Like all counsellors, feminist counsellors address the problems and confusions that are at the heart of the client’s current difficulties. However, feminist counsellors seek to help clients grow in awareness as to how their lives have been affected and curtailed by living in a male-dominated society. Hence, many issues that are raised by a client are explored, not only in terms of the woman’s personal experiences and relationships, but also in terms of gender stereotypes and power-relations.
From how women feel about their bodies, to how women’s sexuality is exploited, abused and trivialised, feminist counsellors explore these issues with clients to give them a greater picture of how their own problems, fears, and sense of inferiority are closely entwined with patriarchal values and social constructions.
Sex and Power
Unlike mainstream counsellors, feminist counsellors explore the ways in which sex and relationships are connected to politics. In terms of sex-roles and stereotypes, both socialised sex and politics are both inextricably bound up with power. For millennia, women have been exploited in patriarchal cultures (Vesel-Mander and Kent-Rush: 1974, 22). Worell and Remer (1992, 92) view feminist therapy as focusing on helping clients identify the influence of social rules, sex-role socialisation, institutionalised sexism and other kinds of oppression on personal experience. Feminists of all backgrounds converge on the fact that every area of a woman’s life is affected by gender inequalities. Women’s bodies and their sexuality is the arena where patriarchal control and violence is most commonly displayed.
Women are faced with many opposing images and views of female sexuality. For centuries women were categorised as virgin, mother or whore. Within all major religions female sexuality is viewed as a temptation, leading innocent males towards sin. Patriarchal laws devised ways of controlling female sexuality, making it permissible only within the sanctity of marriage. In Victorian England a woman who enjoyed or pursued sexual pleasure was labelled mentally sick, was often committed to an asylum or was deemed to be in need of a gruesome operation to make her sexually passive, so that she could no longer enjoy sex. Since the 1960s a woman is often deemed to be liberated only if she is having sex with many partners (Worell and Remer (1992).
Feminist counsellors explore these deeply powerful and contradictory stereotypes with clients, teasing out how they have affected women’s choices, and the expression of their needs and feelings. According to Vesel-Mander and Kent-Rush (1974, 51), feminism seeks to bring out the validity of the woman’s own experience, and to challenge society’s artificial norms about what women should and should not want sexually.
Sexual Abuse and Domestic Violence
Many feminist counsellors specialise in working with women who have suffered sexual abuse or violence. Sexual abuse, rape, domestic violence and pornography are crimes that are viewed by feminists as ways in which the patriarchy keeps women frightened and controlled. Feminist counsellors will not only explore the woman’s personal experience of abuse but will also look at society’s values and stereotypes that create male abusers and female victims.
Women who have been raped may agonise over what it was in their dress or behaviour that precipitated the attack, a question that would be considered ludicrous in any other violent crime. Feminist counsellors work with their clients to help them realise that the crime was in no way instigated by them. Men are overwhelmingly the perpetrators of violence and sexual abuse against women. This violence is not about isolated incidents, but occurs in many contexts, from private and familial, to public (Walsh and Liddy: 1989).
MacLeod (1990, 1) is highly critical of the counselling which women who have suffered domestic violence receive from mainstream counsellors. She states that “mainstream treatment approaches used in social service or health agencies and by private medical, psychological and social work practitioners have been attacked for blaming the woman.” She goes on to add that mainstream counsellors often look for weaknesses or pathologies within the woman to explain the violence, minimising or ignoring the responsibility of the violent partner for his actions, and overlooking the social values and institutions that condone violence against women and children. Criticism of mainstream counselling is also made by MacLeod (1990) for its failure to understand the seriousness of the violence and the continued danger many abused women experience, even after separating or divorcing from a violent partner. Also, mainstream counselling often emphasises treatment based on keeping the family together, while failing to recognise the power imbalance that exists between men and women which reinforces abuse (MacLeod, 1990, 2).
The way in which women are portrayed in advertising and pornography is also addressed by feminist counsellors. Women are groomed by culture to view themselves as objects, which must match a particular shape and style to fit in with perceived notions of beauty and desire. Despite all the political advances which feminists have achieved over many decades, women still learn to judge their worth by their physical appearance, bodies, faces, hair and clothes (Wolfe: 1991).
Feminist counsellors view such issues as low self-esteem due to poor body image, the use of cosmetic surgery for non-medical treatment, and such problems as bulimia and anorexia nervosa as being largely the result of patriarchal conditioning and exploitation. Psychotherapist, Susie Orbach (1993) explores the reasons why many women become anorexic. In the United States alone, one hundred and fifty thousand women die from the effects of anorexia. For Orbach (1993) the psychological roots of this form of self-inflicted violence are embedded when the woman initially tries to transform her body into that which will be acceptable to society. She surpasses society’s demands that a woman be thin and desirable and instead goes on a form of hunger strike, trying to control even her most basic need for food as she has been brought-up to deny her emotional needs.
Feminist counsellors seek to help a woman begin to nurture herself, to learn to love and respect her own body. This helps the woman to grow in self-esteem, and to regain her sense of internal power. Vesel-Mander and Kent-Rush (1974, 56) recommend that feminist counsellors use body therapies because a great deal of women’s oppression is biological. As a result of centuries of negative programming, women need to do a great deal of healing on their bodies and body images.