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Beware of Creeps Requesting Video Consults

Video therapy consults increase access but may expose you to risk.

Key points

  • Video consults and therapy have greatly increased access to counseling and support.
  • Many female-identified providers are experiencing deceptive encounters with individuals who engage in nonconsensual exhibitionist behaviors.
  • Providers who experience these violations should seek support and consider law enforcement reports rather than blaming themselves.
  • Good screening strategies such as a nominal payment or identity verification may help reduce some of these risks.
Image by Tumisu from Pixabay
Source: Image by Tumisu from Pixabay

Video Therapy–A Mixed Blessing

Over the past couple of years, remote telehealth counseling services have skyrocketed, providing increased access to millions of people needing therapy and counseling. Unfortunately, that increased access has also created windows of opportunity for persons with ill intent to exploit.

During the pandemic, we saw the troubling trend of “Zoombombing,” where meetings were spammed with pornography, profanity, anti-Semitic and racist diatribes. In some cases, the Zoombombing involves people exposing themselves to unwitting, non-consenting audiences.

A more personal form of this has been occurring with therapists who offer services by video. As far as I’m aware, this is primarily occurring with female-identified therapists and involves male perpetrators. A colleague said:

I got a request for a therapy consult with a new couple. My standard practice is to do a video meeting with new patients for about 20-30 minutes to get to know each other and see if it is a good fit. But, when the consult started, it was just the male.

He said that his wife had stepped out of the room and would be back in a minute. Then, he immediately started in with graphic language about how he would have sex with his wife while I watched.

I tried to explain that wasn’t what sex therapy was. Before I could get any words out, he stood up and exposed himself to me. I just froze. Finally, I closed my laptop and just felt gross and violated. When I went back, I found that the email and phone numbers he’d used were fake.

As I’ve written before, therapists and coaches who provide services related to sexuality are unfortunately at greater risk of being targeted by such perpetrators simply by virtue of marketing themselves with information about sexuality.

A coach who specializes in working with people trying to integrate kink into their lives in healthy ways was supporting a male who had complained of experiencing spontaneous and troubling orgasms.

During the second video session, he moved the camera and revealed he was masturbating as they talked. The coach hung up the video call but then worried that she’d overreacted. She felt violated but worried that maybe he was innocent, ignorant, or socially clumsy.

Unfortunately, this can also happen with non-clinicians. A well-known female writer with several books on sexuality was contacted on social media by a man she’d met at high-society cocktail parties. He requested help with a better understanding of how to sexually satisfy his wife. As they talked, he explained that he was moving into a private room, so they could talk more easily.

I heard noises and rustling I couldn’t understand at first. I ignored it, but then I saw his arm moving as we were talking, and that’s when I realized he was masturbating while we talked. I hung up the call, disgusted. I don’t know what I’m going to do next time I see him at a party, much less his wife.

What to Do if This Happens to You

As I’ve consulted and supervised women who’ve experienced these violations, I’ve heard many of them describe that they felt like they’d done something wrong, that they’d made mistakes, missed things, or somehow let people think these behaviors were somehow okay. Sadly, this is one of the evil strategies used by perpetrators to avoid responsibility for their actions.

By subtly encouraging their victims to feel personally responsible or confused, these men can continue to engage in these behaviors. If this happens to you, it’s not your fault. It’s the responsibility of the men who are violating your rights and consent and engaging in a form of sexual assault.

I teach people that if they experience such an encounter, they should give themselves permission to struggle:

  • You can just hang up. You don’t have to worry about being professional or therapeutic. Don’t worry that you’re being rude.
  • Get help and support. Reach out to colleagues or supervisors to get personal support, and know that you’re not alone in these awful experiences. This may also help your colleagues avoid these experiences. I’ve seen that many of these perpetrators will contact different therapists and coaches in a shotgun-type approach, looking for who responds. By sharing information, these repeat offenders might be interrupted. The Sexual Health Alliance has included information on these risks in their training for all sexuality health professionals.
  • Consider making reports to law enforcement. These actions may involve criminal behavior and violations of your consent. Police may be able to track this individual down, press charges, and prevent future behaviors.
Image by Tumisu from Pixabay
Source: Image by Tumisu from Pixabay

Strategies to Reduce the Risk of These Experiences

While sole responsibility for these nonconsensual behaviors lies on the shoulders of the perpetrators, there may be ways to reduce your personal exposure to these types of experiences:

  • Some therapists deliberately take their time responding to unsolicited contacts. Some perpetrators present with a high level of desperation, using this feigned need to induce the provider to respond more quickly out of sympathy. Going slowly may help fend off requests from individuals seeking impulsive, immediate gratification.
  • If you offer free video consults, consider making a nominal charge for these. If the individuals have to give you a credit card number and mailing address in order to schedule with you, this may ward off individuals who are trying to be anonymous in order to avoid responsibility. You can apply that consulting fee to their first session or even refund it if they decide not to do services with you. Having payment information may help law enforcement if anything occurs.
  • Requesting a photo of a driver's license before scheduling an initial session can serve similar functions.
  • Doing initial contacts via telephone rather than video may give you a better ability to screen out individuals who are seeking video contact for nefarious reasons.
  • Unfortunately, these types of experiences seem to occur almost exclusively with single males seeking services. It makes sense to perhaps be more cautious with requests from males.

Trust your gut–if you start feeling like there’s something else going on, you’re often right. If a person is pushing to have video contact, or resisting giving personal identifying information, there very well may be more going on. Listen to your gut instincts that there's something wrong. In The Gift of Fear, Gavin DeBecker argues that those gut instincts are a gift that we shouldn't argue with.

One small caveat - some individuals with severe mental illness struggle with boundaries around nudity and intimacy, and sometimes violate those boundaries in interactions with their behavioral health providers. But, they're not doing so in the predatory, deceptive manner that is my concern here. Typically, those individuals can be redirected with firm, calm, neutral responses.

I’ve changed the details of the stories above and not given the names of the women who experienced these violations in order to protect them from further violations. If these experiences happen to you, know that you’re not alone, and reach out to colleagues for help, support and advice.

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