Professional counselors should establish good relationships with their clients to provide the therapeutic healing that these clients require. They should keep a boundary in the way they relate to the clients to ensure that their relationship with the client does no harm or pose potential harm to the clients. While relating to the clients, counselors should anticipate potential risks of misconduct and take action before it is too late.
This may include reporting the case to the authorities or in cases where the damage is already done, an informal approach should be used to address the issue at hand. On other occasions, informal approach may not be appropriate. Therefore, the ethics committee is involved in order to deliver a verdict. The case can be dismissed and a sanction issued, or charges can be pressed against the accused (Welfel, 2012).
One ethical dilemma that has been experienced in the past is the issue of counselors engaging in sexual relations with their clients. This is a serious form of misconduct clinically, ethically, and even legally. This form of conduct is harmful to the clients, destroys the work of therapy, and damages the profession itself.
There is a challenge as to whether counselors exhibiting such misconducts should be criminalized (Gutheil & Gabbard, 1992). The following is an analysis of the various approaches that should be used in addressing this issue.
CASAC ethical canon on Sexual Misconduct by Councillors
Sexual contact between clients and their therapists is prohibited. This also includes their family members and romantic partners. The prohibition is based on the harm that is caused on the clients. It also contradicts the fundamental values found in counseling and psychotherapy. This is also not applicable to professionals who may want to initiate a professional relationship with clients with whom they were formerly relating sexually.
A sexual relation is prohibited between the therapist and a person working in the same institution such as the client. This has been prohibited in an effort to promote the client’s trust in the therapist. If such a case happens, the client may not be comfortable revealing some secrets in the fear that the information may be passed to the work mates. Therefore, this may disrupt the therapeutic process and cause harm to the client. This offense is punishable under the civil or criminal law (Welfel, 2012).
The counselor-client relationship should be kept at the professional level whether the client is still undergoing therapy or is already healed. Nonprofessional relationships, except for the sexual ones, can only be allowed if they are potentially beneficial.
However, before the agreement is made, the therapist is expected to make proper documentation indicating that the client has agreed to the terms. This is to cover a case in which an intended harm occurs. The counselor should show evidence that he/she tried to remedy the harm for it to be justified. Some beneficial associations include attending the clients functions like graduation.
It may be a form of support that the client needs in the healing process. Others may include purchase of a product from the client. This could be a form of financial rescue. Membership in the same professional association with a client may be beneficial to both parties provided that there is a mutual agreement that the relationship between the parties remains professional (Welfel, 2012).
Ethical Principles for counselors
Psychologists should avoid harm on their clients and other people working around them. There exist multiple relationships on occasion when the counselor is performing a different role with the same person, or relating to a similar person by a counselor and the client differently, or promise to enter into a different relationship with the client or the client’s close association. The psychologist should avoid a multiple relation if it may cause deviation from the psychologist’s objectives, competence, and efficiency in performing his/her duties.
The relationship should also be avoided if it may lead to exploitation or harm to the client. However, relationships that do not pose any risk to the professional relationship are allowed. When a multiple relationship proves harmful due to unforeseen factors, the psychologist should take action to resolve the issues with the affected party while strictly complying with the ethics code (Welfel, 2012).
Relationships that are exploitative are discouraged, and psychologists should not engage in these relationships if they are not potentially beneficial (Welfel, 2012). For instance, it is evident that most of the psychotherapeutic patients do not know their rights and may not know the legal steps to take. Some counselors may take advantage and exploit them sexually. The consequences of any relationship that is not professional should always be anticipated before the counselor can engage in them (Thorn, Shealy & Briggs, 1993).
Emotional attachment is common during therapy. The rules of this relationship should be laid at the beginning of therapy to avoid pain or embarrassment. Professional relationships should not compromise therapy. This is especially if other relationships make it hard for the client to reveal some of his/her personal secrets. This could be avoided by explaining the topics that are relevant in the therapy session (Welfel, 2012).
