No to Heavy Breathers: Counsellors have a right to sexual boundaries

Therapist Sam Hope explores the way we respond to calls and inquiries made for sexual gratification

Content warning for discussion of non-consensual sexual communications and behaviours, and some coarse language

A counsellor posts a concern on a counselling forum. A prospective new client is approaching her via text message and something seems “off” about the way he discloses sexual content in his communications. It makes her uncomfortable. She reaches out for advice, and a number of other therapists suggest she needs to do some work on her attitudes around sex, telling her not to shame the client but empathise with him, and all but labelling her a prude. She feels uncomfortable with this but swallows her discomfort and tries to stick with the communication, which becomes increasingly inappropriate.

A volunteer on a helpline realises a caller is masturbating while speaking to them. They want to terminate the call, but they were trained to “be prepared to listen and offer empathy” to calls of a sexual nature, and no mention was made of the frequent “wank calls” that come into the helpline. They worry that terminating the call would be frowned on, but when they go home that night, they realise they never want to go back. They feel violated and cannot sleep.

The scenarios above are common. Recent discussions of this article, “Befriending Heavy Breathers” about the “Brenda” system historically used by Samaritans highlighted to just how far we have to go to understand the context of this issue. Too often we are encouraged to empathise with the perpetrators of these behaviours to the extent that their victims are entirely disregarded.

Former Samaritans have shared their uncomfortable tales of dealing with these callers and how they were left feeling by gloating perpetrators who were delighted to have conned them into staying on the line. These volunteers denounced the former Samaritans culture, described in the article, that sought to support and empathise with those seeking gratification. While the policy assumed these callers were lost souls reaching out, those on the receiving end were convinced they were non-consensually being used as a free “sex line”.

The article itself labels as “prudishness” a policy change away from asking volunteers to empathise with telephone masturbators and keep them on the line. I have seen this attitude echoed by some therapists, who talk of “passion” and “liberation of sexuality”. The implication running through this discourse is that counsellors and volunteers who hold clear boundaries around client’s inappropriate and non-consensual sexual behaviour are being sex-negative and shaming of the clients. But to me, this is a sinister conflation of sexuality with sexual violence – to paraphrase a common meme, it’s like hitting someone with a frying pan and calling it cuisine.

There is no sex positivity without a culture of explicit consent

What’s missing here is that not holding clear boundaries around sexual consent has nothing to do with sex positivity and has everything to do with upholding rape culture.

When someone chooses to engage in a sexual act with another person that didn’t consent to it, this is a violation of their sexual boundaries. Without exception. Enduring a non-consensual sexual communication can be traumatising for the recipient, especially if they are made to feel that their discomfort or upset are signs they are a prude, unprofessional, uncaring, or not sex-positive. When we are victims of a sexual crime, what we need above all is others’ empathy and belief.

These sex offences are akin to a flasher in the park. Nobody’s going to ask a victim to strike up a conversation with a random flasher and try to help them (I hope), but the context of counselling or helpline work means the victim’s empathy is used against them to prevent them from feeling able to say no.

But it is vital that sex offenders hear “no”, hear it often, and have that “no” given as much power as possible. That is how we change rape culture.

But holding clear sexual boundaries and communicating the necessity of consent are sidelined in this discourse, replaced by some ill-conceived notion of offering an empathic, non-shaming approach, often at the expense of the practitioner’s congruence. Instead of “it’s good to ensure sex offenders understand their behaviour is unsafe and are given clear boundaries” we hear “don’t make the person feel bad about what they’re doing”.

Some people wrongly assume that what lies behind the perpetrator’s offending behaviour is unresolved pain rather than simply a choice to seek gratification in a society that is too tolerant of them doing so in this way. I am not saying they don’t have problems, but that committing offences is not an inevitable consequence of having problems – they are still responsible for their choices.

The dominant narrative suggests that setting boundaries is an act of repression, when in fact what is being repressed here is the ability to have clear and healthy boundaries around sex. Although I hold the individuals responsible for their actions, the context – a voluntary and professional framework that has enabled helpline workers and counsellors to be used against their will for sexual gratification – needs to be understood as contributing to the problem.

