New Research: Therapy Doesn't Deter Sexual Misconduct By Psychologists

September 02, 1997

ATHENS, Ohio -- Personal therapy or attendance at ethics courses are frequently endorsed or recommended as the best form of remediation for psychologists who have sexual contact with their clients, but there is little evidence that these methods will alter offenders' future behavior, according to new research by Ohio University psychologists.

"Few specific interventions exist for physicians who commit sexual improprieties with their patients," said J. Regis McNamara, professor of psychology and co-author of the study. "Little evidence exists to provide a compelling reason to mandate that ethics violators participate in education programs, especially when one considers the questionable remediability of sexual misconduct. For ethics education and mandated personal therapy, there is no way to determine if they are effective."

The field of psychology only recently began to recognize the extent of sexual contact between therapist and client, despite evidence it is prevalent in the field. Sexual contact may include fondling, hugging, kissing or sexual intercourse, according to McNamara.

"Sexual involvement is often very difficult to prove if it is denied by the therapist, and it may take repeated allegations from a number of individuals before licensing boards can take appropriate action against the therapist," McNamara said. "Plus, the credibility of women who make claims may be questioned by the therapist on the grounds that they are mental patients and unreliable."

Earlier research suggests that as many as 88 percent of psychologists at university counseling centers have experienced feelings of sexual attraction toward a client and, according to other studies that McNamara reviewed, between 3 and 12 percent of psychologists act on these feelings and have sexual contact with their clients.

Researchers here reviewed remediation methods for sexual offenders in the medical profession and also more recent sanctions used by state licensing boards overseeing psychologists. Counseling, close supervision, self-help groups and ethics courses were among the methods most often used as remedies, but there is little evidence these methods were effective, McNamara said.

While there has been research on treatment for physicians impaired by psychological problems, substance abuse or sexual impropriety, there is little research on treatment for psychologists. In 1987, only 31 percent of state licensing boards for psychologists considered sexual intimacy with clients as grounds for license suspension. Since then, sexual abuse of patients has become grounds for revoking a psychologist's license in every state.

"Just about everyone in the field agrees sexual relations with a client is not a good idea," McNamara said. "What they disagree about is what to do as a remedy. Like many professions, there is a code of professional silence. No one likes to air their dirty linen in public, and this is dirty linen."

Research indicates ethics violators are predominantly men with an average age of 48. The offenders often have other problems such as character disorders, marital conflict, anxiety, substance abuse or depression.

While state psychological associations are moving rapidly to establish remediation programs that are well-intended, "Given the need to protect the public, punitive disciplinary action such as suspension or revocation of a license to practice may be the best current action to pursue for violators of ethical principles involving sexual misconduct until other interventions can be derived, implemented and evaluated," McNamara said.

The research was published in a recent issue of the American Psychological Association journal Professional Psychology: Research and Practice and was co-authored by Melissa Layman, a former doctoral student in psychology at Ohio University who now is in private practice in Yellow Springs, Ohio.

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Contact: J. Regis McNamara, 614-593-1083; jmcnamara1@ohiou.edu.

Written by Dwight Woodward, 614-593-1886; dwoodward1@ohiou.edu.

Ohio University

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