Get Real! He Likes It, I Don’t. Now What?

Heather Corinna

You should experiment and communicate with your partner and should do the things together and alone that feel uniquely good for both of you -- not just one of you -- at any given time.

turnwavesmile asks:

I don’t feel anything at all when I touch myself. It just feels like nothing inside and doesn’t arouse me at all. The only way I can masturbate is by rubbing the palm of my hand on my clit. When my boyfriend and I are together, he likes to finger me. But like I said before, I don’t feel anything. It gets pretty awkward when he’s just fingering me and it’s not feeling like anything and it just drags on forever, while he has no idea. What should I do?!

Heather Corinna replies:

You should experiment and communicate with your partner and should do the things together and alone that feel uniquely good for both of you — not just one of you — at any given time.

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In all truth, the answer to situations like this really are that simple, and there’s not a whole lot more to it than that. But what is a little more complex is why many people don’t realize or think it’s that simple. Since we and other sex educators get these kinds of questions a whole lot, let me fill you and others in a bit more.

Let’s start with communication. I probably don’t have to tell you that many depictions of sex, especially in mainstream media, don’t tend to show us a very realistic picture. One of the most common ways depictions of sex are often unrealistic is the total lack of communication. We don’t often see presentations of people telling partners what does or doesn’t feel good (and when we do, we tend to see more of the dos than the don’ts), people filling partners in on where they want to be touched, how they want to be touched, or even outright saying something like “Hey, I know you want to do that, and maybe you had other partners who liked that a lot, but that doesn’t actually do anything for me. But this does…” We don’t often see people having conversations about what works for them and doesn’t before any sex starts. We also will not tend to see a realistic presentation of what many people enjoy, and other things that are part-and-parcel of some sexual dynamics that are common for people having very enriching sex lives.

Some of that it’s the fault of filmmakers: after all, unless the whole movie is a sex scene, just like other parts of life in film or television, sex can get truncated and edited down to the smallest glimpse of what can go on. But even in a lot of porn, where the movie IS all about sex, a lot of this stuff is missing, because filmmakers and producers are choosing to serve the lowest common denominator, and also aren’t in the business of providing reality, but of providing fantasy. Of course, why people fantasize about a lack of communication or individuality, or about sexual dynamics that don’t tend to be very enjoyable in real life for everyone involved, I couldn’t tell you, because both of those things are plenty sexy in my book. But as my friend Cory likes to tell me over and over again, I need to remember that I’m frequently non-representative.

That all said, most of the time in real life sex and sexual relationships where people tend to earnestly connect, earnestly get their needs met, and earnestly and mutually enjoy themselves, there is communication. In real life, people talk and also communicate in other ways during sex. We do. In a healthy, enjoyable sex life, everyone involved is active rather than anyone being passive, and people aren’t just letting a partner do things that don’t feel good or don’t feel like anything without saying a word. That awkwardness you’re feeling is about a lack of communication and about how weird it can feel to be doing something that’s supposed to be about mutually interacting when interaction isn’t actually happening.

To put this in a different context, it would be very awkward if someone came up to talk to me and started talking in a language I didn’t share or understand, and instead of trying to communicate in some way that I didn’t understand them, I just stood there, saying nothing or just nodding like I did understand them when I didn’t. There might be a nanosecond of feeling awkward on both parts when I was able to make clear I don’t know the language they do, but it’d be no big deal: there are a lot of languages in the world, after all, and few of us know all or even a few of them. The same goes with sex. There are a lot of different things we can all potentially do sexually, and a lot of difference in what people enjoy, both from person-to-person, partnership-to-partnership and from day-to-day. If someone just makes an assumption about what someone else likes, or people try something that’s just a miss, there can be an awkward moment when we acknowledge that. But it’s usually brief, not a big deal, and for people with any range of sexual experience, it may not be awkward at all because they’ve probably had that happen before and know it can happen. If neither of you knew that yet because you didn’t have the experience to know, now you know.

But if that communication doesn’t happen at all, and people keep doing something sexual and allowing something sexual to continue where they’re clearly totally disconnected and nobody says anything, nobody checks in with each other to ask if what they’re doing feels good? Well that would be really awkward. I’m not at all surprised it’s felt awkward to you.

