Docsplainin' -- it's what I do

Docsplainin'--it's what I do.
After all, I'm a doc, aren't I?

Saturday, June 27, 2009


A psychiatrist who practices at Peachford has been indicted for sexual exploitation of a patient. Psychologists' ethics specifically forbid sexual relationships with patients, as does Georgia law, and as do most professionals' ethical codes--for good reason. The doctor-patient relationship, whether the doctor is a doctor of medicine or a doctor of psychology, is not an equal relationship and gives the doctor the power to engage the patient in activities that are not in the latter's best interests.

Adult patients who are exploited are usually female, and there has been some argument that such an ethical/legal prohibition is therefore sexist. It has even been said that, male or female, such prohibitions might deny adults their constitutional right to freedom of association. But studies of this issue have consistently found that it is not usually a case of two consenting adults falling in love (or lust) but rather one in which the therapist has serial affairs with patients, acting out her or his own issues in the treatment, much to the detriment of the patients. So I'm gonna go out on a limb here and predict that now that his mug has been on the 6:00 news, there will be more patients coming forward to report that they, too, have been taken advantage of in this fashion.

Often, it is not until someone else files a complaint that a patient realizes that s/he has an unethical therapist. In the first place, some such patients have been abused before (e.g., incest survivors) and have very poor boundaries to begin with. Their idea of what is abnormal is way, way out there, based on their growing-up experiences, and a little kiss or a date with a therapist doesn't even come close to tripping their radar. To them, this is business as usual. Therapists who are sexual predators in this way are no different from child sexual abusers in that they have a well-honed instinct for who is exploitable. Is this client emotionally needy? Does this client lack a good support system? This re-traumatization is an especially awful betrayal of what to my mind is a sacred trust placed in us.

Seduction by a therapist then proceeds in much the same way as an adult/child exploitation: Early inappropriate behaviors are highly deniable and serve as a test of what the therapist can get away with. Test behaviors also serve to 'groom' the victim, as the therapist (like any sexual predator) gradually increases hir demands. The victim is sucked in one small step at a time, and by the point that s/he feels things are badly out of whack here, s/he (a) is too far from the exits to be able to extricate hirself, and (b) has come to feel complicit in what is going on so is too embarrassed and ashamed to tell anyone. Plus, these therapists, like all sexual predators, instill the importance of secrecy in the victim's mind long before reportable, criminal behaviors occur.

In some cases, the therapists told the patient that this was part of their treatment. For example, the therapist may tell the patient that s/he needs the experience of feeling attractive, lovable. Or that sexual inhibitions can be worked out in therapy by having sex. An unsophisticated patient really has no way of knowing any better: S/he trusts the doctor and complies. This is so not a love relationship, people. It is an abuse of power, pure and simple.

This particular psychiatrist has also been charged with inappropriate prescription practices. Reading between the lines, I'm guessing that the drug was part of the exploitation. This can happen in one of two ways: First, the drug impairs the patient's judgment. Second, the patient may become dependent upon the drug, and by extension, the psychiatrist. This is especially an effective trap if no reputable psychiatrist would prescribe the particular drug, or so high a dose of it--the client has become addicted to it and can only get it from her perpetrator. If she reports him she loses her source. See what I mean about power?

Psychologists' ethics do allow for relationships between therapists and former patients under certain conditions and after a certain period of time has elapsed. This, too, is controversial. These rarely (if ever) turn out well because the power imbalance from the original relationship persists. The roots of these relationships are in transference-countertransference manifestations that were never properly worked through in the therapy, but which, instead, are now being enacted outside the therapy. By definition, then, the therapist wasn't doing hir job in the therapy, and the patient by definition got short-changed.

These are the same interpersonal relationship dynamics that probably brought the patient to therapy in the first place: If they caused the patient problems then in hir relationships, they will cause problems in this one. Similarly, the therapist's lack of self-understanding, poor boundaries, and behavioral disinhibitions exhibited during treatment spell disaster for any outside relationships as well, including especially one with a former patient. Two such relationships of which I am aware became physically abusive; in one, the patient wound up killing hir former therapist in self-defense--and went to prison for it. In a third case, the pair got married, the therapist made the former patient hir office manager, and then proceeded to be unfaithful--with patients!

There are cases in which the patient initiates sexual contact. This is no defense of the therapist: Freud long ago recognized that when the patient falls in "love" with the therapist that it is not the therapist the patient loves--and that the therapist would be a fool (not to mention an under-analyzed narcissist) to think so. The patient/victim in some of these types of cases has been previously victimized, and presents with all sorts of sequelae of previous abuse that makes hir more likely to sexualize the therapy relationship than a patient without an abuse history. When such a patient introduces sex into the mix, it is clearly a therapeutic issue and should be analyzed, not acted out. And it is the therapist's responsibility to make sure that this happens. As one of my clients is fond of pointing out, "That is what you are getting paid the big bucks for."

The ethical and legal prohibition against sexual relationships with patients is a sound one. No good can ever come of it, no matter the participants' rationalizations to the contrary. If your therapist has said or done anything even slightly sexual before, during, or after one of your sessions, run like hell in the opposite direction. And please consider filing a report with hir licensing board and/or the Ethics Committee of hir state and national professional associations. The affirmation that your therapist was in the wrong will do you a world of good.

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