If it’s not feminist, it’s not therapy.

Jennifer Hollinshead, MA, RCC-ACS, CCC-S

What does this mean in a nutshell?

Psychotherapists, counsellors, psychologists and social workers must practise under the scope and guidance of their professional ethical codes, otherwise they will be disciplined and/or removed from practising. 

Therapeutic ethical codes reinforce that psychotherapists must:

  1. Do no harm
  2. Respect the dignity of all humans 
  3. Work to make society more safe and just for all

Practising psychotherapy that is not explicitly feminist harms clients and reinforces oppressive systems in our society. If therapists cannot stand with and for feminism, we are upholding oppressive systems and therefore breaching our own code of ethics. Thus, if it’s not feminist, it cannot be considered ethical therapy. 

Outside the nutshell – a broader exploration of feminism in therapy

When talking with psychotherapists I’m often met with various reactions when I pronounce that “if it’s not feminist, it’s not therapy”. What thoughts, feelings and physical sensations do you notice when reading the title of this article either as a mental health practitioner and/or client? 

Maybe it’s a relief to read someone telling a truth that you’ve known but had to be cautious about telling because you worried about how you would be perceived and treated. 

Or maybe you feel provoked by the F-word (feminism). The title might feel like an agenda or label you may have complicated feelings about. Therapists, eager to practise ethically, have been taught in school, post grad education and supervision that we should aim to be unbiased in our work. Feminism sounds like a clear bias.

But is it?

Before we explore how all ethical therapy is feminist (even if they don’t reference the F-word), let’s first explain the definition of intersectional feminism that was first modelled and explored by Anna Julia Cooper in the 1800s and then made more famous by Kimberlé Crenshaw and colleagues in the 1980s. 

Intersectional feminism is an analytical framework for understanding how aspects of a person’s social, political and cultural identities combine to create different experiences of privilege, discrimination and oppression. Intersectionality identifies multiple factors of advantage and oppression such as (but not limited to):

  • Sex assigned at birth
  • Gender
  • Race
  • Class
  • Disability
  • Body size
  • Sexuality
  • Religion

Intersectional feminism explores how the identities we’re born with result in different access to resources that promote life and wellbeing (among other things). 

No one owns intersectional feminism. Its core principles are equality for all humans, irrespective of their intersectional identities. All types of oppression are examined through intersectionality, though it’s founded in an analysis of gender and power. 

Why are gender and sex the unifying forces of oppression in intersectional feminism and not class, race, ability, etc? All types of oppression harm people, so why focus on hatred of the feminine? For a few reasons… 

  • In all parts of the world, people born with uteruses and ovaries are assigned female at birth and many of the ways they are controlled or limited in societies is through their reproductive functions
  • People who identify as or show feminine traits are at risk for more violence in all societies and cultures around the world – this is more than ½ the population
  • Gender is monitored even before babies are born and their prescribed gender roles are a main part of their personality moulding by adults 

Feminism, Anti-Oppression & Social Justice: What’s in a name?

Feminist principles are woven into various types of modern therapies, but have often been erased or relabeled as social justice or anti-oppression. 

Most social justice and anti-oppression therapy modalities have built their foundations upon and added to the work of feminists, yet we don’t hear the F-word referenced as much as it should be. Why?

Basically, the word feminism has become triggering to people (for different reasons) that it is now being shied away from in certain discourses.  In doing so, we have become disconnected from the true meaning of the word. Further, some people practise feminism in their own ways that are dehumanising to others (for example, trans-exclusionary radical feminists), so the word feminism can feel unsafe for many. 

How did this happen? 

You guessed it: Forces of patriarchy, white supremacy, capitalism and colonisation have tried to silence, discredit and make feminism the enemy. How have they done this? 

Here are some examples:

  • The word feminism is not safe for many black, indigenous and other women of colour because white women (claiming to be feminist) harmed others through racism and exclusion of BIPOC voices in the movement
  • Feminism is deemed not safe for men because of traditional masculinity, which has led to male ego fragility and the illusion that men cannot handle vulnerable emotions or being challenged in their “expertise”
  • Feminism is not safe for therapists because the patriarchal, white therapists holding positions of power claim that feminism is a bias and therapists are bringing in their own agenda if they “introduce feminism” to their clients. This narrative ignores that everyone has bias, and intersectional feminist therapists are aware of and examine theirs.
  • Feminism doesn’t feel safe for people who get disproportionate amounts of power or money from oppressive systems, because it requires them to face their own humanity and empathy for the humans they are knowingly or unknowingly oppressing. 

It’s no wonder that people are hesitant about the F-word, but their hesitance is due to oppressive systems harming the idea of feminism to dilute its impacts. 

What does feminism have to do with psychotherapy?