The imbalance of power occurs when clients agree with the wishes of the therapist in cases when they are not comfortable with the arrangement (Welfel, 2012). An example of a relationship with unequal power is that of pastor and the church members. The issues of power make the clients vulnerable to sexual exploitation. In this case, they do not know how to object to the undesirable practices. If proper boundaries are not maintained by the clergy, incidences of sexual harassment occur (Robinson, 2004).
This destroys the therapeutic process because of no trust and confidentiality between the two parties. There is also the fear of abandonment by each of the parties in case of any secrets revealed. Counselors should maintain strict boundaries with their clients (Welfel, 2012). Sexual intimacies are prohibited, and in most countries, this behavior is criminalized (Thorn, Rubin & Holderby, 1996).
Critical Elements For Making Ethical Decision on Sexual Relationships
A sexual relationship between a therapist and a client is not compatible with the healing process. It is a cause for emotional attachment, and this interferes with the therapy. In such a case, the victim, who in most cases is the patient, is traumatized by the experience. There is the issue of blame with either the patient blaming the therapist and the therapist putting the blame on the patient (Gutheil & Gabbard, 1992).
Before initiating any other non-professional relationship with the client, there is the question of whether the motivation is driven by the interests of the client and whether the relationship is important for the therapeutic process. In this case, sex does not improve the therapeutic process, but only serves to make it worse. It is not in the interest of the client to engage in a sexual relationship since it adds no value to the healing process (Gutheil & Gabbard, 1992).
The issue of performance has to be considered before a therapist can engage in a sexual relationship with the client. It is impossible for the therapist to achieve his counseling objectives.
In this case, the sexual relationship may make the client hold back from revealing important information that might aid in the therapeutic process. The therapist may also be remorseful and may not want to continue attending to these clients. Thus, they opt to seek help in rehabilitation. This is an indication that they cannot operate normally after exposing themselves to sexual relationships with their clients (Schoener & Gonsiorek, 1988).
Misusing the power on the vulnerable clients is not allowed despite the justification provided. It has been argued that therapists fall in love with their clients and consequently establish a sexual relationship. This cannot be justified, and therapists should always consider this before risking their careers and the welfare of their patients with sexual relations. It is a low risk situation for both parties especially the therapists who risk their careers (Deaton, Illingworth & Bursztajn, 1992).
It is a requirement for therapists to anticipate the possible effects of any multiple relationship with a client and other people working closely with him/her. A sexual relationship involves emotions and reduces the capacity to achieve the therapeutic objectives. There should be boundaries created to ensure that the two parties know the areas of discussion in which they should engage.
In case the boundaries are crossed, the two parties will realize this and take a corrective action before it advances to an irreversible stage. This is especially expected from the therapists who takes the lead role in therapy and determines the subjects of professional discussions that the client is allowed to introduce. The issue of sexual relations is clearly avoidable, and it cannot be justified at all (Celenza, 1998).
A sexual relationship between a therapist and a client has repercussions. This should be a consideration before the parties encourage an intimate relationship to develop between them. Once there are legal issues that may lead to the criminalization of the therapist, the client’s therapeutic process may come to an end.
There are also chances that the situation may get worse due to the trauma that comes from an unfruitful relationship with the therapist. The therapist also risks losing his/her practicing license, which may mean the end of the career. These repercussions are not worth risking. They involve the emotional effects, as well as every aspect of life including financial abilities, emotional pain and suffering, and social issues.
The therapist such as a church minister may also be ridiculed by the public. The changes that occur when a sexual relationship exists are not desirable and cannot be acknowledged socially. Therefore, the relationship should remain professional for it to achieve its objectives (Welfel, 2012).
Ethical awareness is an important element in therapy. Therapists should be guided by the moral vision and value that involves their work. It is also guided by the personal insight and the motivation that attracted the person to practice mental health.
These personal principles should be integrated into practice such that a therapist cannot be lured by external factors to engage in sexual relations (Welfel, 2012). Therapists often argue that the parties in which they were sexually involved consented into the act. This should not be used as a reason to justify this behavior. It is hard to determine whether the consent that a client gives is genuine.
