Watch for warning signs, get assistance, and file a complaint if you have concerns
Consumers: Professional therapy never includes sexual contact between a therapist and a client.
UNETHICAL, ILLEGAL, AND HARMFUL
Sexual contact of any kind between a therapist and a client is unethical and illegal in California. In addition, therapy never includes inappropriate sexual suggestions, or any other kind of sexual behavior between a therapist and a client. Sexual contact within two years after termination of therapy is also illegal and unethical.
It is always the responsibility of the therapist to ensure that sexual contact with a client—whether consensual or not—does not occur. Sexual behavior between a therapist and a client can harm the client. Harm may arise from the therapist’s exploitation of the client to fulfill their own needs or desires, and from the therapist’s loss of the objectivity necessary for effective therapy. All therapists are trained and educated to know that this kind of behavior is illegal and unethical.
Therapists are trusted and respected by their clients, and it is not uncommon for clients to admire and feel attracted to them. However, a therapist who accepts or encourages the expression of these feelings through sexual behavior with the client—or tells a client that sexual involvement is part of therapy—violates the therapeutic relationship and engages in conduct that may be illegal and unethical. This kind of abusive behavior can cause harmful, long-lasting, emotional, and psychological effects to the client.
WATCH FOR WARNING SIGNS
In most sexual misconduct cases, other inappropriate behavior comes first. While it may be subtle or confusing, it usually feels uncomfortable to the client. Some clues or warning signs are:
- Telling sexual jokes or stories.
- Sending obscene images or messages to the client.
- Unwanted physical contact.
- Excessive out-of-session communication (via text, phone, email, social media, etc.) not related to therapy.
- Inviting a client to lunch, dinner, or other social and professional activities.
- Changing the office’s business practices (like scheduling late appointments when no one is around, having sessions away from the office, etc.).
- Confiding in a client (such as about the therapist’s love life, work problems, loneliness, marital problems, etc.).
- Telling a client that they are special, or that the therapist loves them.
- Relying on a client for personal and emotional support.
- Giving or receiving significant gifts.
- Suggesting or supporting the client’s isolation from social support systems, increasing dependency on the therapist.
- Providing or using alcohol or drugs during sessions.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
If you are experiencing any of these warning signs or have other concerns, you have the right to file a complaint (also available in Spanish) with the appropriate Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA) licensing board and consult with another therapist.
In California, there are four boards that license and regulate therapists:
- Board of Behavioral Sciences—This Board licenses and regulates marriage and family therapists and associates, clinical social workers and associates, educational psychologists, and professional clinical counselors and associates.
- Board of Psychology—This Board licenses and regulates psychologists and psychological associates.
- Medical Board of California—This Board licenses and regulates physicians and surgeons; licensed midwives, polysomnographic trainees, technicians, and technologists; research psychoanalysts; issues special faculty permits; and approves outpatient surgery setting accreditation agencies.
- Osteopathic Medical Board of California—This Board licenses and regulates osteopathic physicians and surgeons.
These licensing boards protect the health, safety, and welfare of consumers, and have the authority to discipline therapists through the administrative law process.
WHERE TO GET HELP
Therapy may be an important tool in your recovery. Before selecting a new therapist:
- Verify the status of the therapist’s license online anytime with DCA’s free search tool—https://search.dca.ca.gov—or call DCA’s Consumer Information Center toll-free Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.: (800) 952-5210 or (800) 326-2297 (TDD).
- Ask someone you know and trust for a referral.
- Search online for a local sexual assault center or crisis intervention service. These centers can refer you to therapists experienced in dealing with those who have suffered sexual misconduct by a therapist.
- Contact professional associations and ask for referrals to therapists who specialize in helping those who have suffered sexual misconduct by a therapist.
- Seek a referral from your primary care physician or insurance provider.