Human sexuality - New World Encyclopedia

Human sexuality is the expression of sexual sensation and related intimacy between human beings

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Non-erotic or non-sexual touch in therapy, like any other form of non-verbal communication, can complement, negate, reinforce or alter verbal communication in general and in therapy (Geib, 1982; Horton et al., 1998; Phalan, 2009; Smith et al, 1998; Young, 2005; Zur, 2007a, 2007b). Many of our clients, like people in general, are often more attuned to non-verbal cues such as body language and touch rather than to verbal communication (Givens, 2004). The quality of attunement between client and therapist is of utmost importance regarding the meaning of non-verbal cues and will determine the clients' response to touch.

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If one accepts the slippery slope and the power differential hypotheses, it readily leads to a conclusion such as that of Strasburger, et al. (1992), who stated, "Obviously, the best advice to therapists is not to start [down] the slippery slope, and to avoid boundary violations or dual relationships with patients" (pp. 547-548). Similarly, Woody (1988) asserted, "In order to minimize the risk of sexual conduct, policies must prohibit a practitioner from having any contact with the client outside the treatment context and must preclude any type of dual relationships" (p. 188). The slippery slope solution to the power differential 'problem' is for therapists to focus on risk management and stay neutral and emotionally distant from their clients and to avoid even clinically beneficial interventions, such as self-disclosure, bartering, gifts, appropriate non-sexual touch or benign or clinically beneficial dual relationships.

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Harlow took Bowlby's theory to the lab when he researched the importance of touch by conducting direct experimental analysis of the "affectional or love responses in neonatal and infant primates" (Harlow, 1958, p.3). He chose rhesus macaque monkeys as subjects for his analysis, as they share ninety-four percent of their genetic heritage with humans. The monkeys were offered access to two surrogate mothers: a "soft" terrycloth mother that was warmed by a light bulb that provided a positive tactile experience, and a wire mother with a bottle attached to it for feeding. The infants spent only the amount of time necessary for feeding with the wire mother and when left alone with her would cower in a corner. When given the choice of both mothers, they would cling to the "soft" mother for up to twenty-two hours a day and, in contrast, when left alone with her, would give her a few hugs and then felt secure enough to explore a strange object on their own. "These data make it obvious that contact comfort is a variable of overwhelming importance in the development of affectional response, whereas lactation is a variable of negligible importance" (Harlow, 1958, p.6). His observations of infant monkeys separated from their mothers at birth fundamentally changed our views. He discovered two very important things about development. Firstly, "comfort contact proved to be a more significant parenting quality than feeding... and... touch, not food, binds infant to caregiver" (Heller, 1997, p.55). The second finding was that even those monkeys that were reared on the soft mother, as adults, were neurotic, asocial, autistically self-stimulating, self-mutilating, and sexually inept. Subsequent studies involved providing the infants with a rocking surrogate. The infants in this study showed fewer abnormal developmental indicators. Normal functioning occurred, however, only in infants who were given contact with another live monkey for just one half hour a day. They needed interactive touch to support normal development.

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Feminist therapists seem to have two camps when it comes to issues of boundaries, including touch. The more vocal, politically and professionally active faction focuses on issues of power, male dominance, sexuality, and oppressive patriarchal values. Predictably, they take a strong stance against most boundary crossings and dual relationships and advocate for the protection of, what they see as, vulnerable female clients sexually exploited by powerful male therapists. Borys, Bouhoutsos, Brown, Keith-Spiegel, Jorgenson, Kitchener, Sonne, and Vasquez are some of the authors who tend to align with this ideology (Zur, 2005). Alyn (1998) describes a kind of touch hierarchy in which it is more likely for a person of higher status to touch someone of lower status than the converse. In this context any touch, even non-sexual touch by male therapists of women clients is seen as disempowering and therefore harmful to women. The much less vocal faction of feminist therapy focuses on essential issues of inclusion, connection, mutuality, self-disclosure, and equality. The focus of these writers, as manifested in the important work of Greenspan (1995) and some contributions by The Stone Institute and The Feminist Therapy Institute (1987), relate how healing often entails tearing down rigid, arbitrary, professional boundaries rather than erecting them. Along these lines, appropriate touch, which is congruent with the therapist-client relationship, is seen as potentially healing.

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National surveys document that most therapists exchange inexpensive gifts, engage in appropriate, nonsexual touch and almost all self-disclose (e.g., Borys & Pope, 1989; Johnston & Farber, 1996; Pope, Tabachnick, & Keith-Spiegel, 1987). Some of the same surveys also report that between 0.9% and 12.1% of male therapists and between 0.2% and 3% of female therapists have engaged in sexual acts with clients. The discrepancy between the majority of therapists who use boundary crossing to increase effectiveness of treatment and the small minority who commit boundary violations does not lend support to the slippery slope idea that boundary crossings are likely to lead to boundary violations.

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The human potential movement and the humanistic movement of the 1960s introduced a whole new approach to touch and boundaries in therapy. This movement endorsed appropriate non-erotic touch and viewed it as an enhancement of the therapist-client connection (Bonitz, 2008; Hunter & Struve, 1998). Rogers (1970) discusses the value of touch and describes specifically how he has soothed clients by holding, embracing and kissing them. Gestalt therapy incorporates numerous forms of touch as an integral part of therapy (Perls 1973). Gestalt practitioners place a special importance on non-verbal communication and non-verbal intervention. Unfortunately, Gestalt practices in the 60's and early 70's, under Perls' leadership went too far and at times, included unethical sexual touch in conjunction with therapy (Hunter & Struve, 1998). Lazarus and Zur (2002) note how the promiscuous practices in the 1960s around touch, nudity and sexuality have resulted in some form of backlash, where touch and other boundary crossings have since been viewed as harmful.