My Therapist, the Porn Star
Part 2: Exploring the therapeutic issues of therapists who make adult content.
Posted May 22, 2020
This post continues an earlier post.
Surprisingly, both Ethan and Jasmine have actually faced the experience of professional accusations related to their work in the adult entertainment and erotic industry. At a professional conference, Ethan disclosed his porn performing to a few colleagues that he thought were friends. They filed complaints with his governing board, calling into question his fitness to practice.
Said Ethan, “I do know that I am a good therapist, and being filmed having sex has absolutely no bearing on my professional competence or indeed my fitness to practice. On the other hand, I wonder about the fitness of the therapist who filed the complaint about me, and of the people who sided with them. There is something about the sheer intensity of the response that makes me wonder how they would deal with a client’s sexuality if its expression didn’t fit their way of how things should be.”
Ethan's board’s ethics committee dismissed the complaint, viewing it as personal life and “none of their business,” but Ethan was put through an extended, invasive, and embarrassing ordeal. He lost the respect and friendship of several professional colleagues, including people he’d considered friends for more than 10 years.
Jasmine, while working for a large federal healthcare system, had an anonymous complaint filed against her, which included screenshots and erotic pictures. The complaint was ultimately settled and resolved without any discipline against her, as her personal life couldn't be punished by the authorities or her employer.
However, she ultimately left that job, because "I felt embarrassed that this was circulating to hurt me. But I knew it could happen. The first time I hit send on that first video I made, I knew I was putting myself at the mercy of the judgment of others. But I already had backup plans, and I had decided that I wasn't going to live in secret or shame."
Therapists often have strong, mostly negative views about pornography. Jasmine, Ethan, and Daniel all identified that they see a strong stigma and high degree of ignorance towards porn amongst their colleagues.
Jasmine, who treats other adult performers, said that many of her clients have been traumatized by shame and stigma from therapists they sought out for treatment. But the experience that these therapists have as adult performers allows them the opportunity to sometimes educate their peers about pornography and the sex work industry, from their own experience. They say, "I've had colleagues tell me about how all the people in porn are being exploited, and I've said, 'Well, I'm not!'"
A real risk for therapists such as Jasmine, Ethan, and Daniel is if a complaint about their life in porn is filed by a client who alleges that their therapist’s public sexual life somehow impacted the therapeutic relationship.
Traditionally, therapists are taught to do all they can to minimize the risk of erotic transference, or erotic feelings at all, in the therapy relationship. Unfortunately, this often results in therapists feeling they must be neutered robots, lest they be accused of sleeping with a patient.
Daniel feels that if a client told him that he had developed sexual feelings for him from watching his porn that it would actually be an opportunity: “Erotic transference can be very revealing and useful when a therapist isn’t afraid of it, leans into it, and is willing to explore this rich topic with the client. I’ve known therapists who are uncomfortable working with erotic transference because of their own issues around sex and sexuality.”
Ethan suggested that the therapists who struggle most with managing erotic transference in therapy are the opposite of he and Daniel: “I tend to think it most likely happens when therapists are unconsciously acting seductively towards their clients, or when therapists have a great personal need to feel sexually attractive and sexually validated. I get those things in my personal life, including porn.”
Jasmine agreed. "It's the therapists who have secrets, things to be discovered, that are vulnerable to their own shame. It's therapists like us who are actually least likely to get caught up in erotic counter-transference, because we are already accustomed to managing sexual dynamics in ourselves, and our relationships."
For a client to effectively navigate these complex therapeutic dynamics requires extraordinary sophistication and confidence in the therapist, but also relies on the client themselves also being able to self-regulate boundaries, even when they are in the midst of their struggle with their erotic selves.
“One-size fits-all rules and boundaries are more about the therapist than the patient,” says Guy Baldwin, a therapist who specializes in work with alternative sexual communities. He suggested that “transparent therapists” such as Jasmine, Ethan, and Daniel could be at serious and unforeseen risk when treating patients who have unstable symptoms of personality disorder, and are early in treatment.
In one related case, he described a colleague whose patient filed a licensure complaint and lawsuit after seeing her therapist dressed in leather at a fundraising event for an LGBT charity. The therapist’s liability insurance settled the claim out of court to avoid a protracted legal battle, but the therapist ultimately left the field and relinquished his license.
