Navigating Consent as a Client in Search of Healing
This is the second in a series dedicated to addressing consent for members of the breathwork healing community – both clients and practitioners. Part 1 is dedicated to breathwork healers, practitioners, and service providers. (Read it here.)
Note: To assist with this important conversation, I’ve enlisted Anne Hodder-Shipp, a trained and certified sexuality educator, to help edit and offer commentary for this piece. Consent education is a core part of her work and her insight and knowledge of this subject matter is invaluable. For the sake of transparency, Anne and I are married and co-teach relationship workshops together.
As a client, it can be easy to feel like you must reach outside yourself to find healing, and that the healing process is in the hands of the professionals and practitioners you hire. Sometimes practitioners even TELL us that. But healing comes from within, and practitioners are there to guide and work WITH you according to YOUR boundaries. This article is dedicated to clients, empowering those seeking healing to set and maintain boundaries while understanding the importance of consent within a healing space.
Many healing modalities utilize physical touch as a grounding method or to help release trauma from the body, which is why understanding what consent is and how to communicate it is essential. Legal definitions of consent vary from state to state (California is an affirmative consent state – yes means yes), but regardless of law, true consent is when both parties have provided an indisputable confirmation that they’re down with whatever’s about to happen. It doesn’t stop there, however. Either party can change their mind at any time and consenting to one activity is not blanket consent for every activity that follows.
This means that you, the client, hold the power to where and how your practitioner touches you. As we discussed in Part 1 of this series, it’s ultimately the practitioner’s job to uphold boundaries – especially sexual ones – but we know that doesn’t always happen. So here are some tips to make sure you’re getting the kind of care that feels safe, appropriate and healing for you.
- YOUR BODY, YOUR RULES
It’s your body, it’s your healing session, and you get to make the rules about how it all happens. You’re paying for a session and that financial exchange is the only thing you owe the practitioner; the person you’ve hired holds the responsibility pf providing a safe, trusted space in which to work together. No matter how open, vulnerable, happy, sad, etc. you might feel or appear during your session, professional rules and boundaries must be immutable.
A good practitioner will explain before the session begins that they may touch you, where they may touch you, and be crystal (no pun intended) clear about the intention and reason why touch may be used. Then it’s your turn – your right – to tell them what you are and aren’t comfortable with. You get to tell them where or how you feel comfortable being touched (if at all). Your practitioner should never argue or counter your boundaries. You have all the power here. It’s your body and if you don’t want to be touched, you don’t have to be.
The healing process can feel uncomfortable. It’s not easy to dive in and start peeling away the layers of yourself. It can get gritty, which is why it’s essential that you feel safe throughout the process. Sometimes as clients we don’t feel safe, and that’s OK (and not uncommon). A practitioner should be able to establish rapport, trust and safety from the moment you meet them, but no matter how safe, warm or fuzzy you feel with your healer, you still have the right to set the rules for how physical touch is incorporated into your sessions. And you have the right to change it as you see fit!
- CONSENT IS ONGOING, AND CAN BE REVOKED AT ANY TIME
As stated earlier, consent is non-transferrable and can’t be treated like rollover minutes on a cellphone contract. Unless otherwise specified (by you), the consent you provide during a session applies to that session only. The healing process can feel like riding waves; something you might feel comfortable with this week might feel the complete opposite next week, so pay attention to what you feel, what you need, and what you don’t need, and feel free to communicate it to your practitioner.
If you’ve consented to having your shoulders opened, it doesn’t mean you’ve consented to having your chest, hips, or feet touched. If a practitioner’s touch feels a little too close to areas you are sensitive about, you have the right to say something. And you can change your mind in the middle and ask for your practitioner to stop and move onto something else. It’s not rude or disrespectful to communicate your needs – even if it means interrupting the session – and a good practitioner will graciously receive it and adjust accordingly.
With breathwork healing especially, there is rarely a reason for a practitioner to go below your belt line with touch besides grounding the feet. Any touch you’ve consented to should be done outside of your clothing, and there is NEVER a time when touching the genitals, or any area that could be mistaken for sexual stimulation, is part of the healing process.
If the healer’s hands have wandered into areas not previously discussed with and confirmed by you, especially if they have touched intimate or private parts of your body, that is a violation of your consent.
“If you’ve found yourself in a situation like this, the first thing I want you to remember is that this is NOT. YOUR. FAULT,” Anne says. “You might rightfully feel triggered, scared, furious, ashamed, maybe even a little exhilarated, and unsure of what to do. Trauma works in funny ways and there’s no ‘correct’ way to respond to a consent violation, especially in the moment. But please know that if a practitioner has wittingly violated your consent, they have taken advantage of the power dynamic in the room. Many of us have been socialized to believe and blindly trust healing and healthcare professionals, and in some cases give our power to them, because they’re supposed to know more or know better than us mere muggles. But any practitioner who exploits the vulnerability of a client is, frankly, a bad practitioner and must be held accountable for their egregious actions.”
