Part One of a Three Part Series on Sex and Power
Recently a beloved mentor confessed on facebook that he was “sexually irresponsible” with current and former students. He states that although they were “consenting,” many later regretted the experience, sharing they felt pressured or confused by his power as the leader of their counseling and coach training program. In his confession he sounds genuinely confused that the consent was not actual consent. Those of us in power positions with ethics codes may be dubious as there are clear restrictions for us around sex with students and clients because of the extreme vulnerability involved and the high potential for confusion and power abuse. And he himself had rules around this for his assistant leaders, rules which he decided he didn’t need to follow.
There is Safety in boxes….
And yet I believe he somehow hid all of this from his consciousness. What would cause this conscientious man, one of the wisest, most loving healers I know to have such a gigantic blind spot? He successfully helped us–his students–break free from so many limiting boxes and beliefs. Perhaps he busted through a few boxes too many, beyond the edge of where one should go? Perhaps there are some boxes (i.e. not mixing counseling, sex, and psychedelics) that should always be left intact. Or perhaps he mixed these things successfully and powerfully with some, and this mix went horribly wrong with others. As psychologists our first responsibility is to Do No Harm but to what extreme do we go to in the cautious direction to avoid this, and what important healing is missed when we do? Do we never text our clients heart emojis or hold them when they weep?
Breaking free from many boxes has allowed me to become a powerful healer, yet his fall has me questioning where to draw the line. Many of the facebook comments below his admission are folks who feel vindicated in abiding their fear: “I knew there was something wrong with this program when I saw all of the inappropriate cuddling,” or “That’s what happens with polyamory…when you trust people with your secrets….when you get vulnerable…etc.” Does the harm that transpired from freer boundaries supercede the intimacy and transformation we gained from all of that wildish counseling?
The brighter the light, the darker the shadow…
Certainly some deep wounds and unexamined shadow played a role in my mentor’s transgressions. And certainly some arrogance as well. He was put on a pedestal by the better half of 150+ students annually for six years, with no one in any equal power positions within his created institute to challenge him. I know he was warned and thought he was beyond his own rules.
Yet calling him a sexual predator preempts us from having to look too deeply at our own shadows. My unique wound constellation may lead to different transgressions, but given the amount of power my mentor had–if unchecked and unexamined–I would almost certainly be the author of some particular fallout. It’s terrifying getting bigger, everything unfolds bigger, on a bigger stage, including the unveiling of one’s darkest, slimiest, most destructive shadow. What will it be for me and how can I avoid it?
And will there be room for my shadow in the community at large? Not only did my mentor teach me ferocity, boundaries, and the ability to tune into myself and say no, he also created a healing space where there was love available for all the nooks and crannies of shadow. We took turns pulling out the gunk from deeper and deeper pits of shame, asking, “How about this? Do you love me still?” and the answer was always yes. We literally got naked together and one by one stood in front of the group, and every terrible secret was compassionately held.
Because of my mentor’s transgressions this community is shattered. But I can’t help imagining–beyond many months and likely years of healing–being in that room again, hot with sweaty anxiety and salty air from the sea. We are many months in. The tribe has been formed and the circle is strong. One by one the women who were harmed tell their stories and we understand; almost all of us, women anyways, have been there. There is much weeping. The women have had plenty of time to let the magma of their anger flow in safe places far away from here and my mentor. Their anger was validated, harnessed to good use, and well held. They’ve had time to understand the nuances of what transpired, including their roles, and my mentor has been sufficiently ostracized, squeezed of all hubris, and chosen the brave path of scrutinizing, healing, and dismantling the mechanisms that led to harm.
This time it’s my mentor who is the counselee. With open hearts and humility we look him in the eyes with love and prepare to hear his story.