So, step one with this is to stop being passive and to stop being silent. If a partner goes to do something we know we don’t enjoy from the outset (or in a way we know we don’t enjoy), we can just let them know we don’t enjoy that, then fill them in on what we do like in a positive way. For instance, you can say “I know you like to do X with your fingers, but what I actually like and get off on is Y. Can we try that or some combination of both?” Then you explain in words what you like or show him yourself with your own hand, or by guiding his hand. People who are truly invested in sex of any kind being enjoyable or fulfilling for everyone will not take issue with this: quite the opposite, usually. Because someone earnestly invested in mutual pleasure does have that investment, hearing about what is likely to make that happen and what a partner likes tends to be very wanted information. I doubt your boyfriend is all that excited by the prospect of doing something to you that you aren’t actually responding to, but if you’re not giving him information and solid cues you aren’t, he is going to have a very hard time knowing that’s the case. The onus is on you to speak up and fill him in about what you like and don’t, just like he hopefully does with you about his body (and if he doesn’t, you being more communicative helps him to feel more free to do that, too, so it’s a win for the whole team, not just one player).

Obviously, we won’t always know what feels good or doesn’t before we try something. So, it may happen sometimes that you two start doing something that just isn’t working. In that case, you ask for changes, adjustment, or just for a pause or full-stop. Maybe you’re saying something like “Let’s try this angle,” or “What if you put your fingers here, more like this?” Or maybe you might need to stop for the time being and fill a partner in about some things about your unique body you realize they don’t know and could stand to know. Of course, sometimes things just feel like nada because we are just not feeling sex, period, and at those times,we just want to communicate that we want to do something besides have any kind of sex.

If you do feel like less talking is what you want rather than more, the good news is that over time, you’ll often need to communicate verbally less with an ongoing partner. When you’re very communicative as you two are learning each others bodies and responses, likes and dislikes, as you each learn more and more, there will tend to be less to communicate. I’m guessing that what’s going on here based on what you’re saying is that he’s putting fingers inside your vagina. I can only guess because “fingering” doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone. But if it turns out, for example, that you just never really like fingers being put inside your vagina (more on that in a bit), you’ll probably only have to communicate that once and not again unless you want to try it again, or in some other context. If and when he learns what works for you right now with your clitoris based on you communicating with him about it, and you two communicating more as you refine that together, in time, if that’s what keeps working for you, you’ll need to say less and less about it. Like I said, I personally don’t find communication and talking during sex to be something problematic, un-sexy or undesired, but we all have our own preferences. If yours is to verbally communicate less, the way to get to that is to communicate more and very clearly now.

Next up? What one partner likes is not always the same as what another partner likes. What one partner has found has worked for other partners may not for others still, and what any person assumes someone will like is not always what they actually will.

It’s fairly rare for people in a sexual partnership to find that everyone involved likes doing every single thing each person likes themselves or has enjoyed with previous partners, and that everyone involved shares the exact same level of enjoyment with certain things. In a sexually compatible relationship or experience, however, even if everyone doesn’t like all of the same things, we’ll tend to be able to have at least a handful of things we both enjoy pretty equally and mutually. Part of our learning process in developing a sexual relationship is identifying what those shared likes are and starting from there, which — surprise, surprise — we usually find out by communicating. So, he likes having fingers in your vagina but you don’t. Twenty bucks says that if using his hand on fingers on your external clitoris or vulva — something he may not even know you or anyone else likes — really revs your engine and gets you off, he’s going to like that even better, because it’s a lot more exciting to do something our partner actually responds to. It may also be that in talking, you can work out what he likes about the way he has been doing fingering and find something else to do that meets those wants or needs. Like, maybe he likes how his fingers feel inside a warm, wet place, so sucking on his fingers could work for that, too. Maybe he likes moving his arm that way or making something be about your genital pleasure, so what you actually like may fit that bill even better than what he has been doing.

Sexual partnerships — good ones, anyway — are about a process of exploring and learning each of our unique bodies, desires and responses. That process is always ongoing, both individually and in relationships, because sexuality tends to be fluid are rarely stays the same for a whole lifetime or partnership for anyone, especially over years or decades. And that process should actually be pretty fun and exciting: it’s never a drag to learn about something we’re passionate about.

Since we have a LOT of information already here about female-bodied anatomy and sexual response, I don’t want to reinvent the wheel. At the bottom of this page, I’m going to include a few links to help fill you in more on how the majority of women do NOT reach orgasm via intercourse or other kinds of vaginal entry alone, on why, physiologically, many women don’t feel much or anything just by having fingers or something else inside their vaginas, and on why that doesn’t mean anything is wrong with you or women on the whole. But the long-story short is: a) much of our vaginas (not our vulvas) don’t have a lot of sensory nerve endings, b) feeling a lot of sensation in and around the vagina — when we do — usually has a lot to do with how turned on we are and what other kinds of sexual activity besides that has gone on or is going on, and c) a lot of people’s ideas about what things or body parts are “supposed” to be enjoyable for female-bodied people are incorrect or incomplete, and often based in fantasy or myth. As well, often in order to experience a lot of genital sensitivity, we have to start any genital sexual activity already feeling very aroused, not start unaroused and only try and become aroused with genital stimulation.

