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#303: Psychoanalytic Sexual Misconduct

In our book A WOmmb of Her Own (Routledge 2017) Author Katie Gentile writes as follows:
First, as written elsewhere, there are vast differences between a college community and the psychoanalytic setting (Gentile, in press a). Psychoanalysis depends upon privacy and confidentiality. According to Baranger and Baranger (2008) the contract of therapy is that the therapist will provide “help in resolving conflicts through interpretations and promises confidentiality and abstention from any intervention in the other’s ‘real’ life” (p. 796). This promise determines behavior so that analytic interactions maintain an “as if” quality, which they compare to seeing a play. As they note, an analyst should be able to differentiate the actor playing Hamlet from Hamlet, or, as I have written, the analyst should be able to differentiate the patient playing a seducer from a seducer. The analytic situation, then, is akin to a dream to be held and examined but not to be acted out.
Within psychoanalysis the erotic is one space that is often conceptualized as being out of our control. Certainly this is a common trope in the cultural narrative where erotic attraction has been captured in song, poems, dance, and visual art as being an external force driving our most spontaneous and, perhaps enlivening interactions. Diane Elise has described erotic transference to be akin to a rip tide (Elise, personal communication). This analogy differs with that of the slippery slope (Gabbard, DATE) also common in psychoanalysis. On a slope there is a point of no return, a point where one forever loses one’s footing and cannot help but slide to the sexual conclusion. As Elise observes, the slippery slope also conjures a clear visual gradation. The implication being that with “careful footing, where one does not stray” from the clear non-slope path, one can safely avoid slipping. Of course, as she observes, there is no clear path to avoid the slope altogether.
As I have described elsewhere (Gentile, in press a), the riptide is a much more apt description. Anyone who has had the pleasure of swimming in an ocean knows the danger of rip tides and the ways they are often invisible to the untrained eye. Pleasure and danger, life and death blend in a tide that only becomes apparent once you are caught in it, being pushed and pulled out to sea. It is a visceral panic felt as the body is pushed, pulled, stretched away from comfort. Strong swimmers are no match for a riptide. Most beaches now feature instructions of exactly how to swim out of a riptide. One must swim in the riptide, not against it, to make ones way free. This can feel counterintuitive. The idea is to respect the force of erotic transference, reminding oneself of the conditions: it is transference. Swimming in the sea while keeping a firm eye on the shore – the “as if” quality of the analytic space. (Not a complete sentence) One may be able to predict the conditions for a riptide, but not the exact location and force of one, how it will tug at the body and destabilize. One can imagine in advance what to do, train oneself to swim out of it, use knowledge and theory as a “life-jacket” (Elise, personal communication) but doing so in the moment is a scary challenge. We can learn theories about erotic transference and read papers from clinicians who have a facility for working with it, but each tide will present unique and frightening challenges. Furthermore, it is just these theories and the frame, Elise’s “life-jackets,” that are often disavowed, thrown out or manipulated to justify boundary violations. These acts reinforce what Honig and Barron (2013), Foehl (2005), and Levine (2010) have observed that analytic boundary violations damage the psychoanalytic community and profession at large, and are aggressive acts against the profession. As such, they need to be conceptualized and understood to be community-based transgressions demanding a community-based response.

#303: Psychoanalytic Sexual Misconduct

Ellen Toronto, Ph.D.

Dr. Ellen Toronto is a licensed clinical psychologist/psychoanalyst in the state of Michigan.

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APA Reference
Toronto, E. (2018). #303: Psychoanalytic Sexual Misconduct. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 15, 2020, from


Last updated: 4 Oct 2018
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