Some clients don’t start therapy with sufficient emotional skills to be able to benefit from a therapist whose sexuality could be so overt. Certain clients may only feel safe in a therapeutic relationship with a therapist whose sexuality, indeed their personality, is much more contained, as is the model within traditional psychoanalytic therapy.
A striking similarity about these three performer therapists lies in their clinical approaches, and their strong commitment to be a real person, in the room with their clients. All of them expressed that they reject the “cloak of invisibility” approach for therapists, who try to remove themselves as a person from therapy and present a pure blank slate to their clients.
Instead. they use themselves, their personality, and their identity as a therapeutic tool to engage with the people they serve. Their commitment to being true to their clients about who they are integrates their commitment to being true to themselves, including their sexual selves. Public sexual expression, in the form of porn performance, is an essential component of their personal identity and authentic selves. These therapists feel that accepting that aspect of themselves and being true to themselves, is a part of what lets them be true to their clients as a therapist.
Daniel and Ethan are both men, and gay men at that. As a result, there may be some unique aspects that offer them greater protection. The gay male community tends to be more accepting of sexual expression, and much less judgmental about pornography. Men who have performed in porn appear to suffer less social stigma and “slut-shaming” compared to females, who often struggle to find any work at all after they leave the porn industry, including this performer who was recently fired when her coworkers watched her on Onlyfans.
Therapists may fear the idea of a client having sexual fantasies about them, and worry that a therapist who performs in porn is creating a situation where clients can explicitly indulge those sexual fantasies.
But, our clients already are having these sexual thoughts and fantasies about us whether we are in porn or not. Some people seeking treatment could be challenging for a therapist who is an adult performer, depending upon the client's level of insight and development in accepting and integrating their own sexuality. Those clients who are struggling with their own sexuality, or to address their moral and religious sexual conflicts, may project this sexual conflict onto their therapist. As they struggle to contain and suppress their sexual desires, such conflicted clients could misinterpret messages of acceptance and support from the therapist.
“I’m concerned that a client’s internal judgment could potentially leave them feeling injured. My biggest concern would be a client just abandoning therapy without processing their perceptions and feelings,” said Daniel.
For therapists who are in touch with their own sexuality, who have examined and integrated their sexuality in an authentic manner, the erotic feelings of our clients are not threatening. Ultimately, this is the revolutionary lesson to be learned from therapists who make their erotic selves public: Efforts to police sexuality, in our clients, in ourselves, and in our therapy are ultimately less successful than finding the courage to integrate, acknowledge and express our sexuality in healthy, thoughtful, honest and ethical ways.
Dr. Chris Donaghue is a sex therapist, clinician who, like Daniel, was trained as a sex addiction therapist, a field he has since criticized as rooted in sexual shame. "I’m OK with therapists doing porn. I’m OK with therapists no longer feeling as though they cannot be actual human beings...For far too long us therapists have been trapped in oppressive 'respectability politics,' which toxically implies that one cannot both be a competent practitioner while also having an honest involvement in their sexuality. But it’s actually a sign of higher competence and mental health in our current culture to authentically engage one’s sexuality fully."
Performing in porn certainly isn’t for every therapist. Therapists working clinically with children, who work with individuals unable to self-manage personal boundaries, or who work in or with highly religious, conservative communities may be at risk of professional consequences from such public sexual expression. It's not that these therapists don't have excellent skills to work with minors (Jasmine does excellent training and education about sex-positive parenting) but unfortunately, our society is highly reactive towards people with open sexuality being around young people in any formal capacity.
Given the sexual conservatism in mental health, therapists who work within more traditional schools of psychotherapy are more likely to experience criticism and attack from colleagues, if they overtly reject the command to be compulsively private as therapists. Therapists such as Daniel, Ethan, Jasmine, and many others, are forcing the psychotherapy industry to re-evaluate the boundaries we've artificially created between personal and professional lives and to confront sexual biases and stigma that permeate the therapy industry and our training.
"Living in truth is what we want for our clients, so we as therapists have to be willing and able to do so as well," said Jasmine.