central to enjoyment of SM, and I do think shrinks and clients in the same room might find it a bit difficult to chill out given the potential for massive disaster. Not to mention the large amounts of poppers (alkyl nitrites) usually on hand to cloud one’s judgment. I’d say move out of Smalltown, or maybe just go further afield on bondage expeditions – there’s more variety in bigger cities anyway, and you’ll be “the new boy” 😉

  6. a client says:

    I have never been to one of these parties. I don’t consider myself a prude, but seriously? I would freak out if I saw my shrink engaging in this kind of thing. Or my kids’ friends’ parents. Or my MD. Or just about any other person in my community.
    I consider this really seedy behavior, and I would think any professional would want to weigh the risk to their reputation before engaging in this kind of thing.
    (Okay, so maybe I am a prude!)

  7. Esther says:

    I pretty much agreed not to come up and say hi to my shrink if I ever see him anywhere outside of the office. Frankly, it would feel weird. If I had a friend with me they’d likely ask how I met my shrink and I just don’t like to tell people I’m in therapy (I applaud people who can be open about being in therapy, but I know a lot of judgmental people). As for BDSM parties . . . no worries about running into my therapist at one of those since I would never go to one. It would really creep me out if my therapist ever told me he did stuff like that. Not that I’m judging anyone, it’s just Too Much Information for me.
    There was a community event I attended and my shrink did tell me ahead of time that he would be there and he would not say hi to me. I would rather have things explained ahead of time so I don’t do something stupid. Professional distance is great, I think.

  8. Sam says:

    Shrinks are people too. Just like anyone dealing with people as part of their job. I have family who are clergy, and their congregants have the magical ability of popping up everywhere, so I’m familiar with the concern (Okay, maybe it’s not quite as complicated as running into one at a sex party, but I’m speaking in generally).
    And to Alice, kink does not equal a mentally ill or unprofessional person. That’s like saying you wouldn’t trust a “professional” because you heard he/she was sexually attracted to people based on a certain body type or personality.
    As far as I’m concerned, a professional who’s good at what they do, can maintain a healthy private life on their own time, and someone you can trust to keep those work and private lives separate when appropriate.

  9. Matt says:

    The truth is that a clinician should not have to modify their life. That being said, a BDSM party is a sexual venue. Seeing your therapist there would probably tie sexual thoughts to him/her. This is bad because it takes your relationship out of the delicate provider/client niche it should be in.
    Dr. Rob Note: This is a good point. I think that it would be more relevant for psychoanalysis than cognitive-behavioral therapy or a skills-based treatment.

  10. Anonymous says:

    What is so wrong with having sexual thoughts about your therapist? They are just people just like you. I would prefer to have a therapist where I knew things about their private life and could be able to hang out with or talk to when I see them in public. It makes it easier to trust them because I dont get the feeling that they only care about me for that one hour when they are making money off of me. I text my therapist, talk to him on the phone and have been to house and have talked to him when he visited my church. And it was never weird. It always seemed more weird to try to avoid someone who knew so much about me and that I felt close to.

  11. sara says:

    Great question. I think that it actually might help his relationship with the client – the client then knows 100% that he will not be judged, is in a “safe place.” I’m actually glad my shrink shares a rather unusual hobby with me (not a kinky one or controversial one, but still). And great answer, Dr. Rob. Especially for a small-town doc.

  12. Wayland says:

    Humor in subtlety. Good post man.

  13. Anonymous says:

    Dr.Rob,
    I just saw a picture of you on the internet. You are freakin sexy! Are you into these type of sex parties? Cause I would like to run into you at one.
    Dr. Rob Note: Stopping messing around, Dr. John. You know we’re only friends.

  14. Alice says:

    Sam – the layout here is a bit confusing. The name of the person posting appears AFTER their comment, so the comment above my name is what I wrote, and the one about being a prude is from a client.
    I’m well up for a bit of kink. But not with my therapist in a ball gag. Just to be clear. Ahem.

  15. former dominatrix, current phd student says:

    i’m with drs. gail and allison on this one. rob what you’re failing to take into account are some of the reasons certain people get into kink. while a lot of kink enthusiasts can engage in a healthy exploration of their sado-masochistic fantasies through the BDSM community, others are drawn to it as a result of traumatic experiences they’ve yet to resolve.
    before i started graduate school to become a shrink i did a brief stint as a dominatrix. aside from the fact that i sucked at it, i wasn’t able to continue beating the crap out of men as a career because i realized that certain clients were coming into the dungeon in an effort to relive some of their deeply rooted traumas. in the psychoanalytic community we call this repetition compulsion–the need to recreate a painful developmental experience in an effort to master it. i saw a lot of sexually abused men who’d turned into pedophiles and would come into the dungeon completely obliterated on alcohol and drugs looking for a couple of sex workers to enact their pedophilia fantasies. there was also a vietnam vet who suffered severe PTSD and would reenact some of the torture he experienced on a paid sex worker. granted, the situation is slightly different than the question posed by robin, but my point is that you never know what has drawn a person to BDSM. as a shrink i think it’s essential to be conscious of the potential harm that may be caused as a result of your involvement in such communities.