The intentions of psychotherapy have always been to understand how humans think, feel, behave, reduce people’s suffering and at the very least, do no harm

Despite intentions, psychologists and mental health professionals didn’t have a rule book on how to do no harm until the 50s. The first code of ethics created by the American Psychological Association (APA) wasn’t released until 1953 as a result of the profession of psychology becoming more and more visible in the media in the aftermath of WWII. The APA wanted the public to know that the psychotherapy profession was legitimate, had integrity and monitored itself.

The initial round of ethical code revisions were mainly to differentiate between ethical aspirations vs standards of care that must be met. Starting in 1953, all mental health practitioners are educated and aware of their code of ethics and various standards of practice. When therapists are in training, it’s drilled into us that for a therapeutic intervention to be considered effective, it must also be ethical.

A concrete code of ethics helped hold more accountability for practitioners, but there were still major concerns regarding clients being harmed by therapists. 

Feminist therapists, researchers and supervisors starting in the 1960s started addressing harms perpetrated by some therapists and led to the creation of the feminist code of ethics in the 1980s. The feminist code of ethics was meant to be additive and interwoven with other mental health ethical codes and is being used and adapted to various codes of ethics around the world currently. 

What does feminism in therapy look like? Modern trauma therapies

Did you know that the foundation of modern trauma therapy is built on the work of feminist therapists helping clients resist and heal from sexual violence? 

The following professionals (many of whom were survivors and activists) have dramatically shifted the trauma healing paradigm in psychology:

The development of survivor informed trauma theory by the above researchers, therapists and activists above was happening under constant global and professional gaslighting. While creating contemporary trauma theory to help others heal, many of the professionals above were also healing from childhood, adolescent and adult sexual violence.

If all ethical therapy is already (or should be) feminist, what does therapy look like if it is NOT explicitly feminist?

  1. Therapy that supports clients to conform to external situations and circumstances despite being harmed by those situations. These interventions focus on changing the person being oppressed, while actively not ignoring the responsibility of the oppressor or oppressive system.
    1. For example – The Association of Certified Biblical Counsellors (ACBC) trains therapists to encourage forgiveness (which for them also means forgetting) when working with sexual abuse survivors. The training focuses on a restoration of community without any real accountability for harm.
  2. Relationship therapy to support heterosexual couples to communicate better, but ignores the system of heteronormativity and the gender roles contributing to their problems and suffering
  3. Intergenerational trauma therapy that doesn’t name and address the oppressive systems impacting families over generations will be less likely to result in full resolution of client symptoms. 
  4. Distracting people from the reality of oppressive systems, while blaming those people for the reaction they’re having to oppressive systems. For example:
    1. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy applied to people with low self-worth teaches individuals that the reason they’re struggling with low self-worth is because of their own behaviours and thoughts. 
    2. This is only partly true and erases the harms of capitalism, white supremacy, patriarchy and colonisation. 
  5. Any therapy that reinforces the trance of helplessness that suggests we cannot change large oppressive systems, so we must only focus on changing ourselve

If therapy is not practised on a foundation of intersectional feminist assumptions, it breaches all ethical principles in ethical codes such as the BC Association of Clinical Counsellors Code of Ethics. Thus, we cannot practise ethical effective psychotherapy if it’s not based in feminist assumptions. 

So now we’re back to the name. 

If the label of feminism isn’t safe for everyone, can’t we just say ‘social justice’ or ‘anti-oppression’ or ‘liberation therapy’? Absolutely. I hope people will use whatever words or labels they feel more comfortable with in doing the work. 

But as long as intersectional feminist beliefs undergird the foundation of ethical, effective trauma therapy, do we have a responsibility to acknowledge the F word? Currently, most people in Canada already strongly hold feminist beliefs, but will not identify as “feminists”. It seems that Canadians can hold feminist values but can’t label those values as feminist.

What if we (practitioners, clients, associations, colleges, institutions) consistently articulate and remind others that all ethical and effective psychotherapy is (and must be) based on intersectional feminist beliefs? 

Saying the F word out loud means acknowledging that helping professions, if not feminist, are often co-opted for harmful and oppressive means. Fearing the F word means giving power to oppressive norms, values, and laws. Integrating feminism in our clinical work, research, ethical codes, marketing and education systems helps challenge and dismantle harmful systems, which is another important responsibility of ethical therapists. 

If therapists acknowledge the truth of feminism in our work, it prompts others to acknowledge the truth of feminism in their lives. Evidence and common sense says feminist ideologies and policies lead to less violence, environmental damage, better relationships (especially heterosexual relationships) and better health outcomes for all.

My invitation is for mental health colleges, associations, educators, therapists, supervisors and clients to become more open to and educated about feminism, so we can not only transform our individual lives, but the world as a whole. 

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