Psychotherapy in the Dungeon, Part I

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November 1993

by William A. Henkin, Ph.D.

Copyright © 1993 by William A. Henkin

<Q> Recently I attended a program you led about Abuse Survivors in SM. During the discussion you said that people should not, as you put it, do psychotherapy in the dungeon. Yet you seemed to agree with many people in the audience that sometimes SM scenes can be therapeutic. Though I listened to what everybody said that night I still had to catch all the arguments pro and con as they flitted in and out of my ears like so many bats on Hallowe'en. As a result, I'm still not exactly sure what the difference is between something that is psychotherapy and something that is therapeutic, or why you take the position you do. Can you explain the difference in your column, and can you also explain why you think it's a bad idea to do therapy in the dungeon?

<A> Yes, I can; but first let me state even more emphatically than I usually do, that what I have to say is my answer, not the answer. If what I say does not reflect your own experience, come back to me with some reply or else go talk with someone else. In any event, rely on yourself as the final arbiter of decisions in your life.

Under the right circumstances virtually any activity can be therapeutic, which simply means it has some sort of healing or curative power. That's why overworked people and others who lead extremely stressful lives are often advised to take vacations, listen to soothing music, or go for long walks in the country; it's why people who feel so depressed they don't want to get out of bed may be told to take up gardening or to volunteer to help others; it's why lonely people who have little opportunity for social interaction may really love caring for their dogs and cats. When the woman who is overworked relaxes, when the man who is depressed becomes engaged in some activity, and when lonely people have something to love that is clearly happy to love them back, their attention is redirected away from their problems, and their immediate pains and anxieties often diminish. In the same way a good whipping may help one person relax, or the opportunity to be served may take another person's mind off her troubles at the office. Since the people really do feel better we can quite legitimately say that some effects of the activities in question are healing, or therapeutic.

I have no wish to deny the healing benefits of these sorts of incidents; indeed, I've recommended and used similar ones myself with good results from time to time. But they are, in effect, simple interventions, in which a modest and usually limited result is sought from a modest and usually limited remedy. The simple nostrums for which we are all grateful

may be likened to psychic aspirin: they're sometimes excellent for the short-term relief of minor aches and pains, and often good as adjuncts to more intensive care; but they're generally ineffective for serious problems, and they have the potential to be dangerous if they're relied on to do the jobs that call for heavier medicine.

Psychotherapy, by contrast, is a complex process that concerns a protracted period of time and takes place over a protracted period of time. It's made up of many interacting experiences, some simple, some complicated, some cleverly planned, some merely recognized and exploited when they happen by accident, some provoking pleasure, some even provoking interim distress. It is because of this complexity that people who plan to be therapists are usually advised to learn the theories, learn the techniques, and perhaps most important, undergo some serious therapy of their own before hanging out a shingle and learning to say "Uh-huh" and "Tell me how it feels."

Whether or not it's a medical process – some therapists think it is and others think it is not -- psychotherapy is in part an advisory art. My own therapist likened our work to an archaeological dig, but it is also similar to the process of helping someone unwind and then reweave the tapestry of his life in order to discover exactly where, why, and how the woof got warped, the threads got inappropriately knotted, dye vats got used that were not planned for or ideal dyes were improperly mixed, and skeins were somehow slashed, mislabeled, or delivered in a confusing order. In this process the therapist who guides and lends her insights may be an expert in deciphering the symbolic messages that appear in some tapestries, untangling twisted webs, recombining colors, patching tears together, rearranging shipments, and any number of other skills: it is partly for this expertise that she is hired. But the tapestry itself is the client's life, and the artist who signs the work – who is finally responsible for its reconstruction – is the client who comes to therapy himself.

In the process of therapy the client's special quirks are noted, identified, interpreted, and understood in the context of the work that is her life. As in all large creative efforts, one discovery often leads to another which leads to another which leads to another. When the discoveries and their connections are examined with a dispassionate yet involved observer such as the psychotherapist is trained to be, some problems that prevented the tapestry from being what the artist intended may be undone and, to some extent, recast. Depending on the nature of the problems that have been resolved, as well as on the relationship between client and therapist, the result may be a happier life for the client, or one that is less stressful, more exciting, more rewarding, more peaceful, more instructive, or simply richer in its quality and impact.

As an example of the way connections might be made in therapy, imagine you get angry with your lover of ten years because for the first time in your relationship he is not at the restaurant where you thought you were supposed to meet him at the time you thought he was supposed to be there. Way later, down the line, you learn that he was at a different restaurant at the same time, or at the same restaurant an hour earlier. Your missed connection turns out to be the result of a simple miscommunication, but in the moment of feeling stood up you become enraged far beyond what the circumstances call for: you're even ready to end the relationship.

