The counselling and psychology landscape is changing, and trainees who don’t subscribe to an ideological ‘gender affirmative’ narrative have tough choices to make.
Let me make it clear: I’m not an expert; I’m not an academic, clinician, or psychotherapist with a masters, a PhD, and hours of practice behind me. I’m a man who is – or perhaps was – committed to becoming a counsellor, and am in the early stages of achieving that goal.
I chose counselling because I want to help people and I’m interested in human behaviour and how and why we often make ourselves suffer in different ways. I’ve spent much of my working life so far supporting the vulnerable in society and wanting to do some good, working as a teacher of children with special educational needs, a support worker for children with autistic spectrum disorder (ASD), a bereavement volunteer, and as an environmental advisor and policy officer. I say this not to virtue signal, but to explain my motivation behind my career choices thus far and to provide context. My plan for the next three years was to continue with my counselling studies, get a placement, qualify, gain some experience working in an agency, and potentially establish my own private practice. But, just like many, I am now at a crossroads I did not foresee when I started my training two years ago.
For a while now, I’ve been concerned with the direction of travel in counselling and psychology – the activist takeover of the profession and the partisan, divisive, and ideological approach to issues of identity and associated mental health problems. Though counselling and psychology have always reflected and responded to the changing society and culture in which they operate, I, and it would seem many others, are deeply concerned that only one side of an increasingly divided society and culture is being listened to and represented. These concerns stem from an insistence that counselling, psychology and medicine, must be based on the best available evidence and, in the words of the British Association of Counselling & Psychotherapy’s (BACP) own ethical framework (a document that has been my bible throughout my studies so far) – based on the principles of ‘beneficence’: a commitment to promoting the client’s wellbeing, and ‘non-maleficence’: a commitment to avoiding harm to the client.
With this in mind, I find the main professional bodies’ widescale adoption of an ideological, purely gender-affirmative approach to dysphoric and ‘gender questioning’ young people baffling and a serious safeguarding issue.
This led me to conclude that I now have two options:
Option 1 is to keep my head down. This begins with announcing my pronouns in class. I’ll nod along each time someone tells me that sex is immaterial and ‘assigned at birth’; that there are potentially hundreds of different genders; and that puberty blockers are a well-researched, harmless treatment for those who, as I was, are questioning their sense of identity and sexuality in their youth and struggling with their changing bodies.
In choosing this option, I must agree that ‘conversion therapy’ might include any sensitive exploration that doesn’t simply affirm a person’s sense of gender identity, and I must concur that to question and explore why someone might not feel comfortable in their body is likely to be unethical.
I must agree that distressed children, often with comorbidities of depression, anxiety, trauma, eating disorders and self-harm, should be unconditionally affirmed if they say they want to change gender; and must agree that those who compassionately question this should risk losing their accreditation and potentially be prosecuted, including parents.
I must forget my concerns about the over-representation of ASD among those referred with gender dysphoria. I should ignore the growing body of evidence suggesting that social influence may explain the explosion in young people, particularly girls, seeking medical transition. And I must not listen to regretful desistors and detransitioners, and those who believe they were not adequately supported and challenged by professionals when presenting with gender dysphoric feelings during therapy.
I should affirm and not sensitively question a female client who wants to be called a ‘slut’ (according to the British Psychological Society’s (BPS) Guidelines for psychologicts working with gender, sexuality, and relationship diversity); and pretend that I think it is progressive and empowering to do so. I should attend valuable training like ‘Queering Therapy Spaces and Working with Gender Diverse Clients’ to gain ‘understanding [of] the specific role Terfism plays at the heart of British media, the rise of popularity in conversion therapy and the tactics of the far right…’
I should also ignore evidence showing that the majority of gender dysphoric young people resolve their dysphoria post-puberty, and that for some, their dysphoria may be a way of dealing with their repressed homosexuality. In short, I must suspend my belief – a belief which led me to want to become a counsellor in the first place; that counselling should provide people, especially vulnerable children and young people, with time and a non-judgemental, safe space to explore our complex and confusing human condition, with the aim of reducing distress and improving lives.
Then there’s Option 2: speaking out. Option 2 is a terrifying and lonely option. I have found other students and experienced practitioners who share my concerns and are working to challenge the gender affirmative-only approach, such as members of the organisation Thoughtful Therapists. But most in the profession are quietly petrified and may publicly be following option one to avoid the inevitable accusations of transphobia and bigotry that come with raising any concerns. They know that to speak out is to risk ostracism and possibly their job and reputation. It might mean not getting that reference needed for the next step on the path to qualification. It might mean not getting a placement and the 100 hours of practice needed to qualify. It might mean having a complaint made against them by a fellow student.
Some will say this sounds like a paranoid rant against a non-existent cancel culture. But when most of the major professional bodies such as the BACP and UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP) have signed up to a secretively formed and vague Memorandum of Understanding, which many are concerned will prevent exploratory therapy with gender dysphoric people, it’s hard to see how ‘gender critical’ trainees can become professional counsellors in the near future. The recent case of James Esses is a stark example of the intolerance shown towards trainees who raise principled safeguarding concerns about the prevailing narrative, and his case is undoubtedly being watched carefully and nervously by many.
By writing this, I think it’s clear I’ve already made my decision. As uncomfortable as Option 2 might be, it’s nothing compared to the anxiety and self-loathing one experiences when living a lie or making decisions based on fear rather than what one believes to be right. As Nietzsche said: ‘Silence is worse; all truths that are kept silent become poisonous.’
Perhaps I am overreacting. I may be wrong and be able to continue my studies while challenging what I believe is a damaging and regressive ideological approach to gender identity, an approach which is fast becoming the only acceptable mainstream one among professionals and the bodies which accredit them. I will continue to approach my training with an open mind and try to keep moving along my planned pathway, but if this is not possible it may leave a final option.
Option 3: give up on becoming a counsellor.
Ben Sears is a trainee counsellor and former teacher and local government policy officer. He lives in south Wales, UK. You can connect with him on Twitter @BJ_Sears.