Navigating Consent as a ‘Touchy Feely’ Healer
This is Part 1 of a series of blog posts about consent within the healing community. This one deals with consent for practitioners, and the second will be for clients.
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.
Consent is a multifaceted topic and, for many of us, our understanding of it has deepened over the last year as the #notokay and #metoo movements caught mainstream attention. Consent is essential in all parts of life – not just for those of us in sexual relationships – and it’s especially important for breathwork healing practitioners and service-providers.
Consent violations are prevalent and come in myriad forms. People violate consent, and have their consent violated, every day – often without even knowing it. People’s understanding of consent ranges from eerily absent to confidently secure, and the legal definition of consent varies from state to state, which complicates something so essential to the healing process.
“The state of California, for instance, is an affirmative consent state,” Anne says. “That means ‘yes means yes’ – true consent can only come in the form of a clear, inarguable affirmative response. If a person or practitioner is unsure or hasn’t received a definitive ‘yes’ to something, then they cannot confidently affirm that their client has given consent.
“It’s also essential to understand that consent for one thing does not apply to all the things. If a client consents to having their feet touched, for instance, that does not mean they have consented to having other parts of their bodies touched. True consent means you’ve checked in and received a ‘yes’ response prior to each action.”
Because people’s definitions and understandings can vary so heavily, the lines of consent within some healing communities can be especially blurry because of how intimate and vulnerable clients get with practitioners – and because many modalities involve some kind of physical touch. But unlike many healing professions, there is no universal code of ethics or advisory board to keep breathwork practitioners accountable. This means it’s on us, the practitioners, to hold ourselves (and others) accountable for our actions.
It is our responsibility as practitioners to be crystal (pun intended) clear around our own boundaries while respecting others’. Setting and maintaining these boundaries doesn’t mean a person’s heart isn’t open or that they are closed-off to receiving love; this kind of thinking can be damaging and put pressure on clients to second-guess their boundaries in favor of being more “open.” Something I might find to be healing could be a terrifying trigger to someone else, and it would be irresponsible of me to assume that my boundaries are universally applicable to everyone I meet or work with. There’s only one way to confirm someone else’s needs, wants and boundaries – ask them. And don’t act on your intention until you receive an affirmative response.
It’s important to note that consent is an issue among practitioners, too. I’ve watched healers at trainings and group events get incredibly touchy-feely with new members of the community, and while there’s no way for me to know for sure if the interactions were non-consensual, I do know from my own experiences and those of my close friends that this kind of assumed consent is prevalent in the community:
I’m OK with a spontaneous backrub, so everyone else must be.
Having my hair played with feels amazing, so everyone else must love it, too.
Healers teach about love and connection, so anyone seeking healing should be cool with hugs.
Simply attending a vulnerable, intimate event like this implies consent, so I’m good to go.
And so are the defensive (and blaming) rationalizations if/when someone chooses to set a boundary:
I wasn’t doing anything wrong; I’m a massage therapist, so touching people is how I heal.
I can’t read people’s energy without physical contact. I thought you wanted to connect with me.
I could sense you were tense and thought I’d rub your shoulders; don’t be so closed off to receiving.
“What’s missing from these scenarios is affirmative consent and accountability,” Anne says. “As humans, we are prone to fuck stuff up and, frankly, most of us never learned what consent and boundaries really look like. What matters most here is how we handle the fuck-up, regardless of how uncomfortable it is, and vow to educate ourselves so we avoid repeating the same mistake.”
For those of you who are new to the concept of affirmative consent, or simply want to refresh your understanding, below are some helpful reminders for how to identify, practice, and receive affirmative consent.
- THEIR BODIES, THEIR RULES
Every person you work with, whether it’s a client or colleague, owns their body. It belongs to them and them only. It doesn’t matter if they’ve come to you for a massage, a breathwork session, a reiki session, crystal healing, past life regression, or anything else. Their body, their rules. They get to decide what is and isn’t appropriate for them.
Ask them how they’d prefer oils applied to their body, or how they feel about being touched or adjusted during a session. If they want the oils applied, but they don’t want touch, have them apply them on their own body. Maybe they’re comfortable with having their feet grounded but their hips are off limits.
Even if you’re drawn to touch them by your intuition, check in with the person first. If they say it’s not OK, then respect the boundary and move on. It’s not a rejection of your healing abilities, nor is it a personal affront. Even if you are 100% sure that the key to their healing is locked in their body, let them lead. Not only will it keep them safe, it will keep you safe, too.