There is a possibility that the client was coerced to agree to the arrangement. If it turns out that the client consented willingly, there is also the probability that it was an uninformed decision (Deaton, Illingworth & Bursztajn, 1992). This explains why the professional should integrate personal values with the professional values to establish the best course of action when in an ethical dilemma (Welfel, 2012).
Reasons why Therapists may engage in sexual Relations and possible solutions
The motivation for sexual relations between counselors and their clients is often unconscious. The therapist may have conflicting personal character that makes him/her vulnerable in helpless situations, or loss of self esteem or rage. In this case, the therapist discloses some personal information in an effort to enhance the therapeutic process.
With increased interaction, the relationship changes from a professional one to a personal one with the therapist also seeking an understanding of the client. The therapist also expects the client to view him/her positively and thus deviates the relationship from therapy into personal matters. Such a relationship increases the chances of a sexual relationship (Celenza, 1998).
Such vulnerable therapists should seek counseling from their supervisors to help them in enhancing their ethical values. They can be rehabilitated and offered a continuous in-practice training program. This should be followed by an evaluation program to ensure that the therapy helps them in improving their performance (Schoener & Gonsiorek, 1988).
Therapists who have a childhood history of sexual abuse or withdrawn emotional needs of parents are prone to engage in sexual relationships with their clients. For instance, a therapist reported that his mother kept a distance from him and his two brothers. When he tried to get close to the mother, she got frightened and kept her distance.
However, she encouraged the sons’ lustful behavior as they got older. This is an indication that the sons behaved this way because they lacked an emotional attachment with their mother. As a therapist, this is bound to extend to the clients whereby such therapists may seek recognition from the clients. This satisfies their emotional needs but is harmful to clients and the profession (Celenza, 1998).
In such cases, one should go for further education and training on therapist-client relationships. The therapy style can also be changed to be convenient and reduce the degree of vulnerability for the client. For example, if the therapist hugs clients and holds their hands while comforting them, he can change to a conservative style (Schoener & Gonsiorek, 1988).
Sexual relations between counselors and their clients has been a major cause of ethical dilemma. It is prohibited by law because it interferes with the therapeutic process and causes harm to the clients. Therapists who have engaged in such activities have compromised their careers and their own social well-being. The therapists should observe the professional culture and values in order to prevent such occurrences from happening.
They determine the relationship that exists between the clients and therapists, and define boundaries to be observed. On-the-job training can act as a reminder of these values and a guide to the new entrants into the practice. Therapists who may be inadequate can be counseled by their supervisors in rehabilitation programs to strengthen their values into practice. This profession should be practiced with the interest of the clients at heart.
Celenza, A. (1998). Precursors to Therapist Sexual Misconduct Preliminary Findings. Psychometric Psychology, 15(3),378-395.
Deaton, R. J. S., Illingworth, P. M. L. & Bursztajn, H. J (1992). Unanswered Questions about the Criminalization of Therapist-Patient Sex. American Journal of Psychotherap, 46(4), 526-531.
Gutheil, T. G. & Gabbard, G. O. (1992). Obstacles to the Dynamic Understanding of Therapist-Patient Sexual Relations. American Journal of Psychotherapy, 46(4), 515-525.
Schoener, G. R. & Gonsiorek, J. (1988). Assessment Development of Rehabilitation Plans for Counselors Who Have Sexually Exploited Their Clients. Journal of Counselling and Development, 67, 227-232.
Thorn, B. E., Shealy, R. C. & Briggs, S. D. (1993). Sexual Misconduct in Psychotherapy: Reactions to a Consumer-Oriented Brochure. Professional Psychology: Research and Psychology, 24(1), 75-82.
Thorn, B. E., Rubin, N. J. & Holderby, A. J. (1996).Ethics and Behavior. Client-Therapist: Responses of Psychotherapy Clients to a consumer-Oriented Brochure, 6(1), 17-18.
Robinson, L. H. (2004). The Abuse of Power: A view of Sexual Misconduct in a Systematic Approach to Pastoral Care. Pastoral Psychology, 52(5), 395-404.
Welfel, E. R. (2012). Ethics in counseling and psychotherapy. Belmont, Calif: Wadsworth.