Sexual Misconduct Is the Number One Misbehavior

February 20, 2000

In the past 29 years, of the 670 psychologists disciplined nationally for sexual misconduct, 131 were allowed to continue practicing (Reason magazine, March 2000).

 By this account, on average only 23 psychologists a year are disciplined for sexual misconduct. When you consider that there are over 100,000 practicing, licensed psychologists, that accounts for less than .023% a year. So I suppose that's a good statistic, comparatively. 23 is still 23 more than should be disciplined, but at least it's not a 123 or 1,023. (There is certainly some confusion and estimating about how many practicing, licensed psychologists there actually are -- nobody really knows. APA says it has more than 159,000 members, but in its 1998 annual report, the number of voting members is closer to 87,000 (the other 62,500 "members" are student affiliates who have little say in most APA issues). It is generally agreed that the APA represents less than half of all psychologists - 50% of psychologists simply choose not to be members of the association. So 100,000 is my best guestimate based upon these figures. If anyone wants to correct me, please drop me a note!)

 Of course, the scarier number is that nearly 20% of those accused were allowed to continue practicing. There are a number of possible reasons for this. The most obvious is that the accusations weren't that serious, although this seems difficult to understand. Any behavior of a sexual nature for one who is disciplined would seem to be serious enough to warrant the halting of his or her practicing in the future. Of course numbers can't give us insight into why the 131 were allowed to continue practicing. But it is disturbing to know that a psychologist you could go see may have been disciplined for sexual misconduct and allowed to continue practicing.

 According to APA's 1998 report, 53% of terminations of membership (the only recourse open to the ethics committee) were because of sexual misconduct. No other single category came close to accounting for the number of terminations. In previous years, this number has been as high as 67%. However, that 53% translates into a mere 17 members losing their membership privilege in one year. Since the APA doesn't hear complaints about nonmembers, you could probably double these numbers to represent the total number of psychologists.

 Usually the psychologist is brought before their state's licensing board and often lose their license for such misbehavior. Of the 31 cases opened for loss of licensure in 1998, sexual misconduct was the underlying behavior in 58% of them, according to the APA's ethics committee report.

 These numbers aren't terrifying, although as I said before, every single case of misconduct is one too many. We have no idea if this is just the tip of underreported iceberg, but I suspect it isn't. Ethical breaches of behavior toward a client are serious enough, and often actionable (e.g., the client can sue the psychologist), to provide a stimulus for reporting them.

 Any relationship outside of the professional one is usually frowned upon by the profession and is even singled out in the APA's ethical code. Any sexual behavior by a psychologist as a part of the professional relationship with him or her is unethical, unlawful, and should be immediately reported. There are no exceptions to this rule. There is no legitimate purpose for any sexual behaviors in therapy or as a part of psychotherapeutic relationship with any mental health professional. Want to file a complaint? You can quickly find the right agency to do so here.

 Also this month, yet another poorly conducted study was released, this time from Stanford, purportedly showing that with greater Internet use, people become more socially isolated. Bull-malarky. Read my response to this study's poor methodology and questionable conclusions overhyped in the media reporting on it.

 - John

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 27 Jan 2007
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It's not having been in the dark house, but having left it, that counts.
-- Theodore Roosevelt