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posted: 5/4/2014 1:01 AM

Professional helpers must maintain relationship boundaries

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A pastor seduces women from his congregation who come to him for counseling. An attorney regularly propositions clients in divorce cases. A priest has a long-term affair with a married woman in his parish. A psychotherapist tries to persuade clients that having sex with him will help in overcoming their sexual problems. A physician is sexually provocative when alone with patients.

There is a phrase often used when such situations are revealed: sexual abuse. And we talk of the people -- women, children, men -- who have been so abused as "victims."

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"Abuse." "Victims." In private, some people struggle with these words. Especially when adults are involved, sooner or later someone will eventually ask, "Why didn't she (or he) just say no?"

Usually the people who ask this question are fairly good at saying "no" themselves. They are generally secure in their own sense of worth and power. They trust their own judgment. Unfortunately, our own healthy self-worth and assertiveness can blind us to the reality that many people have not been taught these attitudes and skills. Women, especially, are often taught the very opposite in our culture.

We often tell women their worth depends on their meeting the needs of others while denying their own needs. We teach them they have no real power and must look to a man to be powerful for them, or that they automatically must give up their power in their relationships with men. We suggest they doubt their own judgment and look to others to think for them. We imply their rights are secondary to the rights of fathers, husbands and other men. We instill in them the belief that they have no legitimate boundaries, that saying "no" is not their right.

Not all women are taught this, though even a woman raised to see herself as worthwhile, as wise, and as powerful must deal with societal messages to the contrary. Sadly, many of our daughters eventually enter adulthood with little sense of what it means to be a healthy, assertive woman.

When people who lack such a positive sense of self encounter the challenges and crises that can occur in any of our lives -- marital struggles, unemployment, illness, loss -- they often do have the wisdom to get help (and that's some wisdom we all could use). They realize none of us can go it alone, that there are times in all our lives when we want to depend on someone else to help us out a bit.

When we ask someone to help us -- pastor, attorney, priest, therapist, physician -- we necessarily give them some temporary authority in our lives. We seek, trust and often act on their advice and counsel. Within limits, this is a normal, healthy part of human relationships.

Tragically, when adults who lack a sense of self worth, power and boundaries encounter a helper who is also an abuser, they find it incredibly difficult -- almost impossible at times -- to just say "no." (Or, if they do say "no," they find themselves doubting, even feeling ashamed of, their own act of assertiveness.) Remember, they have been taught that they have no legitimate authority of their own. And they have trusted the authority of the helper whose assistance they have sought. In such situations, then, they can be just as vulnerable as children who are abused.

There is one person, however, who is always responsible for such abuse: the professional helper who is sexually seductive or provocative. He or she knows that such behavior is never, ever, for any reason acceptable. All professional organizations or licensing bodies have codes of conduct specifically prohibiting such behavior. No respected professional has ever publicly maintained that such sexualizing of a helping relationship is permissible. It is always seen as an abuse of power and authority. All professionals are taught that it is their job to set appropriate boundaries, even when the people who come to them for help are not able to do so. Those who come to professionals for help should never be put in the position of having to say "no" to sex.

Sexual abuse? Victims? This is exactly what we are talking about. And we as individuals, as parents, and as a society must take a long hard look at how we contribute to both such abuse and such victimization.

• Dr. Ken Potts is on the staff of Samaritan Counseling Center in Naperville and Downers Grove. He is the author of "Mix Don't Blend, A Guide to Dating, Engagement and Remarriage With Children."

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