- LISTEN TO YOUR BODY
Touch can heal, but only if it’s healing touch. Sometimes the body may enjoy it and want more, sometimes the body is aware of pain, and sometimes the body is telling you that it doesn’t want to be touched in that way. Your body knows better than even the most skilled practitioner, and a valuable part of the healing process is learning to listen to it – and a good practitioner will help you hone that skill at your own pace.
Some deep work can be done with physical touch as a tool, and it can bring up old traumas and issues that need resolution. But there’s a fine line between leaning into your discomfort to heal and touch that sends your body into a fight/flight or freeze response. If the session has started and you start feeling weird vibes, trust your intuition. It doesn’t necessarily mean something bad is happening, but it does mean your body is trying to tell you that something doesn’t feel right.
“Our bodies react to unwanted touch in different ways,” Anne says. “Some of us, due to past trauma, may freeze – an involuntary physical response to fear and danger. In this state, it becomes near impossible to respond with words, movement or other clues to communicate whether or not you feel OK with what’s happening. That’s why it’s so harmful to ask a survivor of assault, ‘Well why didn’t you say something?’ They may very well have been incapable, and now carry immense shame about what ultimately was a reflexive response within the nervous system that they had no control over.”
To reiterate: It is not uncommon for someone who feels unsafe or in danger to find themselves unable to respond, communicate, or vocalize anything at all. And that is not your fault. A good practitioner should be able to pick up on the nonverbal cues associated with the freeze response and respond accordingly.
Unless you’ve signed up for a yoni (aka vulva) massage and know what you’re getting into, a healer’s hands should not touch you in a sensitive and sexual way. And even if you did sign up for a yoni massage, you still call the shots. If you feel uncomfortable or have limits or boundaries, you have the right to make them known and the healer’s responsibility is to respect and follow them. Healing, no matter what form it comes in, can’t happen if you and your body don’t feel physically and emotionally safe.
- SET CLEAR BOUNDARIES FROM THE ONSET
As a person seeking healing from the trauma of my past, I haven’t always been good at expressing my needs. Often, we don’t feel safe to do so out of fear of not getting them met, or displeasing or disappointing someone else, or being flat-out rejected or abandoned. All valid fears. But in a session, you hold all the cards. Dig into your own sense of empowerment here.
You get to direct your healing and set the parameters necessary to facilitate it. Be brusque if you need to but be as clear as you can. If words don’t come easy (though it’s important to practice using them) use your hands to direct – or push away – touch and know that if you pull back, that tells the practitioner to back off.
For those of us who’ve suffered trauma in the past, our sense of self often gets lost in the mix. During a session, you get the benefit of setting boundaries in a safe and therapeutic container, which will help you grow more comfortable with setting boundaries throughout your life.
- SPEAK UP (WHEN YOU CAN)
Remember: this is YOUR healing session. You might feel raw or vulnerable during and after a session, and you’re not always going to leave a session walking on sunshine. You may have gone really deep and feel a bit tender. All good things! Healing is not often comfortable, but you get to decide the pace at which you do it.
As discussed previously, we aren’t always capable of saying something in the moment, but we can establish our needs and boundaries with the practitioner before the session starts. If you find yourself struggling to find your voice to communicate your needs or boundaries, I recommend asking someone you trust for help. Practice speaking to them as though they were your practitioner, and if you find yourself particularly stuck, bring them with you to the session for support. But remember, part of the healing process is practicing and learning to find and use your voice on your own.
Tell the practitioner what is OK and what isn’t. Let them know anything and everything that you feel would help them provide the best care for you. Not only will a good practitioner hear you and work with your boundaries, they’ll thank you for having clarity around getting your needs met. It makes their job easier. Your voice is a powerful tool in your own healing. Using it to get your needs met and to communicate your boundaries is a big part of healing in and of itself.
- ONE LAST THING!
“This is NOT all on you,” Anne says. “Clients can and should not hold the sole burden of boundary-setting, and it’s quite possible you don’t know how to do it yet – it’s probably why you’re seeking healing in the first place. And if that’s the case, fuck yeah, good for you! As we discussed earlier, trauma often breaks down our ability to successfully maintain these kinds of boundaries, which is why it’s so important to work with a practitioner who understands how to set and maintain their own.”This article is meant to empower you, the client, and provide tangible tools and information to help you enjoy the safest, most effective healing sessions possible. Ultimately, no matter how hard it is to speak up for yourself, finding your voice can be one of the most powerful healing tools on the planet – and you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the results.
If you’d like to learn more about the responsibilities that practitioners hold, please read Part 1 of this series and feel free to send me any questions that might come up!
Photo by _Javarts_