The Love Treatment: Sexual Intimacy between Patients and Psychotherapists
The Radical Therapist
I am a sucker for psychology books, so when the paperback edition of The Love Treatment appeared on the rack at Woolworth’s, I picked it up and leafed through it. Its premise, I discovered, was that the taboo on sexual intimacy between psychotherapists and their patients should be re-examined, not only because it was being broken all the time anyway but because in the right circumstances such intimacy might have therapeutic value. My immediate hostility to this idea—I’d heard any number of horror stories from friends who had slept with or been propositioned by their therapists—did not keep me from admiring its brilliance. Psychotherapy, as conventionally practiced, had proved a useful tool for exploiting women, and so had the ideology of sexual revolution—why not combine them? It didn’t take much imagination—or excessive cynicism—to foresee the practical result of giving (mostly male) therapists a professional rationale for going to bed with their (mostly female) clients. After all, the argument that sex is therapeutic had been a favorite of amateur psychiatrists for years.
My basic objection, though, was not that the freedom to consider sexual relations as a therapeutic option would inevitably be “misused” but that the notion of sex as therapy was in itself peculiarly oppressive. It implied a certain degree of detachment on the therapist’s part and bore an uncomfortable resemblance to the familiar male fantasy of “liberating” a virgin (or a frigid woman or a lesbian) with the gift of his virility. Sure enough, in a chapter called “A Confession,” Dr. Shepard presented just such a situation. A lesbian had come to him for therapy because she wanted to try heterosexual sex but could not overcome her fear of penetration. The problem, in Shepard’s view, was that no man could reasonably be expected to be perceptive and patient enough to offer her the extremely gradual initiation she needed. Except—but of course:
…I felt that I could easily do for her what her dates wouldn’t.
For one thing, she made her dilemma intelligible to me. For another, I found her attractive enough to know that I could respond adequately. Also, my love life and sex life were fulfilling enough to allow me to abstain patiently when she became frightened.
The taboo had restrained him, but looking back he wished it hadn’t. “I would hope,” he concluded (rather pompously, I thought), “that my concern with my reputation does not interfere with my therapeutic effectiveness again.” Even granted that Shepard was accurately and disinterestedly discerning this woman’s needs (a large grant), the whole project sounded pretty depressing. Who would want to be the recipient of this sort of social work? As far as I could tell, therapeutic sex was just another version of dissociated sex, a phenomenon that—especially in this era of sexual pseudo-revolution—had driven too many women to therapists in the first place.
When I read the whole book, I realized that in a way …
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