Academic journal article Journal of Mental Health Counseling

Faculty and Student Curricular Experiences of Nonerotic Touch in Counseling

Academic journal article Journal of Mental Health Counseling

Faculty and Student Curricular Experiences of Nonerotic Touch in Counseling

Article excerpt

This phenomenological study explored both faculty and student curricular experiences of nonerotic touch in counseling. Data analysis demonstrated that counselor educators experienced uncertainty and apprehension in training students on the use of nonerotic touch. Students received inadequate training and internalized an assortment of conceptualizations about whether to touch in counseling, which caused them confusion, frustration, and insecurity. The emergent themes of this research mirrored empirical and theoretical research and strengthened the case for improving the training mental health counselors receive on the topic of nonerotic touch.


Touch is one of the most vital senses and a requirement for the healthy development of humans across the lifespan (Kertay & Reviere, 1993). This truth has contributed to a belief in the healing power of physical touch that is still present today in many cultures and health professions, including counseling (Frank, 1974). Nonerotic touch has had a role in counseling since the emergence of psychoanalysis in the late 1800s. Freud initially valued touch in therapy, stroking the client's neck or forehead to increase receptiveness to hypnotic suggestion, but soon rejected this practice in favor of a therapeutic stance of detachment (Strozier, Krizek, & Sale, 2003). Freud's rejection of nonerotic touch permeated psychotherapy and laid a foundation for the widespread touch taboo (Horton, Clance, Sterk-Elifson, & Emshoff, 1995).

Freud's rejection of touch met with resistance from psychoanalysts like Sandor Ferenczi, who placed great value on the powerful therapeutic effect touch could produce (Toronto, 2002). Ferenczi's departure from Freud sparked a debate over the appropriateness of physical contact between counselor and client. Beyond prohibitions against sexual contact, physical touch in the therapeutic milieu continues to generate controversy (Alyn, 1988; Willison & Masson, 1986).

As Stenzel and Rupert (2004) reported, the controversy about nonerotic touch is both theoretical and ethical. The theoretical perspectives span a continuum from strict exclusion of all physical contact to advocacy for its use (Alyn, 1988; Durana, 1998; Holder, 1982; Hunter & Struve, 1998a; Leijssen, 2006; Willison & Masson, 1986). Studies addressing ethical issues and guidelines relevant to nonerotic touch consider the potential for exploitation, because touch may distort therapeutic boundaries or be misinterpreted by the client (Holub & Lee, 1990). Like the theoretical perspectives, ethical guidelines demonstrate a lack of clarity and consensus and leave it up to clinicians to "rely on their own best clinical judgment" (Durana, p. 279). Although some recent studies offer concrete guidelines for using nonerotic touch (Bonitz, 2008; Hunter & Struve, 1998) and define different types of touch within psychotherapy (Zur, 2007), they have not produced significant change within counseling curriculums or codes of ethics.

Other studies have gone beyond theoretical perspectives and ethical guidelines. In an empirical study, Hubble, Noble, and Robinson (1981) discovered that clients who were touched perceived their counselors as more expert than those who were not touched. Another study affirming the use of touch (Driscoll, Newman, & Seals, 1988) revealed that participants who observed counselors touching their clients rated those counselors as more caring than those who did not do so. Suiter and Goodyear (1985), however, found that counselors who engaged their clients in a semi-embrace were perceived as less trustworthy; and Bacorn and Dixon (1984) and Stockwell and Dye (1980) both found that the presence or absence of touch did not affect ratings of the counselor or counseling.

Several studies sought to capture participants' attitudes and perceptions regarding nonerotic touch. Pope, Tabachnick, and Keith-Spiegel (1987) surveyed 456 members of the psychotherapy division of the American Psychological Association and found that 41. …

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