Sexual misconduct by psychologists: Who reports it?

Margery M. Noel (1986)

This study was designed to determine some of the factors involved in psychologists' attitudes toward reporting colleagues who are said to have been sexually intimate with clients. A random sample of 1000 members of APA's Division 12 (Clinical Psychology) received a brief structured questionnaire which asked them to rate the likelihood that they would take each of eight actions in eight situations in which a current client reported physical/sexual contact with a former psychologist. Four types of physical contact were presented, from hugging through kissing to sexual fondling and sexual intercourse. Each type of contact was presented as occurring once and often, thus creating eight scenarios. In each scenario, the action was reported to have taken place within a therapy session with a female client and a male psychologist. The return rate was 40.5% and the gender proportions were similar to those of Division 12. 84% of the sample said that they had at some time been told of a colleague who had been sexually intimate with a client or clients. Less than 20% of the sample had ever utilized the first step suggested in the Code of Ethics of the American Psychological Association--confrontation of the allegedly unethical colleague in person or by mail. Only 35% had ever encouraged a client to file a report with the Ethics Committee of their state psychological association, and barely 10% had assisted a client in filing such a report. The proportion of psychologists encouraging (9%) or assisting (4%) a client in the use of the legal system is even lower. The results of this study suggest that psychologists are more likely to state that they would act on a client's report when either the frequency or the intensity of the sexual contact increases. Other factors which impact on the likelihood of reporting are formal training in professional ethics, training in human sexuality, and the gender of the reporting psychologist. The 10 psychologists who reported having been sexually intimate with a client or clients were often less likely to act on the client's behalf than were those who did not report such contact. The study raises many issues for the profession. Further research is needed, and a large-scale study of this problem is indicated. Clear definitions of the behaviors included in "sexual intimacy" must be created by the profession. Training programs for psychologists should require formal training in professional ethics which emphasizes the real-life ethical dilemmas which will face practitioners. Training in human sexuality should become a part of every doctoral program in psychology, and should focus on enabling practitioners to understand their own sexual attitudes and values, become comfortable in talking about the wide range of human sexual behaviors, deal effectively with issues of sexual attraction to clients, and facilitate the healing of clients who have been sexually exploited by colleagues. These tasks will not be easy, and some will argue that they need not be undertaken. It may be said that scarce resources need not be allocated to address this issue now. Researchers may experience a climate of fear and anger, as long-hidden practices are challenged. However, if we do not first heal ourselves, how can we act as healers?