  16. Esther says:

    I think it’s probably a matter of personal preference about whether or not someone wants to talk to his or her therapist in public. I wasn’t meaning to sound rigid. I just don’t want to talk to my shrink if I see him around town. For me it would be awkward. I feel like he knows too much about me. It might not be that way for other people (Sara and Anonymous up there). I like to have a strictly professional relationship with no surprises. But then again, I do have some really serious issues.
    I also take people at their word usually. My therapist said he would accept any strange things I have to say and I believe him. I don’t have to know him as a friend or participate in any of his hobbies to trust him.

  17. Alice says:

    BTW this might be useful – Robin might do well to get listed http://www.ncsfreedom.org/index.php?option=com_keyword&id=270

  18. a client says:

    I’m the prude, chiming in one more time.
    Sam, I think I get what you’re saying — kink doesn’t equal unprofessional. I guess what I was getting at (and I suppose this shows my prudishness AND my ignorance on sexual kinks), was that I wouldn’t trust a person who engaged in these kind of sexual behaviors. Not my shrink, not my kids’ teachers, not my neighbor.
    Old fashioned, I suppose. (Middle age and three kids will do that to a person…)
    Carry on. I’m getting quite an education here!

  19. Anonymous says:

    I have worked with both kind of therapists. I had one therapist that I knew nothing about her personal life except for what church she went to and that wasnt because she told me. I had a hard time working with her cause I didnt like telling all my dirty secrets to someone that I knew nothing about. I also had a therapist that I knew a little bit about him like where he lived, who is wife was, where went to church and what type of car he drives but that was it. And even knowing those few details made it a little easier to talk to him. But the doctor that I feel most comfortable with I know so much stuff about. I know where he lives, where he goes to church, who his kids are, who is ex-wives are, why he got divorced, where he likes to eat, what his hobbies are, his cell phone number, his e-mail address and even who he considers his heros. And because I know all the good and bad about him I feel more comfortable sharing all my problems and issues with him. And I too have a lot of serious issues!

  20. Giganto says:

    I think another consideration here is the likelihood of meeting a client at such an event. Though BDSM is gaining in popularity and becoming more mainstream, it’s still esoteric, and unless you were sure that the client was a member of the community, I don’t think the fear has a high chance of being realized.
    It seems like if the meeting is big enough for there to be a chance encounter, it’s big enough to blend in.
    Another possibility, if all else fails, is just looking as strikingly different physically as you can. I’m not completely up on the etiquette of the community, but could you, for example, wear a mask or darker glasses?

  21. Colleen says:

    “I guess what I was getting at (and I suppose this shows my prudishness AND my ignorance on sexual kinks), was that I wouldn’t trust a person who engaged in these kind of sexual behaviors. Not my shrink, not my kids’ teachers, not my neighbor.”
    To the self described prude – if you know that judging people based on personal sexual behavior is ignorant, then why do it? There is a difference between people who use BDSM/S&M as a way to spice up their sex life, and people who are sexual deviants like pedophiles or actual sadists. The two are unfortunately not mutually exclusive but they are also not one and the same either. You would be surprised at the wide variety of people who are into kink – many of them are perfectly respectable, decent citizens. You have probably seen a doctor or lawyer or accountant who was into kink and didn’t even realize it – because it shouldn’t have any impact whatsoever on a professional relationship. It is your right to seek services from people whose lifestyle you agree with, but consider whether it is fair to judge people based on their personal lives – what about single parents, or gay people, or people who belong to an alternative religion? How can you really filter who you interact with?

  22. Scootah says:

    At the fetish parties I attend, there are a couple of shrinks who are regulars. I know at least one of them has gained several regular clients by being known to be not only kink friendly but ‘in the scene’. Lots of perves are reluctant to share the details of their fetishes with health professionals to avoid any percieved stigma or negative judgement.
    From what I’ve observed – the professionals maintain a distance with their clients at parties – they don’t play together in any way or shape – but they also don’t go out of their way to avoid each other.
    Just my experiences.

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  25. […] I had strongly advocated, a shrink isn’t obligated to alter much of his life simply because a client may see him in a […]

  26. Chater says:

    This is great. You always wonder what it would feel like run into someone outside of the professional setting. This is definitely the extreme scenario. May spark some marketing ideas for CRAZY.

  27. Joanna says:

    I would love to see my shrink at a kink party…but then I am suffering from some serious erotic transference!

    Dr Rob, would love to hear your views and tales on transference and counter transference.

  28. D says:

    Thank you for this. As a budding psychotherapist, I needed to read something like this. Now, I don’t go to BDSM parties, but I do have my own hobby which is somewhat public, especially online for now. It is very important to me and at the same time pretty personal and I have been struggling with what to do about it ever since I started seeing clients about a year ago. I talked to my supervisor and colleagues and this has been my conclusion too. I’m not going to make my most personal information readily available to clients, but I don’t want to deprive myself of my favorite long-term hobby, either. I liked the approach in your post about therapists’ humanness and the flexibility while also taking ethics into account.

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