Non-erotic touch is a form of physical contact between a therapist and client that does not involve sexual stimulation. It is used to communicate, enhance therapeutic alliance and comfort clients. It is usually a gentle touch.
Therapists should exercise caution when using touch with clients who have paranoid or borderline personality characteristics. They also need to be aware that certain types of touch can trigger negative emotional responses.
It is a form of boundary crossing
Numerous social, cultural, political and professional forces affect the use of touch in psychotherapy. Some therapists are uncomfortable with any form of touch while others feel that touching is necessary for therapeutic effectiveness. Various studies have indicated that nonerotic touch can be therapeutic and should be part of a counselor’s toolbox. However, therapists must be aware of the risks involved in using touch.
Nonerotic touch is a form of physical contact that is not sexual in nature and is used to help clients become more aware of their body. It can also be used to establish a therapeutic relationship and facilitate communication. This type of touch is often referred to as “grounding” or “reorientation” touch. This type of touch is useful for clients who are dissociated or anxious. It is often used by family therapists. It may also be helpful for clients with trauma histories.
In general, there is a tendency in Western culture to sexualize all forms of touch. This can be a major barrier to understanding and using touch in therapy. The sexualization of touch contributes to a perception that any touching in therapy is inappropriate and potentially dangerous. This is especially true for women who are more likely to have negative experiences with touching. One study by Geib (1982) found that four factors influence a client’s evaluation of touch: the congruence of the touch with the therapy session; clarity regarding boundaries in the session; and, a feeling of being in control of the touch.
It is a form of communication
Touch is a powerful form of communication that can convey a host of emotions. However, many therapists struggle with how to use it in an ethical and therapeutic manner. They may not know where to draw the line between appropriate and inappropriate touch. This is especially true for therapists who work with clients who have experienced trauma or abuse in their past. Touch can be a confusing and frightening experience for these clients.
In some cases, touching can be used to prevent a client from hurting himself or herself. For example, a therapist might gently restrain a client who is aggressive, drunk or suicidal. In other cases, it might be used to stop a child from hitting or scratching himself. These types of touching are a necessary part of the treatment process and should be considered carefully.
Many therapists believe that nonerotic touching is important in psychotherapy. They also feel that it has the potential to be healing for their clients. They also feel that it is necessary to include touch in their training and clinical supervision. While some therapists have difficulty with the idea of touching a client, others embrace it as an essential part of the therapeutic process. These therapists are likely to subscribe to humanistic or psychodynamic philosophies of therapy. In contrast, therapists who do not touch their clients are more likely to favor a medical model of therapy.
It is a form of empathy
In the field of psychotherapy, numerous cultural, political, religious and professional forces contribute to a general sense that non-erotic touch in therapy is inappropriate or even dangerous. These forces result in taboos regarding touch that are not only misguided but also inhibit the use of physical touch as an important tool for therapeutic work. The general Western culture’s tendency to sexualize all forms of touching facilitates confusion about the difference between medical, non-erotic and erotic or sexual types of touch (Lazarus & Zur, 2002).
Non-erotic touch can be used by therapists for many reasons: as a greeting, as a way to comfort clients who are grief-stricken or in despair, as a means to ground clients in the present moment, as part of certain experiential exercises such as family sculpture and psychodrama and as a form of empathy during emotional verbal psychotherapy. Generally, these types of touches are made with the explicit consent of the client.
Geib’s phenomenological study indicated that four factors influence the positive or negative evaluations of clients regarding touch by their therapists: the congruence between intent and impact; clarity about boundaries in therapy; the client’s sense that they control the touch and its meaning and, finally, whether the therapist demonstrates empathy with his/her touch. The latter is particularly important because the therapist’s intention can vary significantly from how the touch is experienced by the client.
It is a form of safety
Touch is a highly effective, nonverbal form of safety for clients and therapists. However, it is often misunderstood. This is partly because of the cultural taboos surrounding touch and the sexualization of any touch that is not sexual. It is also partly because therapists have different beliefs about appropriate touch. Some therapists believe that touching is essential to therapeutic work and that it promotes the development of a healthy relationship. Others are concerned about the possibility of sexual misconduct.
The human potential movement of the 1960s endorsed appropriate, non-erotic touch. Rogers, for example, described how he soothed clients by holding them and kissing them. Moreover, the Gestalt therapy approach utilizes various forms of touch as an integral part of the healing process. In addition, there are a number of studies that indicate that touching is a crucial element in building the therapeutic alliance.
Nevertheless, many therapists have concerns about touching their clients, especially those who are new to the profession. This is because they may be worried that the client could misunderstand their intention and misinterpret a simple handshake or hug as a sexual overture. However, avoidance of touch based on fear is unethical. It is important to remember that a therapist is not paid to protect themselves but to help and heal their clients. Avoiding touch purely out of fear violates the ethical principle of nonmaleficence, which is addressed in the ACA Code of Ethics (Zur and Nordmarken, 2006). It may also prevent the therapist from providing the client with the necessary protection.