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Too Hot to Handle? Working with Erotic Charge

Allison Priestman

July 2020

When the erotic enters the therapy room we can be swept by strong emotions - arousal, disgust, enchantment, love, hate. This is complex, often subtle work, demanding integrity and rigour. In her blog Allison Priestman courageously formulates the unspoken dilemmas body psychotherapists face when dealing with the erotic and suggests that by accepting it as natural, and inevitable, we can normalise working with the erotic – and even recentre the erotic as the work itself.

This short blog is drawn from an article of the same title, which was printed in Psychotherapy and Politics International, September 2019, and from the workshops and webinars that I have run on the erotic, for the past nine years.

Overwhelm and confusion

On the workshops and webinars that I facilitate, there is often a curious mix of excitement, nervousness and keen interest; an aliveness that feels ultimately life affirming. My theoretical approach to this subject area, has developed from my reading of predominantly relational body psychotherapy and relational psychoanalytic literature, but also from participants’ contributions to the workshops.

I've met many practitioners, both experienced and inexperienced, who echo my own experiences of overwhelm, paralysis and confusion when faced with highly charged sexual transference and countertransference. My aim is to normalise working with erotic charge: to encourage participants to see it as inevitable, and in the biggest picture desirable, that the erotic charge enters the therapy room – a process which is in many ways natural, normal and manageable. I offer a theoretical framework, discussion space, and supervision, as containment for the often considerable anxiety that can be present.

When the erotic comes in our capacity to witness can be compromised, as we get lost in the intensity of the relational exchange. Working relationally, our task is to dance between the poles of the detached witness and someone swimming in the soup with our clients. The erotic can threaten to overwhelm either or both participants, which means that the potential for transformation is also present.

In our work we offer our availability to be in a therapeutic relationship with our clients, and part of what we are called on to offer is our availability to be related to as a sexual being.

To work at depth with clients we at times need to offer an openness to be attracted to our clients, to be open to being found attractive. We also need to protect ourselves to feel safe enough to work in this way, and to only do so when it feels appropriate.

I increasingly want to reframe psychotherapy and counselling as an intimate and erotic relationship. To challenge our profession not to relegate erotic transference and countertransference to a special situation needing training and additional insight. To recentre the erotic as the work.

‘Intolerance and dread of erotic countertransference’

I’ve learnt that many practitioners have intense anxiety and lack of confidence around their own sexuality. I have been surprised at the levels of fear, mostly though not exclusively from women, of their bodies and their capacity for arousal. Reflecting on this, I realise that I have discounted the depth and influence of the incest taboo, and our profession’s ‘intolerance and dread of erotic countertransference,’ (Tansey 1994, p. 39). I think a complex mix of fears is involved: the taboo of sexuality in the therapeutic relationship, of negotiating the powerful misconduct taboo and the incest taboo – and of the demand which the erotic can bring for the therapist to be more vulnerable. There will be many times when we are challenged to face our fears, of the multiple taboos around the erotic in our work.

Working relationally and enactments

Our best resource when working with the erotic is our ability to track our embodied responses and utilise them in combination with our clinical thinking. As the relational intensity shifts and changes, our capacity to witness ourselves and our clients will also shift and change. We need to recognise our own patterns of dissociation, overwhelm, and overstimulation.

Our erotic embodied responses to our clients will be complex and can be hard to make sense of. This is where a good supervisory relationship is essential. We may experience multiple transferences. There are many possible re-enactments to be aware off, a sexual re-enactment is important but not the only possible destructive outcome. ‘Enactment is spontaneous, difficult if not impossible to control, unconscious and effectively driven. Enactment is a mutual event’ (Maroda, 1998).

Enactments by definition are mutual, unfortunately many practitioners are not working from that understanding. I know for myself the clarity that intense, difficult to process enactments are mutual, was a hard won learning. When we feel particularly stuck or lost, it's usually because our material has been deeply stirred. Therapist and client are effectively each playing out the internal script for the other.

Embodying erotic desire

I would like to celebrate the contributions made by relational body psychotherapists, especially female ones to this area. Shoshi Asheri, and Danielle Tanner, have contributed significantly to the field. I wonder if working with embodiment, touch and movement brings with it the courage and clarity to offer deep insights in this area?

Our best resource is our own aliveness. How comfortable are we with other people being attracted to us and speaking about it? How comfortable are we in our bodies, with our sexuality? How confident are we disclosing our feelings to others? How comfortable are we with intimacy? We don’t of course have to be sorted or perfect, our own wounds will get stirred; but the advantages of exploring our own material is that, over time, we find it easier to return to our witness position when we are stirred.

As children most of us were erotic beings, living in sensually alive bodies, in a sensually alive world. How can psychotherapy work with and support these three aspects of reality - psychotherapy as an erotic process, clients and therapists as erotic beings, living in a playful, sentient erotic world?

Psychotherapy has often acted as if the erotic is too hot to handle. There has been a turning away, a denial; but perhaps also, alongside this, a movement towards, an acknowledgement. I'm arguing for an embracing of the fire and heat on all levels.


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