Writing about mental health from a feminist counselling perspective
I wrote this critique while completing my Masters in Counselling back in 2008. Now that I’ve been practicing for awhile, I have different critiques, a more nuanced understanding of the humanistic style of therapy as it’s practiced today, and a more body-based approached to working with people who’ve experienced sexual violence. This critique is aimed at the more traditional style of humanistic therapy, and I've posted just the second half of it. Still, I thought some of you might appreciate the fierce, no-bullshit language of young Nicole and the references to the Garneau Sisterhood. (Who wouldn’t?). Enjoy :)
A Feminist Critique
One of the main problems with the humanistic approach to therapy with the sexual assault survivor is the extreme focus on the individual’s internal reality. The client’s internal world is focused on to such a high degree that the external reality is overlooked or ignored altogether (Lerman, 1992). It assumes that a person can be separated from the real world in which he or she lives, and practically ignores the existence of an environment outside of the self. In essence, the counsellor disregards and discounts the real barriers and external problems that the client faces, instead focusing solely on imagined or internal difficulties.
Humanistic approaches do not address the truth that people are very much related to and influenced by the environment in which they live. The barriers that exist for women and other marginalized groups are forgotten through this approach (Lerman, 1992). In a sexual assault scenario, the inner reality of the individual and her feelings about the assault become the focus of counselling, rather than a discussion surrounding the reality of rape culture and the existence of violence against women that is upheld in a patriarchal society.
The inevitable consequence of this sort of approach is that it relies on the myth “it’s all in your head” (Greenspan, 1983, p. 126). Person-centred counsellors do not seem to recognize this fact, and they tend to suggest that the client is responsible for her own reality (Greenspan, 1983). A feminist counselling perspective, on the other hand, makes it clear that reality is not wholly determined internally. As Lerman (1992) illustrates, “contact with a boulder will hurt no matter how it is perceived” (p. 12).
Subscribing to the myth that the problem is all in the individual’s head adversely affects clients who blame themselves for lacking total control over their lives (Lerman, 1992). It expects the individual to alter painful aspects of her life by herself, rather than utilize the community to support her. Furthermore, the notion that the problem is all in one’s head continues to undermine women with a new set of false promises of power. It propels the false notion that there are no social constraints on the freedom to fulfill oneself, and that the universe is “pleased to oblige [one’s] wishes and aspirations, so long as [one is] open to change” (Greenspan, 1983, p. 128). This promise of total personal power becomes a burden, as well as a false hope (Lerman).
Feminist counselling recognizes that an individual woman cannot completely prevent sexual assault from occurring, despite common beliefs that she can do so by “risk reduction” tactics. These commonly upheld tactics include wearing “less provocative” clothing, not walking alone at night, limiting alcohol consumption, and reducing sexual promiscuity (Corcoran, 1992). Feminist counselling recognizes that sexual can happen to anyone, and essentially, counsellors underline the fact that rape happens because of rapists, not because of characteristics or behaviours of the survivors. The humanistic approach to counselling, in comparison, instructs the sexual assault survivor that she is in charge of her own recovery, and that the problem, rather than being within society or even the individual rapist, is within her. Methods like these are extremely unhelpful to women, because the burden of rape prevention is still placed on the woman, and thereby the potential for victim blaming remains high (Corcoran).
The feminist approach moves beyond imagined barriers and directly addresses the real social, political, and cultural environment that the individual faces. It does not view rape as an individual woman’s problem. Instead, it is correctly seen as a community and societal problem that must be addressed on a societal level. Corcoran (1992) discusses the idea that sexual assault is not an individual problem, but rather the “product of a patriarchal culture that promotes and allows rape through gender socialization, the acceptance of interpersonal violence, and institutionalized misogyny” (p. 136). The unfortunate truth is that patriarchal institutions contribute to the oppression of women, resulting in increased barriers and decreased opportunities (Lerman, 1992).
The importance of recognizing the real barriers that women face is enormous. We cannot pretend that feeling unconditional positive regard, empathy, and genuineness from a counsellor will stop a woman from being sexually assaulted or allow her to come to terms with a society in which sexual assault is widespread. Humanistic therapists might suggest that it helps women to take responsibility for the sexual assault so that they can regain a sense of power (Corcoran, 1992). But the reality is that the responsibility of rape prevention cannot and should not reside within the individual woman. Statistics show that approximately 25% of Canadian women and 12% of Canadian men will be sexually assaulted within their lifetime (L. Gotell, personal communication, September 2008). A problem so prevalent can no longer be viewed as an individual problem, nor can it adequately be addressed this way in counselling.
