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Men in Power, Women in Need : SEX IN THE FORBIDDEN ZONE: When Men in Power-- Therapists, Doctors, Clergy, Teachers and Others --Betray Womens' Trust by Peter Rutter MD (Jeremy P. Tarcher: $17.95; 240 pp.; 0-87477-486-1)

December 24, 1989|R. Jock Hearn | Hearn is a clinical psychologist in private practice in West Los Angeles

"It took me nearly a decade to stop believing in the myth of the beneficent doctor." These sobering words in the opening section of this important work by Peter Rutter MD, a psychiatrist in private practice in San Francisco, a faculty member of the C. G. Jung Institute, and an associate clinical professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of California Medical School, bring to our attention an issue that many would prefer to avoid.

The betrayal of womens' trust, in their seduction by male professionals, while previously whispered about, has only come under open public scrutiny in very recent years. The demands for justice by the womens' movement, and the increased educational level of many of the general public, who are now less automatically deferential to experts in power positions, have contributed to this.

The author deals with this immensely painful subject in a courageous, compassionate and insightful manner. While focusing on the pain and disillusionment of the victims, he examines the complex dynamics of betrayer and betrayed with understanding and humility.

While he does not deal with sexual exploitation by female power figures, nor with homosexual seduction, he acknowledges that these do occur, though in far fewer instances.

The "Forbidden Zone," of which the author speaks, refers to the situation in which women come to male power figures, such as psychiatrists, psychologists, lawyers, clergymen, teachers or mentors, seeking healing, guidance, and the potential expansion of their life options. The situation contains elements of vulnerability and of hope. Here the woman seeker is peculiarly susceptible to sexual pressures exerted upon her, under whatever pretext.

Rutter candidly speaks of how two personal experiences focused his interest on this area: He describes how he was very severely tempted in an encounter with an attractive and interested female patient. Most mental health professionals who are honest with themselves will recognize having encountered such temptation in the course of their careers. While the majority of the tempted maintain an ethical stance, all too many succumb.

In a second example, the writer reveals his shock and disillusionment on discovering that a trusted senior colleague, a mentor and friend, had repeatedly engaged in the seduction of female patients.

There is an imbalance of power in all such situations. The therapist, pastor, teacher or mentor wears the mantle of surrogate "parent" and shares the protective responsibility of that role. When the helper violates the client's basic trust, it cannot be regained.

In his prologue, the author reports on the dearth of literature or articles that existed on sexual exploitation in the professions, as recently as 1984. The number of studies of this area have markedly increased over the last five years.

Rutter informs us that studies of sexual contact in universities alone show, with remarkable consistency, that 20-to-30% of female students have been sexually approached by their professors. Referring to the field as a whole, and speaking conservatively, the author estimates a total number of about 400,000 victims. If sexual exploitation of protegees in the marketplace were added, the numbers would rise to several million. The enormity of this problem is seldom recognized.

Tacit assumptions as to the role of women, and the expectation that it is their duty to nurture, indulge, and heal the wounded male, contribute to the problem. The media and advertising frequently reinforce a view of woman as compliant chattel.

Professional organizations, anxious to protect their public image, all too frequently minimize the extent to which such abuse occurs. While the major mental health disciplines have begun to grapple with the problem, in some professions, where denial is more rampant, things remain essentially unchanged.

Speaking of "The Wounds of Women," Rutter includes: overt sexual or psychological invasion in childhood, profound child aloneness, exploited compassion, and devaluated outer potential.

The author states, referring to "The Wounds of Men": "Because all men are in some way wounded and because their quest for healing usually takes the form of seeking sexual contact, an understanding of their wounds can form a basis for men to discover non-exploitive ways to heal themselves."

In the chapter, "A Guide to Men: Facing the Feminine in New Ways," the writer provides a device and guidance for troubled professionals; these include open scrutiny of male fantasies, and the transmission of healthy attitudes to children of both sexes.

Later sections of the book describe means whereby women and men can guard boundaries, recognize danger signals, avoid psychological traps, and locate and utilize available resources.

In conclusion, the author, speaking directly of male professionals working with female clients, states unequivocally: "He must, for her sake, give up his sexual agenda towards her once and for all. When he does this, he frees both of them to recover the abundant resources of the self." Here, indeed, is a message of hope.

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