Right now, you know one thing that works for you with your own masturbation. That’s a great starting point, and something to share with partners so that when you’re having genital sex, you and they can incorporate that into your sex and also build off of that. In other words, chances are good that over time, there will be more than one specific way or thing you can do that feels very good to you. It may be that when you or a partner are doing what works with a palm on your external clitoris, and add other activities, the other activities start to feel a whole lot more interesting and exciting. It may be that you discover other similar kinds of pressure in the same area expand your horizons. It may be the WAY he’s putting fingers in your vagina isn’t what feels good, and that you two need to experience with how fast or slow he’s doing that, how gently or aggressively, at what angle, in what position, with what curvature of his fingers. It may be that once you start talking about all of this, also accepting your body and the way you respond is not a problem, but just how your body and sexuality is right now in this regard, you can learn, alone or with a partner, more of what you enjoy you didn’t even know about. It may also be that once you open the channels of communication, and your partner can find out about what to do that you actually like, it’s a lot easier for you to get a lot more excited and aroused, you even find you DO like fingers inside your vagina when you’re getting other things you like. Or not, and it’s okay if you don’t. None of us has to like everything: no one kind of sex is ever required.

We are all so, so very different in so many ways when it comes to embodiment and sexual response. What feels like the best thing ever for one person can feel completely ho-hum or downright awful for someone else, even if both those people have the same body parts or gender identity. Whether we’re approaching sex with ourselves or sex with partners, it’s so important all of us know that and understand that sex with anyone is always something we learn, very uniquely and individually, and every single time we have a new partner; in some ways, every single time we have any kind of sex. This is the central reason why, when people write in asking things like “How do I give a blow job?” or “How do I get my girlfriend off?” we really can’t answer that question, especially since none of us have been the sexual partner of the person a given writer-inner is asking about. Even if we had, we could only say what we found in our experience with them, which could potentially be radically different than what they will experience with other partners or at other times in their lives. We also like to remind people that if any of us could learn how to perform or do a given sexual activity in a way that was exactly the same and perfect for every partner, forever, sex would get mighty boring pretty darn fast. It’d feel more like flossing our teeth than having whole-body and whole-self experiences which are physical, emotional, psychological, intellectual, spiritual and social.

The way we learn what works for us sexually, what we like and dislike, what feels good and doesn’t, physically, emotionally and psychologically is through individual experimentation and communication, honoring the uniqueness of our bodies and the bodies of others at the exact same time. If it wasn’t, people would probably have stopped having sex a long time ago because the alternative, if it isn’t a snoozer from the get go, gets old awfully fast.

I want to add one last thing: not everyone, at any given age, time of life, or in any given partnership, is or feels ready to be active when it comes to sex or to communicate openly and honestly. Not everyone’s assertiveness skills are what they could be to make that a whole lot easier. I don’t know anything about the whole of this relationship or it’s dynamics, nor anything other than what you have shared here about your own sexuality and sexual relationships. But if a lot of what I have just said seems really daunting or very intimidating, I’d suggest you evaluate if this time in your life, or at this point in this relationship, it’s really right to be having any kind of sex. Check in with yourself on if it feels like you both have the ability to be more active and to communicate, to advocate and ask for what feels good for you, or not. If you just don’t feel there yet or like you can do that yet in this relationship, my best advice is to take a few steps back and put any kind of sex on hold, focusing instead on building self-confidence and trust; creating other kinds of intimacy and honesty in the relationship first that would support better sexual intimacy and honesty.

A lot of the time, when people talk to younger people about sex, communication and passivity, it’s only about yes or no, about consent, safety or reducing your risks of unintended pregnancy, STIs or other unwanted outcomes. That’s all really important, but what can get lost in that is how important communication ALSO is when it comes to pleasure and good, enjoyable, and for-real connected sexual relationships (including the one you have with yourself). If you’re engaging in manual sex (any kind of sex with fingers or hands), since that can’t create a pregnancy, I’m going to assume you two are doing that to seek out pleasure and potentially to also feel emotionally closer. If those are your aims, and you do feel like now’s a right time and situation for you to be exploring this or any other kind of sex in, then vastly improving your communication and your own active participation in any sex you have are the best tools you’ve got in your toolbox to get there.