You bring the matter up next time you see your therapist, and as the two of you discuss the situation you find that being stood up reminds you of a whole string of broken promises made by a long-gone other lover, which lover, you suddenly remember in turn, wore the same deoderant your father wore; and the realization of this apparently insignificant connection opens the floodgates of memory to your father's deep betrayal of your trust when you were very young. Abruptly you are weeping uncontrollably and that grief is what contains the anger you never allowed yourself to experience at your father from 20, 30, or 40 years ago, that has surfaced at last and been directed at your lover, who may be hurt, perplexed, or even angry himself that the first missed connection in a decade has brought the two of you to the brink of divorce.

Exposing information which you'd previously hidden even from yourself will sometimes be of little consequence; other times it can lead to a profound reaction such as vividly re-experiencing the early betrayal. In psychotherapy there is a place to return again and again to pick apart the threads of feelings, thoughts, behaviors, and beliefs that led from the first betrayal to the most recent. Each incident may attach itself to others that do not appear, initially, to have anything to do with those you've found already, but in the psychotherapeutic context, which is specifically devoted to your self-discovery, you have the focused leisure to examine every thread that seems to matter to you.

As a client in psychotherapy you also have an assistant or a guide who, you hope, has picked apart her own tapestry and has some sense of what it feels like to make connections you've hidden from your own view all your life, and has sat with other people while they made the same sorts of discoveries you're confronting. Assuming your therapist is moderately competent, she is not going to think it's time to focus on her problems once you've spent a lot of time together hashing over yours. She is not going to leave you for being pissy, prissy, or pushy. She is not going to be defensive because you want to play with someone else. And she is going to function as the eyes in the back of your head to help you see what is usually out of your sight.

Among the most important reasons not to do therapy in the dungeon, one is that a therapist is trained and experienced for this sort of journey and your lover or play partner probably is not. Many tops have learned how to push their bottoms to the point of catharsis, but have not learned what to do with their partners when the catharsis leads to a major emotional upheaval. The fallout from pushing limits this way pertains to a second reason not to do therapy in the dungeon, which is that your therapist is not involved with you in any other important way that gives him a personal stake in your decisions, and I should hope your lover or play partner is – even if your lover is a therapist herself.

If what you discover in therapy or elsewhere in your life leads you to believe you must be single for awhile, your lover has a stake in changing your mind but your therapist has not. If what you discover leads you to believe you must play more, less, all the time, or not at all your play partner has an investment in your decision but your therapist has not. And if what you discover leads you to feel upset for a month or a year and makes you asocial or unbearable company until it's over, the good friend who likes to hold your hand is liable to get burned out and resentful, but your therapist is not.

Please note that in the paragraph above I said a therapist, not your therapist. The process of therapy is so intimate and so concerned with an energy exchange of its own, and the issue of trust is so important in the therapeutic relationship, that therapists of every license are specifically proscribed from being sexual with their clients. If your lover or play partner became your therapist (or if your therapist became your lover or play partner) she would be violating the ethical canons of every professional psychotherapy guild and could lose her license.

The dungeon is a play space for erotic partnerships where romantic and/or spiritual concerns may also be addressed. All participants have their own equally valid stakes in the process and the outcome, all participants seek to have their needs attended to, and on the happiest occasions all participants can have their wants addressed as well. Psychological issues may arise for any player, as such issues may arise for people anywhere, and if they can be handled in the scene or in straight time, well and good; if not there is still another recourse for the affected players that is likely to support, not damage, the people and their relationships because a therapist is, at least to a large extent, specifically neutral.

The consulting room, by contrast, is a work space for psychological partnerships where any sorts of concerns may also be addressed, and where all participants have the same stake in the process and the outcome, which is the client's best well-being.

I want to be present and available for my life partner and for my play partners, and I want them to be present and available for me. That's why I relate to them with both give and take in bed and in the dungeon, as well as at dinner, in the park, and anyplace else we like to be together. But while I want my therapist to be present and available for me, I don't want to have to be present and available for him. I don't want to take his psychological, erotic, romantic, spiritual, or intellectual needs into consideration, because I'm in his office so we can both work on mine. I pay him to be available for me, and that is about the end of our negotiation.

Recognizing that therapeutic effects may result from SM activities as they also may from swimming the English Channel, shopping for a car, or taking a nap, I think it's a bad idea to do therapy in the dungeon because the goals and methods of SM are different from the goals and methods of psychotherapy. You may better grasp the problems this confusion can present if you think about asking your therapist for a flogging, or having him present his bill while collared and on his knees.

So again, and briefly, the difference between something that is psychotherapy and something that is therapeutic is that the latter may be an incidental byproduct of almost any interaction or event, whereas the former is an intentional process with a refined structure that seeks to achieve an identifiable goal. It's really a matter of using the right tool for the right job.

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