Psychology Isn't Immune From a Harvey Weinstein Problem

Tragically, no field is immune from sexual exploitation of those without power.

Posted Oct 23, 2017

used with permission from wikimedia
Source: used with permission from wikimedia

The recent Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment and assault scandal has highlighted how powerful and influential men can tragically and egregiously exploit younger women for their advantage. It is a cruel reminder that men in power can use their status to victimize women repeatedly and that decades can go by without these predators being caught or held accountable. Similar recent stories about Bill O'Reilly and Donald Trump, for example, have demonstrated that this pattern of abuse and victimization occurs in multiple settings when men in power have control over women who don’t. And even in 2017 most of these men go unpunished and are often even rewarded (e.g., generous pay raises, elected to high office). 

Sadly, perhaps no discipline, field, or industry is immune from these exploitative dynamics. There are too many similar stories that involve a wide range of industries including entertainment, business, politics, law, medicine, and sadly, even psychology. Yes, countless men and some women, too have used their power and influence to sexually victimize those under their charge who are vulnerable students or mentees in the psychology field, a discipline that should know better than others about proper and appropriate behavior and the psychological impact of victimization on people. Plus, psychology has an ethics code that specifically states that these behaviors should never be tolerated. For example, the APA Ethics Code states: 

3.02 Sexual Harassment 
Psychologists do not engage in sexual harassment. Sexual harassment is sexual solicitation, physical advances, or verbal or nonverbal conduct that is sexual in nature, that occurs in connection with the psychologist's activities or roles as a psychologist, and that either (1) is unwelcome, is offensive, or creates a hostile workplace or educational environment, and the psychologist knows or is told this or (2) is sufficiently severe or intense to be abusive to a reasonable person in the context. Sexual harassment can consist of a single intense or severe act or of multiple persistent or pervasive acts.

Additionally, the code addresses exploitative relationship and especially those associated with students and supervisees. It states: 

3.08 Exploitative Relationships 
Psychologists do not exploit persons over whom they have supervisory, evaluative or other authority such as clients/patients, students, supervisees, research participants, and employees


7.07 Sexual Relationships with Students and Supervisees 
Psychologists do not engage in sexual relationships with students or supervisees who are in their department, agency, or training center or over whom psychologists have or are likely to have evaluative authority.

Even some of our most famous figures and leaders in psychology over the years have been accused of behavior similar to those accusations leveled against Mr. Weinstein, Mr. O'Reilly, and Mr. Trump. How many of these figures, as an example, have even married their much younger students? These stories are most often whispered about at regional and national conventions, in the halls of academic psychology departments, and elsewhere where colleagues gather to speak privately. These stories are rarely made public. This should change.

The recent #Metoo movement following the Harvey Weinstein revelations has picked up tremendous momentum over social media in recent days and it highlights how common sexual victimization by powerful men occurs. Maybe each discipline (e.g., medicine, law, business, psychology) should start a #Metoo movement within their own area of specialization. For example, #MetooPsych, #MetooMD, and #MetooLaw could help to publicize the problem within so many subareas. Perpetrators should be called out too. And perhaps all men and women should stand in solidarity with victims to ensure that everyone is vigilant and maintains a zero tolerance for exploitative behavior doing nothing to condone victimization by turning a blind eye to it. 

used with permission by LinkedIn
Source: used with permission by LinkedIn

Psychologists, of all people, should know better. And they have an ethics code that tells them so in no uncertain terms. Yet, unfortunately, psychologists are also vulnerable to the temptations of power and influence over vulnerable others. Sexually exploiting people, especially patients, students, and mentees, is clearly an egregious ethical violation and should never be tolerated. We must have a zero-tolerance policy regarding sexual exploitation and until names are mentioned publicly and #Metoo efforts are initiated within each field little might change to help protect young people from the predatory behavior of powerful and influential figures in the field.

Psychology and other fields should sit up and take notice of the Harvey Weinstein story and make serious efforts to ensure that no one is sexually exploited or victimized in any field including those disciplines that should be on the cutting edge of reform such as psychology. And relevant elements from the psychology ethics code (as noted here) could be used as a model or template for other organizations and fields that don't currently have such explicit and clear policies. This is an insidious problem and we all need to be on board for change. Are you in? 

So, what do you think? 


American Psychological Association. (2002). Ethical principles of psychologists and code of conduct. American psychologist, 57(12), 1060-1073.

Fisher, C. B. (2016). Decoding the ethics code: A practical guide for psychologists. Sage Publications.

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