Therapy sex abuse is using the imbalance of power in the therapeutic relationship to control, manipulate, and sexually exploit clients. It’s a growing epidemic across America and is now illegal in 23 states, most recently New York which has classified the offense as statutory rape. Many legislators in a position of power to effect change in the remaining 27 states don’t fully understand what therapist abuse is truly about, in many cases victim blaming or merely chalking up what happened between the therapist and client as unethical but occurring between two “consenting” adults. The statistics and effects of therapy sex abuse tell a much different tale of horror.
First of all, the idea that sex between a therapist and client is consensual is naive and short-sighted. Due to the sensitive and personal nature of the discussions, a client can feel like he or she can trust the therapist more than a spouse. This gives the therapist the ability to exert immense amounts of power over the client if he or she so wishes to exploit the relationship. According to the Sate of California publication Professional Therapy Never Includes Sex, “a therapist who accepts or encourages these normal feelings in a sexual way — or tells a patient that sexual involvement is part of therapy — is using the trusting therapy relationship to take advantage of the patient.” Therapist abuse is a felony in California.
Not many clients of therapists who were exploited step forward and talk about how they were abused, but of ones that have the numbers are hard to swallow. Kenneth S. Pope, Phd., ABPP, author of Ethics in Psychotherapy and Counseling, provides the following statistics of a national study of 958 patients: “The findings suggest that about 90% of patients are harmed by sex with a therapist; 80% are harmed when the sexual involvement begins only after termination of therapy. About 11% required hospitalization; 14% attempted suicide; and 1% committed suicide. About 10% had experienced rape prior to sexual involvement with the therapist, and about a third had experienced incest or other child sex abuse. About 5% of these patients were minors at the time of the sexual involvement with the therapist. Of those harmed, only 17% recovered fully.”
Pope’s research also observed the the most common reactions of victims that have been involved with therapist-patient sex. These included ambivalence between escaping the abusive therapist and protecting him or her, cognitive dysfunction (including attention, memory, and concentration), emotional lability or intense emotional eruptions, emptiness and isolation, impaired ability to trust, guilt, increased suicidal risk, role reversal and boundary confusion, sexual confusion (including believing their only worth is to provide sexual gratification to others), and suppressed anger which may lead to self-loathing, self-punishment, and self-destructive behaviors. The depths of these reactions underscores how harmful and exploitative client sex with a therapist can be.
A national survey of 1,320 psychologists discovered that more than half the professionals that responded reported treating at least one patient who had been sexually intimate with a prior therapist. That’s a far cry from the safe therapeutic setting most desire in which clients can work through a myriad of difficult problems. In order for therapy to be effective patients must be able to trust their counselors, psychiatrists, and therapists who possess a significant amount of power over them. When therapists take advantage of, exploit, and abuse that power the resulting damage can be catastrophic. In Maryland, the movement known as Lynette’s Law is working with delegates to push legislation that would criminalize therapy sex abuse in the state, but the battle has just begun. Convicted felons have slipped through Maryland’s system – which does not require background checks of its health professionals – and served as therapists to unsuspecting patients who were subsequently abused. Supporting this movement and the legislation they propose would make the Maryland healthcare system a safer environment.