Review of Sex in the Forbidden Zone

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A Review of SEX IN THE FORBIDDEN ZONE: When Men in Power – Therapists, Doctors, Clergy, Teachers, and Others – Betray Women's Trust

by Peter Rutter, M.D.

Los Angeles: Tarcher

Review Copyright © 1989 by William A. Henkin

Originally published in Spectator



Half the life I've lived so far ago, when I was teaching summer school at a small Midwestern college, I had in one of my classes a student I found simply scrumptious. In addition to being the tall-and-willowy model of female I then favored, she had hair the creamy orange color of crayfish etouffé, creme fraiche skin besprinkled with nutmeg freckles, a nose pugged like a buttercup, and soft blue cornflower eyes. She was also the smartest kid in class by so many leaps and bounds that if she'd cut the last half semester I'd still have had to give her an A.

Unfortunately, this woman came to have a crush on me for reasons I was too callow at the time to ascertain, and in due course she showed up at my office after class one evening to discuss the finer points of whatever piece of reading I'd assigned. We talked, we walked, and sometime after the moon rose over the blackened lake nearby we went our way to my bachelor pad and rent the night with our hot couplings.

It was 1967. I was 23, simply enjoying my youth and the fruits of the sexual revolution. I never meant to cause the woman harm. For me the fuck was just the consummation of one more physical desire.

Ah, but for her it was part of a confusion. Not only did I cease to be available to her except as her professor, but she never really knew whether the grade I gave her had to do with the remarkably good work she did in class or with the remarkably good workout we'd had in bed.

Today I would say I abused that woman, not because we fucked, but because of the disparity in our official positions when we did; and my recollection of the deed is one of the touchstones I employ to keep my conscience clean in my work as a therapist.

By abuse I do not mean that I behaved against my student's wishes, or that she did not choose of her own free will to sleep with me as I chose to sleep with her. I do not mean she was not a responsible adult capable of making up her own mind about what she did or did not want to do. Nor did I force myself upon her in any way.

I mean, rather, that because I held a measure of power over some small part of her immediate fate – her grade, and perhaps to some extent the next portion of her college career – I had a kind of moral obligation not to muddy the waters with my lust. I could have the lust, sure: she was a peach. But I needed to contain the lust as well, so that she could ever after be certain who she was that year in school, that neither her work nor her sense of self was compromised, and that she could be certain that the academic results that went down in her transcript reflected her academic rather than her erotic efforts.

I mean, then, that I abused her by betraying her trust, with potentially dire effect. This is also the way Peter Rutter claims many men in positions of power abuse their female charges.

Because men so often control access to a woman's future – and to her physical, psychological, spiritual, economic, or intellectual well-being – the mere presence of sexual innuendo from a man who has power over her can become a barrier to her development....


[A]ny sexual behavior by a man in power within what I define as the forbidden zone is inherently exploitative of a woman's trust. Because he is the keeper of that trust, it is the man's responsibility, no matter what the level of provocation or apparent consent by the woman, to assure that sexual behavior does not take place.


Rutter's is a hard position to espouse these days because at first blush it could be so easily misconstrued as classically sexist: men have the power, and hence the responsibility; women thrive by men's good graces. Yet, as he makes clear in Sex in the Forbidden Zone, this division of power is not something he regards as desirable, but a facet of contemporary life which men in power and the women in their care must understand if they are to thrive psychologically and spiritually, and damage neither each other nor themselves.

Early in his book, Rutter, a psychiatrist in San Francisco, tells the story of a client he calls Mia, with whom he very nearly became sexual seven years into his private practice. He and Mia had already uncovered her tendency to become intimate with men as a way to hold their interest, when one night, alone with him in his office, she slid off her chair onto the floor and buried her face in his lap, rubbing herself against him, and "inexorably reenacted her familiar role as sexual victim" Rutter had never imagined he might fall for such a temptation, but he found himself longing to succumb.


My likelihood of collaborating in this sexual scenario was enhanced by the fact that, because of losses in my own personal life, I had been feeling quite depressed that winter, and I had no place to go that evening except back to the empty house where I lived alone. Mia was the last patient on my schedule. It had long since become dark outside, and as we sat in my warm office listening to the cold rain outside, I knew that we were the only ones left in the office building.


In the event, Rutter asked his client to return to her chair; she did so, and the two of them were able to explore the way she had attempted to play out her life's scenario with him. Instead of using her disability to satisfy his own, Rutter chose a path of healing for them both; but as he did so he became aware of how vulnerable he was to having sex with his clients.

As a consequence of his encounter with Mia, as well as other incidents in his professional life – for instance, one of his favorite mentors was professionally dishonored by the revelation that he had been sexual with many of his clients for the duration of his long and distinguished career – Rutter began to interview other men whose positions made them mentors of female protégées, and to research the literature on intimate relationships between female clients and their male doctors, therapists, clergy, and teachers. While he found many people who had been tempted by this inappropriate form of intimacy, he found that the literature was not only scanty but conspicuously scanty, as if a conspiracy prevailed to protect the privilege of these sorts of liberties in the male power structure, and to protect the names of the men who had taken them.

The result of his study, Sex in the Forbidden Zone is an examination of the allure of this part of all that is forbidden, and of the nature of power dynamics, as well as of male and female psychology. Rutter discusses the healing values of trust that is honored in relationships across genders, and the ways violations of that trust entrench the very psychic wounds they may have been intended to heal. He uses case studies and writings of men and women whose lives were profoundly, usually adversely, affected by this form of forbidden sex, and charts ways that people can discover the very hearts of themselves by declining the easy temptations of simple succor, and searching through their motives for their desires instead. As if he were a very directive sort of counselor he takes a clear advocacy position and provides straightforward information for women about "Guarding the Sexual Boundary" in the interests of their own psychological well-being, and parallel information for men about "Facing the Feminine [both outside and within themselves] in New Ways." Finally, he provides a bibliography and a list of organizational addresses through which people can seek help or redress, as their conditions warrant.

Rutter's book is so politically correct that it may be criticized by some sexually free individuals as flat-out stodgy. Yet, more than half the therapists who lose their licenses in California each month lose them over charges of sexual misconduct, and when I have spoken with heterosexual therapists about this subject I have noticed that nearly every one of them who advocates or accepts having sex with clients is male, and that whatever their theoretical position they only seem to feel that way in practice about young, attractive female clients: never about men, and never about older, infirm, or unattractive women – who arguably need their physical attentions more.

At the same time, I cannot conclude this little report without acknowledging something about book reviewing in the forbidden zone. Peter Rutter is not only a faculty member and chair of the ethics committee of the C. G. Jung Institute, associate clinical professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California Medical School, and winner of the distinguished teacher award in Health and Medical Sciences at UC Berkeley; he was also, for a time, my therapist, and my response to his work may not be unbiased.


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