Sexuality and Gender in the Therapeutic Relationship

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Sexuality and gender in the therapeutic relationship

There is a minefield awaiting the counsellor who has not given much time in the study of gender issues in the therapeutic relationship. When we enter a room to see a client, we are encouraged to bring ourselves as a complete person, so we can create a relationship with the client, and thus facilitate the changes he/she needs. To bring ourselves into the relationship we bring all aspects of our identity including our sexuality and our sexual hang-ups and our pre-conceived gender notions. In spite of the fact that we are in a post-Victorian, post Irish catholic guilt, post free love time. We all carry the accumulated burden of our forefathers, educators policy makers and others. Firstly being male or female dictate how we deal with any situation. Whether its talking to our mothers to opening a can. Our gender and how we perceive ourselves in it informs our view of the world.

If we look at the profession itself as a whole, counselling is defined by gender. Simply put there are more female counsellors than male by a huge factor. Also there are many more female clients than male. This tells us volumes. The profession is a caring one and is top heavy with those whose gender attract them to the caring professions. This puts a gender bias on all that psychotherapy does. Also the predominance of female clients can put the few male counsellors on their guard. This is because the person sitting opposite us in the room is our client, but also is a woman, with physical attributes and a subject of attraction to the male counsellor. Counselling is a one-to-one relationship that exists between two humans in which one is the focus ant the other is the companion or guide. The sex of the two protagonists is probably the first aspect that will impress upon either one. “The client coming for the first time might already know that she or he will be seeing a man or a woman. She might have certain expectations as result of this knowledge, for example she might expect a woman to be gentle and supportive and a man to be more judgemental and confrontational.” Palmer (1997)

Therapy will tend to be dominated by the structures that society imposes on both the counsellor and the client. Once the therapist is aware of this there are two ways he/she can go. First they can try to act as if they are a “tabla rasa” or blank slate and be as neutral as possible and hope that by being counsellor first and a sexual being second. This is guaranteed to be a failure, primarily because the blank slate idiom is aspirational and not very practical. Also it goes against concreteness as the therapist will not be “there” in any real sense and will not function in any valid person centred way. The other alternative is “Explicit treatment”, which put gender issues at centre stage of therapy. This requires a clear understanding of the gender position of both protagonists in the therapeutic relationship. The dynamic between both is not a static situation as the initial meeting causes automatic reaction in the therapist. For example when faced with an attractive female client a male counsellor may think. “Nice smile, good legs” or “not pretty”, etc.. This gives way to “Good speaker, Lovely laugh,.” Then the presenting problem is aired and it would be hoped that the “skilled helper” mentality kicks in. But the societal hooks have dug into the therapist and may affect his relationship with the client. So until gender is expressed in some way it is hidden and can surface in an unhelpful way. There are many ways that this can be expressed. If part of the problem is self confidence issues, there would be a perfect lead in to a confidence boosting “You see yourself as ugly but you are an attractive woman with a strong personality.” for example. If the client dresses attractively it may be how she always dresses, perhaps as armour against the world. When people begin to see a counsellor they often see this as a new...
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