Pink Therapy’s Sex Work and Psychotherapy Conference – history in the making

I have just spent an extraordinary two days at the Pink Therapy ‘Sex Works!’ conference, about the intersection of mental health and sexuality professionals.

Every year the Pink Therapy conference covers a different GSRD (Gender, Sexual and Relationship Diversity) topic. Created by Pink Therapy founder Dominic Davies, in recent years they have featured gay men, trans, bisexuality, and kink, non-monogamies and other sexualities/orientations beyond LGBTQ. 

The purpose of the Sex Works! conference was multiple: to look at sex worker mental health and how the system could better support sex workers; to look at the experience of psychotherapists/counsellors (and trainees) who are also sex workers; and to look at the various forms of somatic sexology that may include genital touch, and how a dual trained counsellor/somatic sexologist may be protected within the psychotherapy system; and the ethical issues relating to all the above.  

For clarity: somatic sexology can include sex coaching, sexological bodywork, somatic sex education, some tantric practice, and sex surrogacy.

We heard about: busting some of the myths around sex work, sexual services for people with disabilities in Australia, somatic sexology, and a large scale research study of sex worker mental health. Sex surrogacy, conscious kink, Urban Tantra and Somatic Sex Education 101. We heard about ethical frameworks from a British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) perspective and from a highly experienced long-term member of the UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP), and about the Association of Somatic and Integrative Sexologists (ASIS). Also sex coaching for sex therapists. To round off the second day, there was a panel discussion about ethics (that included a representative from the Psychotherapy and Counselling Union (PCU) and the College of Sex and Relationship Therapists (COSRT)), which was supposed to be about how to protect dual-trained therapists, but turned out rather differently. 

The conference was a potent reminder of the enormous variety of what might be called sexuality work. As well as an opportunity to speak to dual-trained practitioners, there was a lot of vital, and courageous, testimony from speakers who are both psychotherapists and sex workers.

What became rapidly clear was just how badly people who do sex work can be treated as trainees of psychotherapy – and this mirrors the experience that many sex workers have as clients trying to access counselling.

Many sex workers are not out to their therapists, because it is just not worth it, due to the judgements and pathologisation they are likely to experience. Importantly, very often the reason someone might want to go for therapy has nothing to do with their life in sex work, but they need to know they won’t have to endure projections, rescue or confused hostility.

The bottom line is that therapy clients who do sex work are often being harmed – by therapy.

What was especially disappointing was the way the therapy registration bodies represented, BACP and COSRT – (sadly we lost the official UKCP representative at the last minute) – seemed to have provided those speaking with very little relevant research and opinions for the conference, even though they were invited to participate six months ago. Contrast this with how, after the presenter of the session that preceded the final panel discussion was absent at the last minute, two psychotherapist sex workers created an excellent workshop at two minutes’ notice.

It was particularly saddening to see how the psychotherapy establishment continues to conflate sex work with abuse.

It seemed impossible to discuss the ethics of being a dual trained practitioner, or a sex worker being a psychotherapist, without the discussion leaning further and further into complaints, abuse, and the nebulous and highly politicised concept of ‘disrepute’. It was pointed out that sex work is actually legal in the UK – and yet there is a persistent lack of clarity on this in the psychotherapy world.  This is part of a bigger picture, of a generalised lack of understanding of GSRD clients and identities that is consistently displayed in mainstream psychotherapy and, as a consequence, in training organisations. I find this issue especially disturbing.

From the many personal stories I have heard, a trainee therapist with a minority identity may well be expected to educate their peers about this identity, and may also endure endless questioning, assumptions, microaggressions and invalidating ‘debate’, even from tutors. The lack of understanding of minority stress, in organisations supposedly training people in how to support others, and how it can contribute to trauma, is mind boggling.

Of course, the excuse might be that by marginalising sex workers and sexuality practitioners, they are simply mirroring public life and the media.

Sexual pleasure in all but its most regimented, prescribed forms is othered and kept in darkness in a society where attention is not paid to sexual competence, and we are educated neither in negotiation nor consent, let alone in giving attention to our true desires. Apparently there is a perfect way to be a human, and that is to be monogamous, vanilla, cisgender and heterosexual, and the further away you go from that, the more deviant and in need of fixing you are. If you sell sex and do therapeutic or educational sexual touch, you are seen as almost beyond repair.

Counselling students who do sex work may be told that there are grey areas that may cause them to fail their course. This despite that, as was pointed out repeatedly, one of the skillsets necessary to survive as a sex worker – (intuition and trusting your gut, negotiation, establishing consent and boundaries, working with the client’s needs) – goes far beyond anything taught on counselling courses.

There was a lot of anger in the room towards the end, particularly when one panel member suggested the audience give them more information. It was pointed out that marginalised groups get very tired of doing the labour of explaining. 

I and a couple of my colleagues have a list of queries that have been left hanging:

  • Can you be a sex worker while training as a psychotherapist? (Still unclear)
  • How are the registration bodies going to look out for dual-trained practitioners? (Still unclear)
  • What is the legal reason for COSRT’s two ethical issues, that a COSRT member therapist cannot refer a client to a sex surrogate because it constitutes a form of ‘pimping’ (scare quotes mine), and that a member cannot signpost a client towards doing sex surrogacy work as this apparently constitutes coercion?
  • COSRT’s journal, Sex and Relationship Therapy, is currently planning a special issue about sex work, written entirely by sex workers. (Deadline for submissions March 31st.) We are wondering why this was not mentioned at the conference?

And here are some thoughts about how we can all move forward:

  1. There needs to be a basic CPD training for therapists around competency in working with sex workers.
  2. There needs to be a directory of sex work friendly therapists, a bit like the kink and poly ones that already exist, with a badge to go on the practitioner’s website.
  3. The main counselling and psychotherapy bodies would do well to reflect on why there is increasing frustration among therapists who work with GSRD clients, and who may well be GSRD identified themselves. There is a great opportunity here for these organisations to offer better support to all these client groups. Currently, too many minority clients are being harmed by a lack of understanding of their needs, judgement and pathologisation, and unhelpful use of therapeutic techniques and theories.
  4. Led by the registration bodies, training organisations need to focus on diversity as the baseline, not an extra – and actual identity-based diversity rather than just ‘theories of diversity’ or relying on the students to provide the topics. The same goes for sex – this also needs to be a baseline subject. I have encountered many clients who are not sure whether they are allowed to mention sex at all in sessions. 
  5. Training organisations need to find ways to make trainings accessible to less well off students. Important minority voices are being lost due to this. Actually, many people do sex work because it is the only way to make a reasonable living (often on top of parenting and working around health issues) – for many people it would be the only way to make the kind of money needed to pay for counselling training.
  6. Dual-trained practitioners are crying out for a membership organisation that can respect them and cater for all their needs. When one becomes visible, I suspect many will leave their existing registration bodies.

Several participants were reminded of the American Psychiatric Association conference in 1972, when being gay was still designated a mental illness. John Fryer, a gay psychiatrist, spoke on the stand while heavily disguised in a mask. This was an act of great courage, and we saw similar courage over the last two days. 

This was a groundbreaking event that I was incredibly privileged to attend. Huge thanks to everyone who organised, presented and participated.

The next Pink Therapy conference, where I may be speaking, is ‘Contemporary Issues in BDSM and Therapy’ on 6 October 2018.

 

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