Changed my mind quickly as I scanned the latest local news on Patch and read this steamy headline:
“Local Therapist Denies Sex Abuse Charges.” Seemed more important to comment on that.
And, I don’t just want to comment. I want to be absolutely clear.
Sexual abuse of minors is not okay at any time,
by any person, therapist or not. Period.
Does it still happen? Unfortunately, yes. Did it happen in the current case? Charges have been made. We will know more soon. I’m glad our law enforcement authorities are working to examine the situation, keep kids safe, and follow through in a just manner, as needed.
I want to be clear that therapists have responsibility to maintain good sexual ethics with minors, but not just with minors. Therapists should be beacons of light and healing, not hurting. Therapists have responsibility to maintain good sexual ethics with all clients, of any age or gender. I think most people know that sexual abuse of minors is wrong and, when it occurs, should be prosecuted to the highest extent of the law. But, what might not be as well known, is that therapists should not have sexual intimacy with any client, regardless of age or gender.
Therapy is a licensed profession. There are rules and expectations involved. There are standards and ethics agreed on.
Every major mental health profession prohibits
sexual exploitation of clients. Period.
The standard for therapists is this; sexual intimacy with clients is considered exploitation. So, every therapist knows it is wrong to be involved in sexual intimacy with clients of all ages.
Here’s what the code of ethics of my professional organization (AAMFT--American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy) says about sexual intimacy with clients:
1.4 Sexual Intimacy with Current Clients and Others. Sexual intimacy with current clients, or their spouses or partners is prohibited. Engaging in sexual intimacy with individuals who are known to be close relatives, guardians or significant others of current clients is prohibited.
1.5 Sexual Intimacy with Former Clients and Others. Sexual intimacy with former clients, their spouses or partners, or individuals who are known to be close relatives, guardians or significant others of clients is likely to be harmful and is therefore prohibited for two years following the termination of therapy or last professional contact. After the two years following the last professional contact or termination, in an effort to avoid exploiting the trust and dependency of clients, marriage and family therapists should not engage in sexual intimacy with former clients, or their spouses or partners. If therapists engage in sexual intimacy with former clients, or their spouses or partners, more than two years after termination or last professional contact, the burden shifts to the therapist to demonstrate that there has been no exploitation or injury to the former client, or their spouse or partner.
Therapy involves an exceptional amount of vulnerability and trust on the part of clients. I’m a therapist and know this well. When a therapist takes advantage of that trust and exploits a client sexually, it is wrong. It is unethical, and, in some cases (and always if the client is a child), illegal as well.
And yet, we’ve seen it on television and in the movies. And, like today, charges of sexual abuse by a therapist in the news. I wish this wasn’t true, but, likely we can all think of at least one movie where a psychotherapist became sexually involved with a client. Sometimes a movie or show will even promote the sexual involvement as benefiting the client and promoting healing. It makes me cringe. And, it makes me angry too. It’s an ethical violation.
What happens in movies or on television is pretend, but it does influence us. It might influence us to believe what we see is the ethical standard, so, it’s okay. So, again, let me be clear. Therapists are wrong when they engage in sexual activity with clients, of any age or gender. They are wrong to initiate it, and they are wrong to respond sexually to any invitation that comes their way by a client. And again, sexual abuse of minors is always wrong and illegal.
If it happens to you or someone close to you, report it. Right away is best. There are two places for reports. First, law enforcement needs to know if minors are involved or if laws were broken. Secondly, therapists usually belong to a professional organization, like AAMFT, NASW (National Association of Social Workers), or APA (American Psychological Association). Make a report to the organization too. Contact details for the various organizations are available online. They need to know about ethical violations of their members so they can investigate and follow up appropriately.