A Male Survivor’s Story
Revolutions begin when people who are defined as problems achieve the power to redefine the problem.
The Careless Society
Five years ago, I received a letter from the Board of Physical and Occupational Therapy in the state where I live informing me there would be no investigation of the physical therapist who had sexually abused and harassed me, had violated my right to confidentiality, and had failed, on several occasions, to disclose to her employer the hospital where I was an outpatientthat she used hospital facilities to treat me.
The image that best captures the depth of trauma I experienced when I came to see that a person I trusted used that trust to harm me, violating her profession’s ethical code, is Edward Munch’s painting, The Scream. In it, a head that seems detached from its body is standing alone on a bridge, crying out to the universe in agony. The screamer is ageless and neither male nor female. The Scream was recently stolen from the museum that exhibited but failed to protect it, an irony that makes this picture even more relevant to my experience,
The psychiatrist who helped me deal with the effects of my abuse stood up and yelled “bullshit” on learning of the Board’s refusal to investigate my abuser. He had described to the Board’s chairman some of the serious consequences I had suffered as a result of the abuse: depression, anxiety, insomnia, and an inability to trust health professionals. He had told the chairman of my credibility and expressed concern about the need to protect other patients from the physical therapist. He was shocked, as were my attorney, my wife, and I, to have the many pages of evidence presented in the complaint dismissed without explanation.
I had, like many victims of professional exploitation, blamed myself. I had done considerable research into and had written about the sexual abuse of children within the Catholic Church. How could I, an adult, not know enough about professional boundary violations to protect myself?
My physical therapist had seemed controlling and manipulative from early in my treatment. She complained to me about a patient who wrote her a letter saying he could no longer “take care of her emotional needs,” and spoke about intense personal relationships with other patients with whom she socialized and treated outside of the hospital. The meanings of these behaviors were unclear to me at the time.
Looking back after five years, I understand the role that gender stereotypes and displaced shame played in why I blamed myself for having been exploited, i.e., I am male and powerful; my abuser is female and not powerful. I had been the object of unwanted sexual advances by two female employers several years earlier and had not reported or confronted either experience. “Maybe you are responsible for this,” an inner voice kept saying. “Maybe there is something about you as a man that invites sexual advances and even abuse from professional women.”
Reinforcing this sense of personal responsibility, the female psychotherapist from whom my wife and I had sought counseling to help us deal with the impact of the abuse on our marriage blamed me, quickly pointing out the powerlessness of the lowly female physical therapist. Although I didn’t then understand how trust, gratitude for relieved pain, and an aggregate sense of personal vulnerability could combine to set up a man or woman for abuse, it didn’t feel right that the psychotherapist blamed me and protected the abusive professional. It was I, after all, who had suffered trauma at the hands of a professional who was not supposed to harm me. It was I who, with the support of my wife, sought to heal from the injury and to protect other vulnerable patients.
Several months after my wife and I had terminated our couple’s therapy, I learned that the psychotherapist’s license had previously been suspended for several months because she had abused a client, a woman who the therapist had infantilized. The therapist had urged the client to call her “mom,” had sent the client love letters, had violated the client’s confidentiality, and invited the client to use illegal drugs with the therapist and her husband. When the psychotherapist was asked to write a letter of apology to her victim as a condition of reinstatement, she referred to her malpractice as “our experiment” and failed to take responsibility for her actions. Knowing this background, it now seems clear why this psychotherapist identified with her fellow professional abuser and not with me.
As a male survivor, I find comfort and healing from knowing that the Hippocratic oath and all professional ethical guidelines uphold the principle of equality when it comes to professional abuse and gender. No one is exemptmale or femalefrom the moral imperative to “above all, do no harm.”
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