In this talk, I discuss the abuse of adult women in positions of power; specifically, the issue of blame. If a therapist or a doctor or a clergyman, a man in a position of power, engages in a sexual relationship with a woman he is counseling or treating, is that relationship considered a mutual affair or is it considered abuse?
I can tell you the answer to this question is a resounding NO! Consent cannot be given in a relationship with an imbalance of power. A woman cannot say yes if she cannot also say no.
Abuse or Affair: Can Women Freely Choose a Relationship with their Therapist or Pastor?
An affair happens when two adults freely choose to pursue an emotional and/or sexual relationship outside of their marriages. The keyword here is freely. In order to make a choice freely there can be no extraneous conditions putting pressure on either person.
In this scenario, the relationship I will be describing is between a young woman who has sought help/counsel from an older male therapist and religious leader. At first glance, we might think two adults, it’s a mutual affair. But wait…Duress refers to the act of using threats or psychological pressure to force someone to behave in a way that is contrary to their wishes. We can all agree that this would negate a freely chosen affair. So, let’s look closer to ensure that there was no undue pressure affecting this woman’s decision to say yes to the relationship.
- Is one of the people in a position of power over the other? Certainly, a therapist wields a great deal of power over a client and a pastor over a congregant. Are we not taught since childhood to be obedient to authority figures? Milgram, a famous psychologist, calls this inclination “authority bias”—the tendency that we humans have to blindly follow people in perceived positions of authority. His studies concluded that people obey authority figures “either out of fear or out of a desire to appear cooperative–even when acting against their own better judgment and desires.” So, back to our relationship. We’re just getting started and already we have an issue with this woman being able to freely choose to engage in a relationship with her therapist.
- Is there any childhood sexual abuse in the woman’s history that would prohibit her from saying no? Childhood sexual abuse teaches its victims that they don’t have the right to say no. If 1 in 4 women are abused, it is safe to say that a large percentage of women seeking help/counseling have abuse in their backgrounds. In a study by Pope & Veter of 1,000 patients who had been sexually involved with their therapist, 1/3 of those patients had been molested as children. As a result, these women cannot freely say yes bc no is off the table for them already.
- Is there a large age gap between the two parties which could easily confuse/entice the young woman to crave not the person themselves but the role they are playing? Male therapists and or pastors naturally take on a paternal role. If a client has suffered abuse by her father leaving a void there, that would create a strong pull towards the man which could be very confusing for the client.
- As a young person seeking help from a pastor or a mental health professional, is that person in an emotionally volatile and fragile state? I would suggest she is bc the relationship originated with her reaching out for help. To find much-needed support and then risk losing it would be a powerful motivator to want to please the one in power.
- If the counselor is a pastor or religious leader as mine was, isn’t the woman likely to view him as a representative of God? She may think he is acting on God’s behalf so she can’t accurately access his actions. To criticize the religious leader would feel like criticizing God Himself.
- Will saying no to the other person result in any kind of negative consequences? In the therapy setting, would saying no result in anger or a removal of the therapist’s love and affection? In an employer/employee setting, will no result in any form of backlash at work? If there is any risk involved in saying no, yes does not apply.
- Is there a dual relationship? If the woman decides to say no to a relationship with the man in power, is she at risk of losing him as her therapist or pastor? I would suggest that she will feel an extreme amount of pressure if presented with this choice. I would also suggest that she would lose her therapist or pastor if she went against his wishes.
- Another way you know the relationship is not one of two equals is this: Can you separate the person from the position? In a regular relationship with equal power, you can. However, once someone acts as your therapist or your pastor or your physician, once they have played one of these particular roles, you will forever view them through that lens. It doesn’t matter if the therapist changes jobs in order to be with an ex-patient. I had a therapist pursue me as a friend after we completed therapy and I ended up hurt. It just doesn’t work.
- Is there any guilt involved in the woman’s decision to stay or leave? In a regular balanced relationship, there is supposed to be a give and take. If your therapist, however, buys you a gift or gives you longer sessions than other clients it will trigger an insane amount of indebtedness in the client and that sense of being indebted will definitely play a role when the woman is asked to do something she has reservations about down the road.
- The same thing goes for pity. If your pastor breaches professional boundaries and begins sharing hurts from his childhood or his broken marriage with the woman he is supposed to be counseling, she will feel an extreme amount of empathy or pity for him, more so than she would in a healthy relationship between equals. Why? Bc the pastor is supposed to be the strong one holding it together for the parishioner. The therapist is supposed to be the rock allowing the client to fall apart without concern for the therapist. I assure you the woman will feel this as psychological pressure. A pastor and a therapist know this. They are trained to maintain boundaries and they know they are harming the patient when they breach those boundaries.
- Lastly, a mutual affair between two well-adjusted healthy adults with no imbalance of power between them will be honest and transparent. The woman sees the man for who he is and willingly chooses him. And vice versa.
On the other hand, predators use trickery and deceit. They will create the illusion of whatever the victim needs by first seeking out their voids and then magically seeking to fill them. In this way, they foster a dependency on them just like a victim being given a taste of a drug. Some bait their victims with romantic gestures, some lure their victims using the powerful father-daughter dynamic. Others use God and tell their victims they have something special—their relationship is a gift from God, blessed, pure. Once the woman is duly addicted to whatever drug of choice the perpetrator is offering, he can begin to up the anty.
The woman at this stage may think she is saying yes, but she is not saying yes to the relationship she is saying yes to the deep-seated need that is being met, to the “drug” the abuser is offering. She is likely unaware this is even happening. She simply feels better, like maybe the counseling is working or the relationship is benefitting her.
Regardless of how this type of predator seduces their victims and regardless of how the women see their role, they never got to freely choose the relationship. They were tricked into it. And that is far from a free choice.
Words carry power so please hesitate the next time you begin to make a judgment on a woman in this position. If the factors above were involved, even one of them, it was not an affair. Name it for what is was…an abuse of power.