Sexuality and Gender in the Therapeutic Relationship

Table of contents

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 here 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 beginning and the attractive dress of the client might be an expression of her “new“ personality, making a strong effort to face the world more robustly, and to leave it uncommented on might do harm to her new-found confidence. Also it may be simple transference, so this should be explored in the therapeutic relationship. Other Gender Issues In our world we are also subject to the “Dominant Discourse” of our society.

These are the system of statements, practices, and structures that share a common value and sustain a world view. It is so easy to let our societies be reflected in the therapy room, especially how we view gender. The best way to insure that society’s dominant discourses do not alter the desired “shape” of therapy is to make gender issues explicit in the therapy dialogue when relevant to the discussion. Explicit treatment can lead to reconstructions of the dominant discourses or at least an opening up to alternative discourses.

We make assumptions when we meet clients, Housewife, business man, etc.. The male therapist may feel pressured to “fix” his female clients “problems” A female therapist may feel the need when dealing with a male client to display a very strong nurturing role and may avoid challenging her client into action. Conversely the therapist may, when facing a powerful man with attitude to match may become businesslike and direct because that is what society tells us to do when we “do business”. Same sex client and counsellor can be a problem too.

Two people, especially if their backgrounds are similar, can collude with one another and not challenge if the therapist is not aware of the human tendency to let a cosy cartel of collusion to develop between two people of the same sex. There also may be a frisson between two people of the opposite sex and may cause an unease between them just because they are the opposite sex and carry whatever societal burden is imposed on them. The above attitudes are “static” and can be monitored and adjusted if the counsellor is aware of their presence and their effect can be lessened by self examination, supervision and personal therapy.

But there is a more insidious side to gender issues. This is a “fluid” attitude change. If a male counsellor has been out for a game of rugby with his friends he could have a more “macho” base to his personality than if he has recently left the embrace of his loving wife and family. This could affect his dealings with a client. How we interact with our fellow man is affected by our experiences immediately before meeting them. An incident while driving may put us in an emotional state where our patience with the opposite sex may be compromised.

There is an unfortunate side effect in the way society loudly defines our gender and how it manifests itself. We can become so preoccupied by our gender and the its affect on us in the counselling room that by being careful about how it affects us that we cease to be effective in our dealing with another human.

An alternative view

Janet Shibley Hyde of the University of Wisconsin-Madison has reviewed evidence from studies on cognition, communication, social and personality variables, psychological well-being, motor behaviours and other variables.

She has turned all these aspects of gender in to one “meta survey” and came to the conclusion that fully 78% of the much vaunted differences between me and women are small or close to zero. (Hyde, 2005). There are 3 main areas of difference. Sexuality – in particular attitudes to sex in uncommitted relationships, Aggression – Men are usually the more aggressive . Motor performance – Men are better at throwing, jumping, running and such. So why are we so hung up on our differences if there are so few between the genders? Society has painted them in lurid colours and made us believe they are intractable.

Perhaps it is not our position as men or women, but our position as humans that looks for differences that are not there, to define us as people. It also reminds us that rather than accuse the nebulous “Society” of putting a bias on our view of other humans we should remember that we are society ourselves. As Hyde puts it “It is time to consider the costs of over inflated claims on gender differences. Arguably, they cause harm in numerous realms, including women’s opportunities in the workplace, couple conflict and communication, and analyses of self-esteem problems with adolescents.

Most important, these claims are not consistent with the scientific data. ” Hyde (2005). Also there is the concept of gender as limiting rather than defining. Judith Butler (1956-) is Professor of Comparative Literature and Rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley, and is well known as a theorist of power, gender, sexuality and identity. In her most influential book Gender Trouble (1999), Butler gave the history of feminism, a much vaunted alternative to the common view of gender, and argued that they had made a mistake by trying to assert that ‘women’ were a group with common characteristics and interests.

That approach, Butler said, performed ‘an unwitting regulation and reification of gender relations’ — and reinforced the simplistic binary view of gender, albeit from an alternative view. If there are only two sides then no matter what side we choose we still support a simple binary view. Rather than opening up possibilities for a person to form and choose their own individual identity, “masculinism” never did it and feminism has closed the options down. Butler argues that sex (male, female) is the cause of gender (masculine, feminine) which is seen to cause desire (towards the other gender).

Butler’s approach is basically to destroy the supposed links between these, so that gender and desire are flexible, unmoored from biology and not ’caused’ by other stable factors. Butler says: ‘There is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender; … identity is performatively constituted by the very “expressions” that are said to be its results. ‘ Butler J. (1999) . In other words, gender is a performance; it’s what you do at particular times, rather than a universal who you are. In the counselling room we may be victims of this binary problem.


As I read back over this essay I find that I have no personal recognisable stance on the issue of gender and sexuality. Perhaps I have had the fortune to be brought up in a liberal, forward thinking household and am less affected by society’s strictures. But alternatively I may be carrying around significant biases but not realise it. Also, if Hyde is right, I may be carrying around biases for differences that in the main part do not exist and this essay is a figment of my own imagination, an illusion that I share with the rest of humanity.

And if I carry such a burden, the all of my fellow human carry similar ones so perhaps they cancel each other out. If we are to be real in the counselling room and we subscribe to Ms. Butlers ideas that unless we are careful to separate from gender we continue to perform the dance that we have been trained to do for millennia.


Palmer Stephen, McMahon Gladeana, (1997), “Handbook of Counselling” page 272, Routledge. New York.

Hyde, J. S. (2005). The gender similarities hypothesis. American Psychologist, 60(6), 581-92. And 590.

Butler Judith (1999) “Gender Trouble” p 25. Routledge New York

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