Sexual Assault Awareness for Therapists

Sexual Assault Awareness for Therapists

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month.

Which is also an opportunity to address the unfortunate fact that sexual harassment of healthcare workers has become increasingly prevalent. For rehabilitation therapists specifically, performing necessary job roles can place these professionals at a higher risk of experiencing unwanted sexual behavior.

Recommended course: Behavior Management in Adults and Adolescents with Neurological Disorders

Unwanted sexual behavior in the workplace

A study completed by the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) in 2017 found a staggering 84% of physical therapists have reported improper sexual behavior in clinical practice.

There are some theories to what causes this higher than typical rate in these professions, with some reports suggesting that the trust of therapist-patient relationship becomes misconstrued, or that therapists using their hands to mobilize or perform soft tissue work leads them into vulnerable situations. Regardless of what causes the higher incidence of these unacceptable behaviors, they are still exactly that: unacceptable.

Handling inappropriate behavior

For therapists, learning how to handle sexually inappropriate language and actions or unwanted sexual behavior is critical. At a minimum, therapists need to know the proper actions and resources available to them.

Every therapist should be able to identify potentially unsafe situations. They should know how to set proper professional boundaries. If necessary, they should know the process for reporting inappropriate behaviors. Therapists should also understand how to seek support from a professional representative or state board.

Identifying unsafe situations

Prior research has identified factors which put clinicians at higher risk of inappropriate sexual behavior from patients. Some of the high-risk factors identified included female sex, young age, and less work experience. Female clinicians make up the majority in the physical therapy field, and the average age of a physical therapist is only 41 years old. This places an alarming number of therapists at risk.

The main type of reported behaviors included suggestive remarks or jokes and staring at the therapist’s body. Maintaining a keen awareness as to the location of and conversation amongst patients and fellow staff can help a therapist identify potentially threatening situations early on.

Setting professional boundaries

A professional and respectful therapist-patient relationship can be one of the best parts of working in rehabilitation therapy. It is often empathetic and compassionate individuals who thrive in this field.

However, without proper boundaries, unscrupulous individuals can manipulate the kindhearted nature of these professionals. As part of their training for future therapists, the College of Occupational Therapies of Ontario outlines a 4 step-process to setting professional boundaries: Apply, Anticipate, Assess, and Act.

They explain that therapists should apply their continued learning to maintain up to date with laws and regulations, anticipate when an issue may arise, assess the threat level of that issue, and act on a solution.

Reporting inappropriate behaviors

Resources are available to any individual who currently is or has experienced sexual harassment in the past. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) requires workplaces with 15 or more employees to abide by a system for investigating and reporting sexual harassment, which includes an employer grievance system.

The EEOC allows 180 days since the inappropriate behavior to file a grievance in the public sector. They allow 45 days for federal employees.

Seeking support from professional representatives

Each state board defines what actions are considered sexual harassment in their practice act. The Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy (FSBPT) maintains a copy of each state’s practice act, and contact information for filing grievances.

Additionally, the FSBPT has sample violations available. These can help educate therapists through potentially unclear situations and navigate the process of filing.

In summary

To maintain a workplace clear of sexual harassment, each professional needs to be accountable for themselves and their surroundings. For rehabilitation therapists, this includes patients as well.


This article was written by Cristina Parker, PT, DPT

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