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Setting things straight

December 12th, 2004

Dr Petra

A couple of weekends ago, I talked about how the Observer had wrongly described me as a ‘sex therapist’ (after being told repeatedly this wasn’t my job title). I also emailed the paper about the mistake.

They reported their error today, using a selection of my email to do it…

“We were wrong to describe Dr Petra Boynton as a ‘relationship therapist’ in ‘Unsleeping partners’ (Review, 28 November). She is a sex and relationships psychologist, and specifically not a therapist. A therapist is someone trained and accredited to talk to people about their problems. As a research psychologist, Dr Boynton gathers information which she shares with the academic community. Some psychologists can be trained to be therapists, but not all therapists are psychologists, and most psychologists are not therapists”.

I’m glad they corrected the error that psychologists and therapists are not one in the same, although it’s a shame that whilst they were at it they didn’t mention they’d also made this mistake with other people – a few weeks ago they also wrongly called writer and presenter Tracey Cox a ‘sex therapist’ too.

I’m not entirely sure the message that therapists and psychologists or other academics aren’t in a hierarchy has been understood though. When not confusing the occupations, journalists can position ‘therapists’ as being more qualified, experienced or senior to psychologists or other academics.

Which is why many editors direct their staffers and freelancers towards therapists, who can help with sex and relationships stories – but sometimes there are other scientists, researchers and academics who’re better suited to provide the evidence needed for the story, but don’t get used. Worse still, there are people who don’t clarify their job title like I did with The Observer. They allow themselves to be passed off as a therapist, psychologist, or some other qualification they don’t really possess, which just confuses everyone, and means the public don’t get the sex advice they need.

So let’s make it clear one last time. A therapist is a job title for someone trained to counsel couples, individuals, groups or organisations. They should have a first degree before training (although this isn’t always the case), and that degree may have been in psychology. Psychologists work in a variety of areas, from clinical work, to education and research. They could fit into many schools of study including evolutionary, cognitive or social psychology.

A therapist isn’t by default better than a psychologist or other academic. A psychologist or other academic isn’t better than a therapist. They simply do a different job.

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