The situations I will discuss in this post keep coming to my attention again and again, so I thought this would be an important topic to raise and also a painful one to talk about. It has to do with a very specific type of abuse of psychotherapy clients – sexual abuse.
This post is for you if you have sexual relations with your therapist but you don’t believe that he is abusing you for the following reasons:
- you believe the sex has been “consensual”, because no force or coercion was used and because you are an adult;
- the therapist is a “good person” with good intentions, who has helped you quite a lot, who has demonstrated his “love” and “care” for you many times with his words and deeds;
- your situation is “different” from those of other people a.k.a unique because there is genuine mutual love, care and affinity between you and the therapist.
(A side note: I will use a “he” pronoun when referring to the therapist throughout the article not because I don’t believe that the situation I am discussing here never involves female therapists and not because I want to minimize the suffering of male clients who have had the same experience, but because, as of today, most of the stories of sexual abuse of clients I hear are the ones with “female client-male therapist” scenario.)
The first and the second argument deserve a separate post for each to respond, which I am planning to do soon, because I feel like it’s time to set things straight and to challenge some myths about what constitutes consent and equality in relationships that many people, sadly, many therapists included, believe in. But I will respond to the third argument about the “uniqueness” of your situation right here because it doesn’t require a separate post. It is really short and straightforward.
If you go on any online psychology/mental health forum you will have an opportunity to read countless stories that are exactly like yours. Every person who tells their story presents it as something unique for the same reasons you believe yours is unique, which clearly makes their and your stories anything but unique. The specific details vary from one personal account to another, but the general “soundtrack” is the same: “he can see me and understand me better than anyone”, ‘he told me I was special”, “we have affinity”, “he helped me so much”, “he loves me and cares about me”, “I am not a victim”, “we are both adults”, “it was consensual”, “I love him”, “it’s my fault”, “my situation is different”. When you start looking for help online, the chances are that you will find groups and forums where you will read many stories of other people that will sound painfully similar to your own. Thus, let’s get the “uniqueness” claim out of the way before I proceed because a simple reality-check disproves it.
Now, the purpose of this article is NOT to convince you that you are a victim of abuse but to explain why you, most likely, won’t get the help and the support you need, as long as you refuse to see your therapist’s behavior not only as unethical but also exploitative.
Right off the bat, if you insist that the therapist has not been exploiting you and hasn’t done anything unethical, then what is the problem and what do you need help with? Most likely, you don’t have the clear answer to this question, which makes it impossible for other people to help you, no matter how much they would like to help.
I can guess what the answer might be, but this would be also one of the things better left for another article to discuss. The point here is that whatever the answer may be for you, if you are unable to articulate your problem clearly and to explain what you want for yourself in your situation, then no matter what others try to do for you it won’t help. You will be disappointed by their responses or may even get angry at them for not understanding you.
If they tell you that your therapist is behaving unethically, you won’t like it, because you don’t believe this to be the case and because you might feel that the person is not listening to you.
If they attempt to support you by echoing your feelings and accepting your view of the situation, that might give you temporary comfort but not for long. The comfort will dissipate rather soon, because their empathy, as comforting as it may be, will not help you find a resolution and you would still be stuck with uncertainty and confusion.
If they offer you their analysis of your therapist’s behavior outside of the context of professional ethics, this is the worst kind of “help” you can get, because this is the surest way to keep you trapped where you are while creating an illusion of looking for a solution. Eventually, when you realize that this is not getting you anywhere, you will feel even worse.
On top of what is described above, you may encounter a very specific problem if you search for a professional help.
If you are still seeing the offending therapist in the professional settings (yes, I will say “offending therapist” when referring to therapists who have sex with clients, because that’s who they are to me), other therapists may refuse to see you depending on what state you live in, because in many states therapists are not allowed to see clients who are currently working with other therapists. Even though your relationship with your offending therapist could hardly be called “work” or “professional service”, if you haven’t officially terminated therapy, if you are still seeing him in the office (at least on some days) and/or if you are still paying him for his time (at least some of it), then, technically, you are still in the “professional” relationship. Most therapists you contact will find this situation too precarious to get involved in and will refuse to see you until you officially terminate your current “therapy”.
Another thing to be aware of is that there are two specific groups of people who, likely, will react very strongly to your story and might not be able (or willing) to hide their emotional reactions from you or will tell you flat out what their moral stand is on your situation. Those are
a) people who have “been there, done that” (they have been where you are right now, but, eventually, got out of that place.)
People from the A group, besides being unable to help you because they will see your problem differently from how you see it, also will be triggered by your story too much to be useful to you, even if you accepted their view of your problem. They might react in the way that would feel insensitive to you, but you need to understand that their reactions are coming from their own pain, not from a desire to hurt you.
People from the B group, therapists, will also get emotionally triggered but for different reasons by which they could be divided into three types.
One type of therapists will immediately recognize that your therapist has committed an egregious ethical violation and will tell you this right from the get go without hesitation. Many of them (mostly women) will feel utterly frustrated and helpless when they see your refusal to accept that point of view, because they wouldn’t know how to help you in this case.
The second type will not tell you their opinion. They will try to do a non-directive therapy with you, which is to listen without judgment, but they won’t give you any helpful insight or analysis of your situation or any insight at all. They will listen with the classic therapist “blank screen” face and you will find yourself basically talking into an empty space.
The truth is that this group of therapists is extremely uncomfortable with your story and have no desire to delve deeply into it. The reasons for that are
a) they are not capable even to face the fact that ethical violations take place in their profession to begin with;
b) when they are forced to face this fact, they don’t know what to do with it, because their schools and other training places don’t address this problem at all, let alone provide training on how to deal with it.
The third and the last type of therapists is the worst one for you to consult with, even though they are the ones you might feel most comfortable with, because they will fully accept a.k.a “validate” your perspective, though they would not express much desire to explore the situation.
Just like in the case of lay people who would try to “support” you by echoing your view, this therapist type would be doing you a great disservice by going along with whatever ideas you have about your case. By doing so they would be keeping you in the place where no resolution can be found, and, frankly, there is a chance that this type of therapist either doesn’t take professional ethics seriously or may even be an offender himself. Neither case scenario will produce a good outcome. In the best case, you will hit the point where the therapist’s strategy won’t feel good anymore, and, in the worst case, you will get hurt again.
In conclusion, I want to stress again that the point of this article is NOT to convince you that you are being abused. The fact that I’ve called your therapist’s behavior unethical throughout the article doesn’t imply that I want to force my opinion on you. I don’t. I have no personal stake in changing your mind and no intention of “rescuing” you. What you do with the information provided here is up to you. My only desire and moral obligation, as I see it, is to make this information available, because then you’d be able to make an informed choice even if you don’t agree with my view.