Sexual assault is more than an individual problem because it affects every man and woman, directly or indirectly. If a person in the community is raped, other community members react. Muscio (2002) takes this notion further, stating that in a community where women love themselves and each other, “no one feels ‘lucky’ it was ‘some other woman’ who got raped” (p. 168). In a society where people are interconnected and where there is community, there is no such thing as “some other woman”.
To illustrate this concept, it is important to address real issues of rape and how they affect women in the community. In the city I live, the impact of sexual assault has arguably never been more underlined than it is right now. In the spring of 2008, a series of rapes occurred in the Garneau and Aspen Gardens areas of Edmonton. The police response to these attacks was to tell women to lock their doors and windows, even though it was clear that the perpetrator broke in. An anonymous group of women in the community organized in reaction to this situation, and began a postering campaign to address the perpetuation of sexual assault myths and “blame the victim” tactics (L. Gotell, personal communication, September 2008). One of the posters reads, “There is no such thing as an isolated attack on an individual woman. When a sister is raped, it is a rape of the sisterhood. The sisterhood is watching.” It is signed, “The Garneau Sisterhood”.
According to a feminist perspective, counselling should likewise address the problem of sexual assault on a society level (Greenspan, 1983). To create real possibilities for women we must fight the systemic barriers that face them. We can do this by creating space within the counselling session to discuss the existence of sexual assault as a community problem, rather than individual problem. We can then address the importance of addressing the individual concern at a societal level, and inevitably, we can create real opportunities for women through a social, institutional, political, and cultural revolution (Greenspan).
Real healing and loving oneself as a woman has to do not with accepting what happened to a person on the individual level, as person-centred theorists would suggest, but by becoming angry about a society that accepts the preposterous rate of sexual assault and continues to perpetuate “blame the victim” mythology. It is essential to recognize that “the symptoms that women bring to therapy are the individual manifestations of what is essentially a collective problem for all women [and] the cure for this problem must be collective as well” (Greenspan, 1983, p. 203). Counselling cannot end women’s oppression, but it can help women understand it and find ways to fight against it on a broader scale, and well as discover the collective power women do possess (Greenspan). In fighting the continued existence and acceptance of sexual assault, Muscio (2002) reminds us that “women can be kicked when we are down, but no one is stupid or strong enough to kick us when we are standing up, all, together” (p. 166).
In essence, a modality that focuses on the internal reality of the client to the exclusion of the environment they live in falls short. An individual cannot be separated from their environment, and to suggest so does not assist the client. To separate a sexual assault survivor from her community and insist that her problem is an individual one does a disservice to her, as well as to her community. The feminist approach to counselling acknowledges the existence of external barriers and assists the client in finding ways to fight against them through political activism.
Corcoran, C. B. (1992). From victim control to social change: A feminist perspective on campus rape prevention programs. In J. C Chrisler & D. Howard (Eds.), New directions in feminist psychology: Practice, theory, and research (pp. 130-140). New York: Springer Publishing Company, Inc.
Greenspan, M. (1983). A new approach to women and therapy. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Lerman, H. (1992). The limits of phenomenology: A feminist critique of the humanistic personality theories. In L. S. Brown & M. Ballou (Eds.), Personality and psychopathology: Feminist reappraisals (pp. 8-19). New York: The Guilford Press.
Muscio, I. (2002). Cunt: A declaration of independence (2nd edition). Emeryville, CA: Seal Press.
Raskin, N. J., & Rogers, C. R. (2005). Person-centered therapy. In R. J. Corsini & D. Wedding (Eds.), Current psychotherapies (7th edition) (pp. 130-165). Belmont, CA: Thomson Brooks/Cole.
Rogers, C. R. (1992). The necessary and sufficient conditions of therapeutic personality change. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 60(6), 827-832. Retrieved December 14, 2008, from PsycARTICLES database.
Nicole Perry is a Registered Psychologist and writer with a private practice in Edmonton. Her approach is collaborative and feminist at its heart. She specializes in healing trauma, building shame resilience, and setting boundaries.
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This space will provide information, stories, and answers to big questions about some of my favorite topics - boundaries, burnout, trauma, self compassion, and shame resilience - all from a feminist counselling perspective. It's also a space I'm exploring and refining new ideas.
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