On a public platform, once I received a message from a stranger asking me, “what is the strangest experience you have had with someone while giving massages?” A nameless person with some username. No photo. Typical. I initially wanted to reply saying, “I am a psychotherapist, it says so on my bio, I am not a massage therapist”, but I thought I’d better not respond. Responding might be perceived as welcoming further interaction, which certainly was not what I wanted. When I rejected a man’s proposal because my (feminist) values did not align with his, he had the audacity to text me a few days later, “Can you explain how women squirt?” For men as perverted as these, a woman’s profession or personality or identity or accomplishments do not matter. Any woman, irrespective of her role or professional record, is sexualised in the society by perverts that we are always asked to be careful of. But when such a man happens to be your client and his behaviour disturbs you, what do you do?
Many seem to be confused about where to draw the line between being romantic or expressing liking and being creepy and/or perverted. While some men who do not intend to be creepy sometimes question themselves in fear, there are some other men who do not even realise it when they are being creepy. Let’s see what’s inappropriate behaviour in general. Anything from mild flirtation through text that is not received well or offensive remarks to non-consensual touch is inappropriate behaviour.
Also read: Why Do We Need Culturally-Mindful Therapy?
In therapy, for both professional reasons and the safety of those concerned, it is compulsory that the therapist and client do not engage in any kind of communication outside therapy or ask or accept favours. Therapists are strictly advised and trained to maintain nothing more than a professional relationship with their clients. Clients are also made aware of this in the very beginning. However, sometimes, the lines between “personal” and “professional” can become blurry for a client because it is with the therapist that they discuss everything personal, including vulnerability, desire, longing, and insecurities. Here are some things to keep in mind as a therapist while dealing with clients.
- Avoid any communication outside therapy hours as much as possible.
I personally follow this strictly. I encourage all my clients to make notes of what they would like to talk about and we discuss the same in the following session. If it is an emergency, I encourage them to write to me soon so that a slot could be allotted ASAP. I also share suicide helpline numbers in case they feel suicidal and want to talk to someone in the late or early hours of the day. I make it clear that I won’t encourage anything more than professional communication. If you are a beginner in private practice, use an official number and official email to communicate anything from the beginning to the end of therapy. Tell your clients to contact you only through these official contacts.
- How to deal with a client on social media?
Again, in the very beginning, I make it clear that apart from discussions related to therapy, outside therapy hours, I do not wish to engage in any chit-chat. Most of my clients clearly understand this and neither do I make any social media contact with them nor do they make any such contact with me. If you come across inappropriate client behaviour online, like asking for nudes or sexting or trying to develop a personal relationship, strictly warn your client that you do not approve of that.
- Stalking in real life or online stalking
As women and non-binary folks, we find ourselves being more cautious and sceptical than cis-het men would be because we are certainly more prone to being harassed. While I have never experienced being stalked in real life, there are therapists who have been victims of stalking, and in those events that made it to the news, the abuse was serious.
It actually gives a stalker or pervert more power to sit behind a social media account and act perverted because that way, chances are high they can get away with it. A study by Mullen et al identifies five types of stalkers: rejected, intimacy seeking, incompetent, resentful, and predatory.
Once in a while, when I have network or connectivity issues, I contact my clients through my personal number, so they might have that number stored, too. I rarely have problems with most of my clients because they are mindful of boundaries. But there was this one time when I a client was regularly stalking me online, which made me feel unsafe. I felt that my personal space online was restricted. This reminded me of how my supervisor would deal with social media. Not only is she not very active on social media, but she also blocks all her clients in the beginning. This way, both the client and the therapist can feel safe. Feel free to block someone out right at the onset as a practice of self care and drawing boundaries. At the same time, it is important that you do not blame yourself for not having blocked your clients at the beginning of your association either. Women, in general, are told to “dress appropriately”, “not stay out late” etc., as preemptive measures when the truth is the onus is not on the one who is victimised to stop predatory behaviours.
- When a client crosses boundaries or makes you feel unsafe during a session
A therapeutic relationship is built on deep trust, openness, and comfort, where the client can share anything personal and the therapist assures a judgement-free, safe zone to them. Clients share about their love life, sex life, gender identity and sexuality along with other personal stories and feelings, both the good and bad. Sometimes, a client can either knowingly or unknowingly cross boundaries with their therapist. There have been instances where clients wish to develop a romantic relationship with their therapist or fantasise having sex with their therapist. It is referred to as “erotic transference”. Therapists in well-developed countries are supposedly trained to deal with this, but in conservative cultures such as ours, such discussions and disclosures are considered taboo, so they are not talked about at all.
For me, knowing that a client wishes to act on their romantic or sexual feelings for me could be just as discomforting as any man wishing for the same without my consent. This further impinges upon the sense of safety of a therapist who might find it difficult and unsafe to continue to be associated with a client who has already displayed inappropriate behaviour? I have also seen instances when female therapists have felt outraged because the clients would be unapologetically misogynistic.
If you are working with an organisation, you could and should be able to freely speak to your peers or supervisor about your discomfort with a client, and you can request another therapist to take over. If you are in private practice, you can refer them to another reliable therapist and terminate your therapy. This can also be done when the client has been harmless but has said things that brings back painful or traumatic memories from your past or if you find it difficult to get along with a client.
Further, you should not feel guilty or excuse the client’s behaviour on the basis of their mental health concerns. That should be no reason for you to feel threatened or harassed in their presence. For example, Sherry Amatenstein argues that “having a sex addiction” can often be used as an excuse by an offender to escape from being punished when they face the law.
To summarise, nobody has the right to sexually harass or misbehave with anyone, so feel free to call out inappropriate behaviour and do the needful. In a relationship such as that of a therapist and their clients, wherein the former is expected to be empathetic and kind, clients should be made clear of the boundaries they are not supposed to cross and make it an unsafe working environment for anyone.
And if you are a therapist reading this, if you have been feeling distressed by the inappropriate behaviour by a client, as you know it yourself, in addition to all the tips mentioned above, it is absolutely okay to seek for help in the form of therapy too.
Featured image source: Efficacy.org