For those tempted by the idea that we can help the perpetrators by being “kind” rather than boundaried, I’d remind readers that rehabilitating offenders is complex and specialist work, at the heart of which is some very clear and detailed work around contracting and boundaries. Also, the perpetrator needs to be actively seeking help and committed not to offend.

The naïve onlooker may collude to try and “destigmatise” the perpetrator (and in doing so, stigmatise the victim), but both perpetrator and victim know in their bones that the act is a transgression, an assault on the victim’s boundaries. That’s the whole point of it for the perpetrator. The perpetrator takes pleasure in the victim’s discomfort and the power they have to hold the victim in an unwanted interaction. Like most crimes of this nature, it is about power and control.

For the victim, they may experience all the same responses they would from any other sexual offence committed against them, while finding their colleagues denying, minimising or laying blame around the impact and inviting them to “work on their issues” rather than allowing them to see clearly that their boundaries have been violated.

What can the practitioner do if they receive such calls?

First, trust your instincts if the communication feels inappropriate. Some perpetrators claim to be members of marginalised groups (particularly LGBT+) in order to hook the responder’s desire to be open-minded. They speak compellingly of repressed sexual desire, and the practitioner’s empathy is hooked. There may be no truth at all to the stories they share. But they can use any discomfort you may have around LGBT+ issues against you – if you know you’re still working on these issues, you might not be able to pinpoint your discomfort, so it’s important to do some work on this.

Second, remember congruence is a core condition as much as empathy. You’ll be no help to anyone if you bypass your congruence in an attempt to offer empathy. Congruence is, first and foremost, staying in contact with yourself and your own needs, feelings, and boundaries in relation to the client/caller. Sometimes, it’s appropriate to be congruent with the caller and say, for example, “I’m going to have to terminate this call as I don’t feel comfortable with it continuing, but if you’d like me to get a male colleague to call you back, I will”.

Third, be clear and explicit about what service you’re offering and where the boundaries are. This is particularly useful with client inquiries, where a very clear laying out of boundaries can be both sensitive and firm. “I’m sorry, I am unable to discuss client issues via text as I need to work within the framework of a therapeutic session”, will put off most perpetrators, but if they persist in arranging a session, you can say “on reflection, I don’t think I’m the right therapist for you”.

Whatever you do, don’t be tempted to try and work with a client who makes you feel this uncomfortable. If some of that discomfort is related to prejudices about a marginalised group, you need to take that to supervision and do some CPD work, but you’re still not going to be the right therapist for them. Our clients are not there to help us work through our issues. Always trust your gut.

On a helpline where you’re talking directly to a perpetrator, it should be okay to say “This helpline is for [issue] and I don’t think this call is about that, so I’m going to free up the line for another caller.” If there is a culture of shaming workers or volunteers for terminating these calls (and trust me, I have been that helpline volunteer), it may not be a safe place to work.

These types of perpetrators can be very manipulative, so holding steady takes a lot of work, but you won’t be helping anyone by getting pulled into their process. It is like counselling someone when they’re drunk – even if there’s meaningful interaction in there somewhere, the client is in enough of an altered state that any work done is not going to carry through into the rest of their life.

Let’s not forget also we are infantilising these clients by assuming they don’t know what they want – “they think they want to masturbate, but really they need therapy” is hardly respecting of client autonomy.

Finally, if you’re comfortable with such communications, remember that you’re working within a particular culture where you signalling your comfort might perpetuate a problem, especially if you or anyone else makes a virtue of it. Consider how you might be (subtly or otherwise) shaming colleagues for their own discomfort, and consider how your caller, having achieved their gratification goals with you, might be encouraged to do so again with someone else.

Also, please consider this: unless you verbally contracted with the client to have an interaction that included their sexual gratification, it continues to be non-consensual however much you go along with it or try to show empathy for it. Not saying no does not mean you consented to this, and the perpetrator knows this.

Call these communications what they are – non-consensual sexual communications, and please make sure your empathy is directed towards the victims, not the perpetrators, unless you are working within a well evidenced and resourced service for perpetrators. By all means offer understanding of their behaviour in the abstract or within appropriately boundaried spaces, but do not ask their victims to empathise with them while their boundaries are being violated.

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