“Working within your clients’ boundaries establishes trust and rapport, and you’d be surprised how beautifully a person can blossom once they’ve been introduced to an authentically safe, supported and client-centered healing environment,” Anne says.
- ALWAYS ASK FOR PERMISSION TO TOUCH
Always. It doesn’t matter if you’ve seen the client or colleague 1,000 times. Ask permission before you touch another person’s body. Get affirmative consent, which means they acknowledge “yes” to your touch.
“Silence is not consent; a shoulder shrug is not consent; ‘maybe’ is not consent,” Anne says. “If a client struggles to provide affirmative consent, that’s information for you – and an opportunity for them to practice in a safe environment with you as their healer. Empower them, encourage them, remind them that they get to decide what they want without outside pressure. And however they reply, thank them for taking the lead.”
If your client has replied with an affirmative “yes” response to your touch, it’s important that you next explain why you will be touching them and where. And remember: if they’ve consented to feet grounding, that does not mean you have free rein to open their hips or touch their throat.
NOTE: With breathwork healing, there is rarely a reason to go below the belt line (aside from grounding the feet) with touch. If there’s need to open up the hips or low back, touch outside of the client’s clothing, and only after consent is given. There is NEVER a time when touching a client’s genitals, or any area that could be mistaken for sexual stimulation, is part of the healing process.
- PAY ATTENTION TO NON-VERBAL CUES
This is a big one, and a reason why affirmative consent is so damn important. Our bodies are designed to keep us safe, often without our conscious control. The nervous system is designed to react involuntarily when it senses danger. Normally, we use our communication skills (the social engagement portion of the nervous system) to convey how we’re feeling through tone of voice, inflection, and facial movements. In times of danger, this system can fail, and the mobilizing portion of our nervous system activates (fight or flight) in order to protect us. If this doesn’t work (or hasn’t worked in the past under similar circumstances), the nervous system engages the freeze response. The fight/flight response and the freeze response cannot be active at the same time. Due to past trauma, a person very well may just freeze and be unable to respond with words, movement, or other clues that convey they’re not OK with what’s happening to them.
Let me repeat that: a person who feels unsafe or in danger may not be able to respond, communicate, or vocalize anything at all. This is why practitioners need to be extra vigilant of non-verbal cues. If a client doesn’t respond to your questions or request, don’t touch them. If they pull away from your touch even after they’ve given consent, respect it. Clients have the right to change their minds at any time. Check in with them, ask them to communicate what’s coming up for them, and respond accordingly. If at any time you’re not sure, air on the side of caution and don’t touch.
- BE CLEAR WITH YOUR INTENT
We’re humans with human reactions. It’s not uncommon to feel sexual attraction to one another. It’s a normal response to find clients attractive, but it’s important to acknowledge that within yourself, and be very clear with your intentions. Humans are sensitive and pick up intuitive signals, and if your touch is not coming from a genuine place, the client will likely pick up on it. They might not know exactly why, but they may feel uncomfortable or that something is “off.”
If you are touching clients, you must be crystal (pun intended again) clear with your touch and have no ulterior motives. Practitioners should NEVER touch a client in a sexual way. If you find yourself unable to remain objective due to physical and/or sexual attraction, refer your client to someone else. Help them find the help they need.
- SET AND KEEP APPROPRIATE BOUNDARIES
Clients come to us in all kinds of vulnerable states and are seeking help and healing. They can’t – and shouldn’t – hold the sole burden of boundary-setting. Hell, most clients likely aren’t able to set or maintain boundaries yet; trauma breaks down a person’s ability to successfully maintain appropriate boundaries, which is why it’s so important for professionals to set their own.
“It doesn’t matter if a client wants to stay in a session longer than the allotted time, or if they’ve literally asked for sexual touch – it’s your job to maintain the boundaries, especially when your client can’t,” Anne says.
This comes down to a simple dynamic of power. Clients are seeking assistance and you are there to provide it. For some clients, you may be the first person in their life who’s ever shown them unconditional love and support; you may even be the first person they’ve ever opened up to. This kind of exchange can often trigger feelings of attraction and desire, which is called erotic transference. This is not their (or your) fault, nor is it an opportunity for either of you to take the session to an inappropriate or unprofessional level.
The client/practitioner relationship is a sacred contract. You are there to help them, not take advantage of their vulnerabilities. Be aware of the power dynamic; honor the position you hold and the power you wield.