Steve K. D. Eichel, Ph.D., ABPP, CST
For many or most people, their first introduction to hypnosis will be through a movie or television show. Based on films from the 1950s and 1960s, I grew up thinking that hypnosis always involved inducing a somnambulant trance which can be induced unknowingly and unwillingly in the subject and was indistinguishable from “brainwashing.” Similarly, for many people (primarily those born after 2000), their first introduction to intimate sex will be through mass media and internet pornography1; the average age of exposure to hardcore internet pornography is currently 112 (National Center on Sexual Exploitation, 2019). Deidre Barrett (2010) has provided an excellent summary of the ways hypnosis has been presented in the media. She analyzed 230 films and categorized them according to their genre (e.g., comedy, drama, mystery), the source and/or involvement of coercion if there is any (e.g., seduction, in the process of committing a crime), and the transformation or context/target of the hypnosis (e.g., memory recovery, sports performance, psychotherapy).
It may not surprise some readers to learn that, by and large, hypnosis has not been accurately portrayed in media. A significant number involve hypnosis for memory retrieval or to retrieve “past lives.” All properly trained clinical hypnotists are or should be aware of the potential pitfalls and dangers, such as the validation of false memories, when using hypnosis to recover memories and most do avoid it except under very specific conditions (Brown, Scheflin, & Hammond, 1998). The vast majority of films involve lay hypnotists (e.g., not trained in and belonging to the mental health or medical fields); in the real world, I found that “certification” by one of the several “professional” lay hypnosis associations (e.g., the American Board of Hypnotherapy) hardly guarantees … anything, including belonging to the species homo sapiens! (Eichel, 2010)
To make matters even worse, hypnosis in the media, when not being used for psychotherapeutic (or pseudo-psychotherapeutic) purposes, has almost always been depicted as capable of inducing antisocial behavior (e.g., the “normal,” law-abiding person who, under hypnosis, commits a crime) or sexual arousal and behavior, most typically in a manner that today would clearly be labeled nonconsensual, and in some cases, a sexual assault3. Using hypnosis as a means of seducing (which invariably involved a male hypnotizing a female4) appears in several well-known films, including Divorce American Style (1967), Don’t Go Breaking My Heart (1999), numerous episodes of the old series Flash Gordon, and at least six films about or featuring the most notorious (fictional) hypnotist-seducer of all time: Svengali (Barrett, 2010). In large entertainment venues (e.g., Las Vegas), one can find several “blue” or “after-hours” hypnosis shows that involve supposedly hypnotically induced sexual feelings and behaviors, including (supposedly) orgasm.5
Barrett noted there are films that portray hypnosis relatively accurately. Perhaps the most well-known of these are The Three Faces of Eve (1957), Sybil (1976), and, more recently, Agnes of God (1985). Barrett states, “All of these films use inductions that are dramatized a bit … but they stay closer to the truth than most” (p. 83). Although not on her list of such films, I would include Captain Newman, M.D., a 1963 comedy that includes a scene in which a WWII soldier’s (played by Bobby Darin) war trauma is greatly relieved by experiencing a catharsis in hypnotherapy with psychiatrist Capt. Josiah Newman (played by Gregory Peck). Although the patient seems cured after only one session—highly unrealistic in the real world—the film nevertheless presents a fairly accurate portrayal of hypnotherapy for what we now call PTSD.
In reality, hypnosis is a collaborative endeavor that continues to defy precise definition. Despite a century and more of scientific investigation, an explanation of the mechanisms involved in hypnosis that can satisfy everyone, even the skeptics, continues to elude us. As a psychologist trained in clinical hypnosis who also happens to be a certified sex therapist, the myths and outright falsehoods about hypnosis that have been and continue to be promoted in popular media, are a real challenge. I almost always spend part or even all of a therapy session debunking the misinformation that led to my clients’ false beliefs and anxious concerns about hypnosis. When hypnosis is used in sex therapy, I have to be especially careful and wary of the possibility that it can exacerbate an erotic transference … and counter-transference!
Contrary to how it’s portrayed in the media, sex therapists who use hypnosis to facilitate the experience of sexual pleasure are extremely sensitive to the nuances of consent, even (or especially) in long-term, committed relationships. I do not generally train my patients in heterohypnosis (hypnosis with another person); instead, I encourage a range of relaxation techniques which may or may not include autohypnosis. Most sex therapy begins with psychoeducation and learning or relearning sensate focus and being “in the moment.” Hypnosis combined with training in mindfulness is often extremely valuable in aiding patients to relax, tune down or even turn off the observing ego, and “let go.” In sharp contrast to its depiction in mass media, the process is gentle, often accompanied by humor, and always involves the consent of those being hypnotized.
Aguado, J. F. (2015). Psychological manipulation, hypnosis, and suggestion. International Journal of Cultic Studies, 6, 48-59.
Barrett, D. (2010). Hypnosis in popular media. In Barrett, D., Hypnosis and Hypnotherapy (Vol. 1), Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 77-96.
Brown, D. P., Scheflin, A. W., & Hammond, D. C. (1998). Memory, trauma, treatment and the law. New York: W.W. Norton.
Eichel, S. K. D. (2010). Lay hypnotherapy and the credentialing of Zoe the Cat. In Barrett, D., Hypnosis and Hypnotherapy (Vol. 1), Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 125-144.
Eichel, S. K. D. (2016). The theory that won’t go away: An updated review of the role hypnosis plays in “mind control.” ICSA Today, 7(1), 23-27.
National Center on Sexual Exploitation (2019). Retrieved 4/10/19 from https://endsexualexploitation.org/wp-content/uploads/WRAP-harms-to-children.pdf.
1. It is common practice for academic writers to substitute “explicit visual stimuli” or “sexually explicit media” (or a similar term) rather than “pornography,” which for some people has a very pejorative connotation that may negatively bias their view of the paper or research. For simplicity’s sake, however, I will use the common term “pornography” to mean any visual stimulation received over some form of media (film, television, internet, and magazines) for the explicit purpose of sexual stimulation.
2. One study found that over 20% of underage (under 18) internet pornography viewers are under the age of 10.
3. Aguado (2015) reviewed research on the use of hypnosis in one area that can be considered “antisocial”: recruitment into cultic groups. He found little evidence to support the hypothesis that hypnosis can influence a person, outside their conscious awareness, to change their beliefs or convert; while agreeing to the central thesis. Eichel (2016) discussed how hypnosis, in a specific group social context, can be a major factor in these cult conversions.
4. The 2017 thriller Get Out! is an exception, although the goals of the older woman, who hypnotizes the younger African-American male protagonist, are antisocial but not directly sexual.
5. On Youtube.com, the video “Hypnotized Orgasms” has had 2.8 million views to date, while “The Best Hypnotized Orgasm on the Internet: Book me if you dare” video has had 980,000 views.