If Your Therapist Harasses You: #MeToo

Uncovering sexual harassment and assault in the therapy room.

Posted Oct 17, 2017

kimberly key
Source: Kimberly key

One of my most widely read and commented upon posts is “Is Your Therapist Retraumatizing You,” which cautions the reader to listen to their intuition and steer clear of questionable interventions from a therapist. Sexual harassment and assault by the therapist are traumas I didn’t specifically address in the article, so I will focus on it here.

The #MeToo social media movement initiated by Alyssa Milano’s tweet, “If you've been sexually harassed or assaulted write "me too" as a reply to this tweet,” is illuminating the vast span of individuals impacted by sexual harassment and assault. This post is dedicated to all individuals (across gender) that have been victims of sexual and gender harassment and assault by their therapist (e.g., psychiatrist, psychologist, counselor, psychoanalyst, psychotherapist, social worker, etc.). As a member of a profession that has taken an oath to “do no harm,” please let me state up front how very sorry I am to anyone who has suffered sexual transgressions and rape at the hand of a healer.

Before I proceed, I will personally disclose that I have encountered a few “me too” experiences—as an active duty military member and later by the psychologist professing to help me. It is an extra vulnerable experience when we share our deepest secrets and fears with a trained and licensed professional healer (that we’re paying) and they turn around and use the information to manipulate and perpetuate the same offense.

It is a deep hurt and one of the biggest challenges victims face is wondering what they did to allow it happen—especially when they return. The other is what to do with the rage and anger that tends to get bottled up and displaced in a number of self-harming ways. Another factor that hovers at bay like a distant boat that can’t reach land due to extreme fog, might be, “This reminds me of what happened when I was young and am I destined to be a target for this behavior forever?” Even more frustrating and crazymaking for some is the desire to not lose the connection with the offender.

This combination of reactions and triggers to sexual harassment and assault can put a person in shock, denial, and shame—which leads to silence and internal self-destruction. Emotional and behavioral symptoms can include:

  • Denial and numbness
  • Major Depressive episodes to Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Self-attack and self-harm
  • Episodic rage or temper outbursts
  • Inability to sleep, nightmares, and teeth grinding
  • Eating disorders like overeating, anorexia, and bulimia
  • Alcohol and drug abuse
  • Sexual difficulties ranging from frigidity to sexual acting out (children may use inappropriate sexualized behavior and play out sexual activities with their toys)
  • Isolation and increased fear and mistrust of others
  • Heightened anxiety, reactivity, and sensitivity
  • Inability to make decisions
  • Extreme compliance and/or defiance with mix of alternating between the two
  • Overall relationship and career difficulties

Keep in mind that these can be extremes. Generally, not always, a client that is seeing a harassing and/or assaulting therapist may have been manipulated or “groomed” over a period of time, so the offense becomes something they often feel complicit in and confused by.

Sexual harassment by a therapist tends to be slow like the story of the boiling frog. If a frog touched boiling water, it would immediately retreat. Yet when placed in a pleasant tub of tepid water that is slowly warmed to boiling, it acclimates so easily to the changes in temperature that it boils to death before realizing what happened.

Like the frog, some people can terminate immediately and walk away (while still being harmed) while others find themselves confronting inappropriate behavior their therapist has assured them was therapeutic to their progress. This can be debilitating on so many levels and is reprehensible when harassment and assault are framed as therapeutic.

The following list denotes acts of harassment and/or assaulting behaviors real therapists have done to their clients in the name of therapy (These are not okay!):

  • Overly inquired about client’s sex life and/or sexual fantasies
  • Described their own sex life and/or abilities and fantasies
  • Sat inappropriately close to the client and patted knee for reassurance
  • Kept increasing closeness over time and touching other areas of person’s body
  • Hugged client tightly and hugged for longer times in each successive session
  • Suggested cuddling or inappropriate contact to help heal abandonment or preverbal trauma
  • Played pornography and/or made a recommendation to engage in massage, sexual activity, and/or engaged in sexual activity to help heal, teach, empower client, etc., etc.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission task force on harassment in the workforce reports suggest that 75 percent of people harassed in the workplace do not report it. I suspect that number could be the same or higher for those who have been harassed by a therapist. Perhaps it is no wonder when over 50 percent of the workplace harassment cases filed were thrown out. On top of that, a 2003 study found that 75 percent of workers suffered mistreatment for filing a harassment charge. That is a systemic reinforcement of silencing harassed victims. I suspect this looms worse for those harassed by a therapist who is equipped with all of the technical jargon for dismissing the victim by pathologizing them with a host of psychological diagnoses.

Even if you have a mental health diagnosis, it does not mean you have any less of a claim to defend yourself. You matter and your health and sanity matter—and no matter what you said and did, it is not ever okay for a therapist to sexualize, harass, or assault you. Ever.

If something inappropriate has or is happening to you, I urge you to file a complaint with your state’s licensing board. #MeToo #MeTooTherapist

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