Sex and Hypnosis

Dear Dr. Hurd: Since I think you are brilliant and trust your opinions I have a question to ask.

A friend of mine just told me a little secret because it had been bothering her and I really didn’t know how to answer her.

My friend’s boyfriend is in his early 50s and never married. The longest relationship in his life was 5 years. She is in her mid 40s, divorced with 3 kids. Her ex-husband was a very negative, narcissistic type of person. So my friend and her boyfriend get along really well, and he is very kind to her. Of course, she is not used to that but she loves it. But here is the question that tells me there should be a red flag but she doesn’t really seem to mind so I didn’t know what to say.

He has been teaching her hypnosis and he puts her under (but she tells me she fakes it) and then he has sex with her thinking she is under. They do not have sex otherwise so she says she pretends so she can have sex. She asked me if this is wrong, and I asked her, which part: Her lying and pretending to be under hypnosis, or him only having sex when he thinks she is under?

Dr. Hurd’s reply:

Lies beget lies, and fraud begets fraud. As your question implies: They’re both wrong!

If you ask me, hypnosis is really a fraud. I’m referring here to hypnosis as it’s usually understood. I am not a hypnotherapist, but because hypnosis falls under the category of psychology and psychotherapy, I have explored the topic in research and coursework over the past 25 years. What I learned from this exploration is that there’s essentially no such thing as being “put under a trance” as commonly understood. Even hypnotherapists will tell you that hypnosis is an attempt to induce a relaxed, yet also altered state of consciousness in which you can better introspect, self-reflect and possibly change behaviors (such as quitting smoking, or drinking). This is certainly a worthwhile attempt, although I’m not convinced it leads to very much. The only positive feedback I have ever heard are successful, although temporary, attempts to stop smoking after a few hypnosis sessions.

The notion that somebody can put you into a trance and force you to do bizarre things, or things against your will, is a myth. The power of suggestion may be real. But it’s important to understand that any suggestion is ultimately self-suggestion. Some of us surrender to others, but only if we ultimately consent to it. Nobody can literally get into our minds and control what we think! (There’s no shortage of people who’d like to try, but that’s a separate discussion.)

You might go to a hypnotherapist, or maybe even a plain old psychotherapist, and talk about your desire to quit smoking, or make some other behavioral change. Talking about this goal objectively, and giving it greater visibility in your mind, and within the context of your core values, may well do the trick in getting the behavioral change you seek. But if it does, it’s only because you were already convinced, on your own, that this change was both desirable and possible.

Hypnotherapy as it’s professionally done, as opposed to stage hypnosis — as you see it on television, in magic shows, or anywhere in the entertainment world — are two completely different, mutually exclusive endeavors. The fraud lies not in its entertainment value, but in the pretense that it’s something real when it absolutely is not. That’s why I’m suggesting your friend’s boyfriend is a “fraud.” He’s a fraud IF he’s using something which is appropriate in an entertainment context — for show — in a context which is not about entertainment at all, but about romantic intimacy between two people. Your friend is feeding the fraud and making it worse. How? By going along with it, and by lying that she’s under the spell of the stage techniques he claims are something other than stage techniques.

Of course, everything I’m saying rests on the assumption that each of them is serious about what they’re doing. Do we know that to really be the case? Not necessarily. Some couples engage in fantasy play in their sexual lives — and that’s not fraud. It’s actually a form of entertainment, not for the public but for the two people in the privacy of their sex lives. Maybe that’s what these two are doing. Maybe you’re “listening too hard” to your friend. Maybe she gets excited — not necessarily sexually, but in some other way — about telling you this. Perhaps he likes the pretense of putting her under his control while they have sex, and she likes the pretense of pretending to be under his control. What does your friend get out of telling you this? I don’t know her, so I can’t speculate. I’ll leave that speculation to you.

You implied in your question that your friend has issues. She clearly does. Less relevant than the fact she was once involved with a narcissistic type of man is the fact that she may have enjoyed the way he treated her. Why do I say that? Because she clearly enjoys the illusion of being controlled that her current romantic partner offers her. Of course, outside of the bedroom, this guy treats her kindly, which I assume means not in a controlling way. Perhaps she has moved from a dysfunctional relationship in reality to one only in fantasy? That might represent a kind of progress.  I’ll leave that speculation up to her.