The other morning I woke to find an email in my inbox from a reporter at Salon.com. This reporter had found me on Psychology Today. She had read my piece on Naked Therapy: Seeing Through the Sartorial Signifiers of Our Shrinks for Psychology Today and she wondered if I would take a look at an article on Sarah White, "the birthday suit therapist". I quickly clicked over to read the article on the the 24-year-old-"therapist" whom has no degree, license or training as a therapist, save a few undergrad courses in psychology. This woman claims to use Skype, striptease and nakedness as her method of psychological change. White is quoted as saying, "Freud had dreams and I have nakedness." For $25 more an hour than I charge( and I have a M.A. in counseling psychology, years of training, post-grad education, a license AND a wardrobe) this woman is doing what she considers to be real therapy with men and women( The New York State licencing board may have a different opinion on her practicing without a license).
I was sure I was dreaming, I was both flattered to be contacted as an expert on the importance of metaphorical nakedness and aghast that this woman was engaging in something closer to"sex-work" and yet calling it psychotherapy. After reading the article I sat down to figure out how exactly I felt about this( at the time I was wearing pajamas, a sweatshirt and a Brooks Brothers robe). I had some thoughts and some feelings about all this nakedness. The first thing I felt, after worrying about the extremely unethical action that this woman was engaging in, and calling it therapy, and about the mental health of her patients, was a certain amount of anger. If I had just not bother to get dressed, if I had given up my wardrobe that I spend a lot of time, money and energy on, as well as my ethics and integrity, I too could have gotten major press( Wall Street Journal, NY Daily News, Salon.com, Fox News, etc), a full case load and $25 more an hour than I make. However, I prefer having a small case load, my ethics and the ability to actually do good work rather than fame and fortune for questionable practices . Once I got my envy out of the way I got to really thinking about this "Naked Therapy" and I put on my professional hat, shirt and other apparel of licensed and degreed expert, having written my thesis on The Genesis of Shame: The Fig Leaf of Fashion and Its Place in Psychotherapy I had a lot to say on the subject.
For me the most eye-grabbing issues that Sarah White's work arouses, beyond her lack of clothing, is her lack of training, education,experience or licence. This lack of professionalism and ethics leaves her and her patients exposed. Beyond that obvious and troubling issue is that the metaphor of nakedness is being literalized. Yes, it is important to show up to the work as a therapist with an emotional vulnerability and willingness to be somewhat transparent, and there are times when metaphorical nakedness is the best stance to take. But literally naked? That seems to be taking the metaphor a bit too far. I manage to be emotionally naked, when clinically necessary, with my clients even as I am wearing a turtleneck, a pencil skirt and opaque tights. No physical nakedness required for real naked honesty to occur. This kind of literalization of the metaphor isn't helpful to the work. And this work that Sarah White is doing isn't actually psycho-therapeutic work at all, it truly is closer to sex-work.
Freud developed the couch because he couldn't stand to be stared at for eight hours a day. He had scopophobia( fear of being looked at). Perhaps Ms. White has the opposite. Perhaps she wants to be stared at for eight hours a day. I feel sure Freud would have something to say about that, maybe something like "put your clothes on and stop making the therapy about you." he would also suggest she get a degree, a licence and a cardigan. It seems to me that the" therapist's" nakedness eclipses the patients attempts to expose whatever it is that brought them into therapy. It seems to me that a naked therapist is really wanting to be seen and in demanding so much space and attention in the session she doesn't allow space for the client to be emotionally naked( even as he or she remains fully dressed).There is a furthering of the power inequity in the fact that she is the one doing the stripping and here patients are relegated to the position of passive watching. That said, it would be no better if Ms. White was asking her patients to strip too. It would be even worse. Didn't that stuff happen in the 1970's in naked encounter groups?
Nakedness is often linked to the idea of extreme authenticity, and something to be worked towards as a therapeutic goal---however the dark side of nakedness is overexposure. Have you had the dream where you are naked in the midst of Time Square? No one has that dream, save a nudist or two and/or an exhibitionist, without describing it has terrifying and shame inducing. Nakedness can feel cold, shame inducing and so profoundly vulnerable that it feels like it might kill you and it creates the impulse to hide. If you are going to stick with the metaphor, this "naked therapy" models a kind of over-exposure for the patients. I don't want my patients to reveal all of their painful past or traumas too fast. I want them to have a warm and protective persona and covering and have something to retreat to in order to protect themselves. One needs a persona, one can't live in a place of complete nakedness---it's dangerous. I have had patients who came into therapy and initially they revealed more than they could tolerate and then they left feeling overexposed and ashamed. I tried to slow down their process but they were desperate to get emotionally naked. After the session was over they felt seriously over-exposed and would call to cancel therapy. On occasion I would hear from these patients later, they would call six months later, it could take that long or longer to feel safe to again re-approach their material.
Did you notice that last word I used, 'material'? I used that word advisably. That is what we work with in therapy, we work with material or psychic textiles, if you prefer. If there is no material there is nakedness.Clothes are a symbol of the mother, "Mater( ial)". And therapy without material brings to mind a sort of "motherless" therapy. The mother creates boundaries and is not a sexual object for her child. I feel certain that this kind of naked taboo breaking would inspire in patients desires for further taboo breaking( at the very least an amplification and an escalation of erotic transference).
Finally, Sarah White, if you're here and reading this, I have some unsolicited and therapeutic advice for you, here is a link to J.Crew, they have some lovely clothing---buy some and wear some. After you get some clothes on your back you might want to find a graduate school where you can pursue education and training that will serve your clients much better than this stunt therapy work that you're doing with your clients. Also, if I were in your naked shoes, I might want to look into what kind of needs you are getting met through this way of working. A good "well-dressed" therapist might help you understand yourself better and that is KEY to doing therapy, no matter what you're wearing.