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For men who were sexually abused or assaulted, here are some tips on seeking professional help from a therapist.
There are several important principles of treatment that anyone seeking good professional help in dealing with the effects of unwanted or abusive sexual experiences should know about.
While this article is not exhaustive, here are some crucial tips to help with interviewing potential therapists and reflecting on one’s experiences in treatment.
Reflecting on these principles can be particularly helpful at the beginning of therapy, while establishing trust, as well as later on when challenging things come up in the process.
Not all professional therapists are competent to provide treatment to men who have had unwanted or abusive sexual experiences, or with particular problems related to such experiences. Competence requires, but is not guaranteed by (1) extensive experience and training in work with people suffering from negative effects of such experience, or (2) ongoing supervision with a more senior and qualified therapist.
A core experience of unwanted or abusive sexual experiences is disempowerment: one’s needs, choices, and wishes (including not to be used) are ignored and trampled upon. Because such experiences involve betrayal of trust by a more powerful person, it is essential that the therapy not repeat this pattern by disempowering the client.
Thus good treatment is not something that a professional requires the client to accept and comply with, as what’s been called the medical model of therapy tends to assume. Therapists with this approach or attitude are much less likely to be helpful, and could cause harm.
Rather, the client must be educated about the treatment process and informed of options. Basically, he should be involved as a partner in setting treatment goals and decisions about how to go about achieving them. (There are exceptions, of course, in cases where clients are at immediate risk to harm themselves or others and unable to make safe choices on their own; however, even then, the client should be given as many options and choices as possible.)
Two other principles related to the therapist working to empower the client are worth noting here:
Disconnection is another core component of experience of unwanted or abusive sexual experiences in childhood. Thus a therapist must be capable of connecting with her or his client, that is, capable of being present as a fellow human being with genuine relatedness and empathy.
However, anyone in therapy, especially people who’ve been deeply hurt and betrayed in their lives, are sometimes unable to accurately perceive the therapist, and may project onto the therapist their own difficulties connecting (or those of a person who used or abused them sexually, or an unprotecting parent).
Also, connection does not mean closeness or intimacy in the traditional sense of non-therapy relationships. Boundaries between the therapist and client are absolutely essential. Therapists who share too much of their own experience, become over-involved or engaged in “rescue missions” are not helping their clients; they’re violating the principle of disinterestedness by trying to use the client and the relationship to meet their own needs. This can do tremendous damage to the therapy relationship, disempower the client, prevent healing, and even re-traumatize the client.
Because the therapy relationship can be an intense experience at times, and involves addressing vulnerable areas of one’s life, it is absolutely necessary that the relationship is bounded by a frame. This can be understood as the collection of ground rules that create consistency and stability in several dimensions of the relationship. In this way, the frame ensures that the therapy relationship can be safe and healing.
Elements of the therapeutic frame include the length of sessions, starting and ending on time, cancellation and payment procedures, confidentiality and its limits, etc.
The frame helps ensure that the relationship will be a healing one, in which expectations can be established and clarified, boundaries can be maintained, and intense emotions, memories and other experiences can be contained and managed.
Much more could be said about principles of therapy or counseling. The point here has been to spell out a few important ones. Please know it is your right to ask potential therapists to describe the principles that guide their work with people who have had experiences and problems like yours.