The general understanding in the mental health profession is that therapists and clients should not be present at the same social functions as it may be interpreted as a dual relationship. This is fairly easily accomplished in the heterosexual world where there are many different social opportunities. In the world of kink however, be it homosexual, heterosexual, bisexual or transgender, these opportunities become limited and the issues get somewhat complicated.
Providing psychotherapy services to people in the pansexual, fetish and gay BDSM/Kink communities, when I am as involved as I am, raises questions about professional boundaries. They need creative solutions, that adhere to underlying ethical principles, while being structured in somewhat different ways, that are unique to the situation.
In the Leather/BDSM/kink communities, there is also the complicating element of play, often public, and generally considered sexual or erotic … with or without explicitly sexual acts as part of the scene.
The easiest way to think about these boundary issues, is to compare it to practicing therapy in a small town, rather than in large cities, the latter providing much more anonymity, which makes strict separation between professional and personal/community life more possible. In a small town, a therapist is likely to know people both before and after they are clients. During the course of therapy, the client and therapist are likely to see each other, perhaps often, at church, in the grocery store, the post office, on the local arts board, or wherever.
Being actively involved in the BDSM lifestyle is my strongest credential as a kink aware therapist. I qualify as Kink Knowledgeable, not just kink friendly or Kink Aware. Those are the three levels of expertise used in the Kink Aware Professionals (KAP) Directory, hosted by the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom. I am actually more knowledgeable, because those definitions do not require involvement in the lifestyle.
More personally, embracing and expressing my kinky side is too important to my identity and health at this point, to want to pull back significantly from my current level of involvement. We, like our clients, have romantic, sexual and social needs that must be met in order for us to have a meaningful and authentic life and I feel it is vitally important to provide role-modelling for being able to live authentically this way. If a therapist who is kinky is ethically prevented from socialising in the spaces they frequent, the therapist is effectively cut off from a major part of his or her community. I also believe that it is good boundaries for clients to realise that we are not therapists 24/7 and that we do, in fact, have lives outside of our work.
The following are therefore preliminary guidelines that may get altered as experience and specific client relationships dictate. Please read these carefully and bring any questions to our session:
Power Dynamic Boundaries in the Therapy Room:
By the very nature of our training and experience, the professional role of the therapist can often be one of inherent power imbalance. Although it is generally routine to experience these power dynamics in the therapy room (even more so with ‘kinky’ clients), I believe our work together is more effective when I/we actively seek to level any dom/sub power imbalance in the work we do. So, although you may already be in some kind of power dynamic relationship with yourself, or an other(s), either as a Dom/Master, sub/slave or any other dominant or submissive power dynamic, I work with the person, not the role, and I would expect my clients to be open to this too.
This is likely to be the major concern of potential clients. It is also a central element in professional codes of ethical behaviour, as well as statutory requirements. It is a value I personally feel strongly about.
• All of the usual safeguards for confidentiality and secure record keeping will be strictly adhered to.
• Every client will receive, as required, a statement about their rights to confidentiality, as well as identifying the few exceptions that may be mandated by law.
• What is said in therapy, or other professional interactions, will not be shared with anyone else, except in Supervision, without a signed release of information, or in the rare instances mandated by law and/or court order.
• It almost goes without saying that I will not out anyone’s kinky interests or activities. That is generally expected and adhered to in the community as a whole, in any case.
• If I encounter a client in public, at a club, private party, bar or any other social or professional situation, my protocol is that I will take my cue from how you acknowledge me, and/or what we have talked about and agreed upon. Otherwise, I may make eye contact, smile or nod, but not go beyond that. There are all kinds of ways that we might have become casually acquainted, other than our actual professional relationship. However, if you identify me to others as your therapist, it will be hard for me to deny it. Of course, I still will not talk about what we are working on. I take this position, not because I do not like a person, but because I seek to protect her or his privacy, and to protect the boundaries of our work, whether we call it the ‘therapeutic container’ or the ‘sacred space’.
Friends and Acquaintances:
There are prohibitions against dual relationships. Generally this refers to romantic relationships, sexual activity, and being good friends outside of the therapy relationship. It might also extend to some business relationships. And it includes family members, or significant others of either friends or clients.
• If we already know each other well, and if either of us considers the other a good friend, I will not take you on as a paying client. In many cases, schedule permitting, I will be glad to talk about some of the same issues, as friends, over coffee.
• If we are merely acquaintances, including contact on Recon/Grindr/Scruff/Growlr/Slaveboys or other gay social networking sites, but do not know each other well, it may be appropriate to work together as therapist and client. We will discuss the implications of any prior interaction and knowledge of each other, as well as how it may limit our friendship in the future.
• In between good friends and casual acquaintances, there is quite a bit of grey area. We would take even more time to discuss prior interaction, and how the transition to a defined professional relationship may or may not work. This is the kind of situation that small town practitioners likely have to deal with. In a city, some therapists may choose never to take on a client they have known previously.
• If we have been play partners on an ongoing basis, I will treat that as a good friendship, and I won’t see you formally as a client. If we played only once, very casually and briefly, and at least a year ago, we can talk about what it did and did not mean to each of us, and whether it will adversely affect developing a proper therapy relationship. If we engaged in a public play scene in a club, it will be less problematic than if we’d had a lengthy scene in private, which would be interpreted as a more sexual and/or a more cathartic, power exchange experience. In that case, if a professional relationship would be appropriate at all, I will probably wait at least two years, rather than one, before considering it, and I am more likely to refer you to a colleague.
- If you become a client and there may be a possibility of us running into each other at social gatherings or other public spaces, we will agree to share with each other any plans to attend specific public play events. I would endeavour to discuss with you in advance how the ethical standards regarding confidentiality, limit me in such situations and I would also wish you to tell me about your feelings regarding such possibilities. After talking about it, if we still decide to go to the same one, we will set some rules for the event, such as agreeing not to watch each other’s scenes. The rare exception to that would be if a client requests me to observe a scene, which is directly related to something they are working on in therapy, so I can better understand the issue, and/or be helpful in a more specific way. The type of scene, the therapeutic issues, and other interpersonal dynamics, would determine how much discussion and preparation we would need to do before that might occur.
- If we do end up meeting in such situations, I would also want to bring that up in the next session we have in order for you to air the impact it may have had on you.
If you are in need of therapy …
… and would consider doing that work with me, I hope you will raise any questions and concerns you may have, whether covered here or not. I want to be able to help you, and others in the community, in a safe and comfortable way. Once that kind of trust is established, we can work together, so that you can reach your full potential, according to your own definitions and goals. It will often be the case that clients come to me for issues and problems that are not all that kink related. But they don’t want to have to hide that part of their lifestyle, and they don’t want to spend a lot of time educating their therapists on the basics of BDSM and kink. You still get to explain what it all means to you, as a unique individual, which will take time and effort enough.
I welcome any feedback, questions, and concerns, that prospective clients, and others in the community, may need or want to share with me.