Fisher Heads APA Task ForceContact: Thompson, Ryan
NEW YORK — The American Psychological Association (APA) Ethics Code Task Force, led by Fordham University Psychology Professor Celia Fisher, Ph.D., has proposed a lifetime ban on sex between therapists and their clients. The present code allows for a therapist-client sexual relationship under certain conditions two years after the end of therapy. Fisher says that the "inherent power imbalance" between therapist and client is "not erased with termination" of therapy, and so the emotional harm that could come from a sexual relationship persists. A psychotherapist becomes an authority figure to a client, receiving personal and private knowledge about the client that is not balanced by equivalent knowledge on the client's part. This creates the risk of an exploitative and damaging relationship if it reaches the point of sex, Fisher said. The term "transference" describes the phenomenon by which clients place on their therapists feelings they had toward another person in their past - a parent or a lover, for example. Sexual involvement can complicate this phenomenon and lead to exploitation of the client by the therapist. Further, the professional relationship of a therapist may not end with the last consultation or session; the therapist has to remain available to the client in case the client wants to seek the therapist's help again, and a ban on sex leaves this door open, Fisher said. Other professions, such as the American Psychiatric Association, have a perpetual prohibition, and by following suit, psychologists can make clear that "our profession places the highest value on protecting consumers' interests and well-being," Fisher said. The two-year APA ban has been in place since 1992. Fisher says it was enacted despite the votes of some therapists who felt it infringed on their freedom and rights, and she says she expects a "strong minority" to oppose the proposed perpetual ban. Opponents of the proposed ban claim there should be a right to associate with former clients, and also that in a small number of cases sex between a therapist and a former client causes no harm. Further, some say that a ban reflects too paternalistic and protective an attitude toward clients. The code of ethics is enforced through clients' complaints, which are taken up by the APA, or sometimes by state boards or a health organization sponsoring the therapy. Therapists are not monitored directly by the APA. Founded in 1841, Fordham is New York City’s Jesuit University. It has residential campuses in the north Bronx and Manhattan, and academic centers in Tarrytown and Armonk, NY.