When Beth* started therapy, she was shocked to find herself having sexual fantasies about her much older, cis male therapist. "I would go into the session and talk about my week and it would be like a switch would go off — a part of me would take over that felt almost sexually aggressive. I’d leave and think, Oh my God, what went on in there? It was like I’d become a totally different person in the room," she says.
Her experience isn’t unusual. Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychotherapy, first identified the phenomenon of erotic transference in 1915 and many others have explored the idea since. David Mann, a psychotherapist who has written books on the topic, explains erotic transference can show up in a variety of ways, from feelings of intense attraction to something more subtle or even anxiety-provoking. "Clients can feel tremendous inhibition around sexual excitement because of things that have happened in their life, so it isn't always something that's about pleasure," he explains. "Sometimes it evokes frustration, for example. They know I [the therapist] am out of reach. That I'm not going to break the boundary."
The idea behind transference is that relationship patterns from early life tend to repeat themselves in therapy, or in other areas of life. If you had a cold and critical father, for example, you may perceive your boss to be similarly disapproving. Or if your parents were unreliable, you might gravitate towards romantic partners who aren’t able to commit to you. In the intense, one-on-one environment of therapy, these repetitions are more likely to take place.
As Mann summarizes it: "They aren't your dad. They aren't your mother, but you behave as though they are." Most of the time, you do so unconsciously.
When these feelings are of a sexual or romantic nature, it doesn’t mean you have incestuous desires towards your parents, but it can relate to your early needs for connection. According to Erin Stevens, a psychotherapist and counselor, it’s a particularly common experience for people who didn’t get their emotional needs met when they were very young.
Kate* started therapy 18 months ago to work on her difficult relationships with the men in her life. She links her experience with erotic transference to her relationship with her father, of whom she saw very little throughout her childhood. Despite not initially being attracted to her therapist, as she got further into the therapy, she became aware of wanting him to fancy her and started to behave in ways she thought might arouse that interest.
"Some of it was talking about my sex life," she says. "I wondered whether he would find that exciting, or if it would make him imagine me in a sexual context."
Remembering some of the conversations she had with her father when she was young brought up parallels. As a child, Kate had tried to impress her dad by making up boyfriends, hoping to capture his attention. "He had these girlfriends," she recalls. "I could see the way he looked at them and, on some level, I felt like he was choosing them over me and they must be giving him something I couldn’t. I got this idea in my mind that when I grew up, if I wanted to keep a man’s interest it had to be through meeting his sexual needs." These insights didn’t come overnight but were the result of a slower unpacking with her therapist, who she decided to speak to about what was going on.
Broaching your erotic feelings with your therapist is not at all inappropriate, says Stevens, and it can be a useful route to understanding more about yourself. However, it can be a difficult thing to do, as Beth found. "There was a lot of shame attached to it for me," she explains. "I felt so bad about myself for thinking these thoughts and like there was no way I could talk about them to anyone. Even speaking about it now, I still feel a bit like that." This led to her leaving therapy without ever raising the subject.
For some therapists, the feelings of discomfort can be mutual. When Mann started his therapy training, clients would bring their erotic transference to him and he found it difficult to know how to respond. "I didn’t know what to say or how to deal with it," he admits. "And I think in my early years of training that inhibited me and got in the way of my clients’ development."
Almost 40 years on, and with two books on erotic transference under his belt, he now welcomes clients discussing these themes, but he’s acutely aware that not all therapists are confident in this area. And it’s important to note that some types of therapy don’t see it as an important focus. If you’re doing cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which focuses more on how thoughts and beliefs affect your feelings and behavior, you’re unlikely to delve into the topic. Or, as Stevens says, if you’re there to talk about something like a workplace issue, it may not feel necessary.
Unfortunately, a small minority of therapists may even respond in damaging ways. For Stevens, although discussing erotic transference can be illuminating for the client, it can cause harm if it’s not handled well by the therapist. Red flags to look out for would be a shaming response, or if they tell you they reciprocate the feelings and try to instigate a change in the relationship. With the inherent power imbalance present, this would destroy the therapy and be highly unethical on the therapist’s part.
A therapist’s primary job, Stevens says, should be to give a client an experience of being able to bring their full self. "Many people will come to therapy really reserved about what they'll reveal because they're used to having experiences of being told their feelings are too much. So bringing things like this into the conversation should be honored with respect by the therapist," she says. It’s also important for therapists to normalize these feelings, as erotic transference is fairly common. "After all, it's a very intense relationship where the therapist’s focus is on you. How often do we get that kind of intimate and focused contact in a one-on-one environment?"
For Kate, talking about her erotic transference with her therapist has been transformational.
"It feels like it's opened up a part of my experience that was largely unexplored," she says. "I feel freer in the relationship with him now and like I can bring more of myself. A big thing that had been kept in the shadows has now been put into the open in a way that feels very needed. It’s ongoing and there’s a lot more to be revealed from it, but I’m happy to feel that I can face it."
*Name changed to preserve anonymity