Here are those links I said I’d pass on, with a few others for good measure:

Commentary Economic Justice

The Gender Wage Gap Is Not Women’s Fault, and Here’s the Report That Proves It

Kathleen Geier

The fact is, in every occupation and at every level, women earn less than men doing exactly the same work.

A new report confirms what millions of women already know: that women’s choices are not to blame for the gender wage gap. Instead, researchers at the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), the progressive think tank that issued the report, say that women’s unequal pay is driven by “discrimination, social norms, and other factors beyond women’s control.”

This finding—that the gender pay gap is caused by structural factors rather than women’s occupational choices—is surprisingly controversial. Indeed, in my years as a journalist covering women’s economic issues, the subject that has been most frustrating for me to write about has been the gender gap. (Full disclosure: I’ve worked as a consultant for EPI, though not on this particular report.) No other economic topic I’ve covered has been more widely misunderstood, or has been so outrageously distorted by misrepresentations, half-truths, and lies.

That’s because, for decades, conservatives have energetically promoted the myth that the gender pay gap does not exist. They’ve done such a bang-up job of it that denying the reality of the gap, like denying the reality of global warming, has become an article of faith on the right. Conservative think tanks like the Independent Women’s Forum and the American Enterprise Institute and right-wing writers at outlets like the Wall Street Journal, Breitbart, and the Daily Caller have denounced the gender pay gap as “a lie,” “not the real story,” “a fairy tale,” “a statistical delusion,” and “the myth that won’t die.” Sadly, it is not only right-wing propagandists who are gender wage gap denialists. Far more moderate types like Slate’s Hanna Rosin and the Atlantic’s Derek Thompson have also claimed that the gender wage gap statistic is misleading and exaggerates disparities in earnings.

According to the most recent figures available from the Census Bureau, for every dollar a man makes, a woman makes only 79 cents, a statistic that has barely budged in a decade. And that’s just the gap for women overall; for most women of color, it’s considerably larger. Black women earn only 61 percent of what non-Hispanic white men make, and Latinas earn only 55 percent as much. In a recent survey, U.S. women identified the pay gap as their biggest workplace concern. Yet gender wage gap denialists of a variety of political stripes contend that gender gap statistic—which measures the difference in median annual earnings between men and women who work full-time, year-round—is inaccurate because it does not compare the pay of men and women doing the same work. They argue that when researchers control for traits like experience, type of work, education, and the like, the gender gap evaporates like breath on a window. In short, the denialists frame the gender pay gap as the product not of sexist discrimination, but of women’s freely made choices.

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The EPI study’s co-author, economist Elise Gould, said in an interview with Rewire that she and her colleagues realized the need for the new report when an earlier paper generated controversy on social media. That study had uncovered an “unadjusted”—meaning that it did not control for differences in workplace and personal characteristics—$4 an hour gender wage gap among recent college graduates. Gould said she found this pay disparity “astounding”: “You’re looking at two groups of people, men and women, with virtually the same amount of experience, and yet their wages are so different.” But critics on Twitter, she said, claimed that the wage gap simply reflected the fact that women were choosing lower-paid jobs. “So we wanted to take out this one idea of occupational choice and look at that,” Gould said.

Gould and her co-author Jessica Schieder highlight two important findings in their EPI report. One is that, even within occupations, and even after controlling for observable factors such as education and work experience, the gender wage gap remains stubbornly persistent. As Gould told me, “If you take a man and a woman sitting side by side in a cubicle, doing the same exact job with the same amount of experience and the same amount of education, on average, the man is still going to be paid more than the woman.”

The EPI report cites the work of Harvard economist Claudia Goldin, who looked at the relative weight in the overall wage gap of gender-based pay differences within occupations versus those between occupations. She found that while gender pay disparities between different occupations explain 32 percent of the gap, pay differences within the same occupation account for far more—68 percent, or more than twice as much. In other words, even if we saw equal numbers of men and women in every profession, two-thirds of the gender wage gap would still remain.

And yes, female-dominated professions pay less, but the reasons why are difficult to untangle. It’s a chicken-and-egg phenomenon, the EPI report explains, raising the question: Are women disproportionately nudged into low-status, low-wage occupations, or do these occupations pay low wages simply because it is women who are doing the work?

Historically, “women’s work” has always paid poorly. As scholars such as Paula England have shown, occupations that involve care work, for example, are associated with a wage penalty, even after controlling for other factors. But it’s not only care work that is systematically devalued. So, too, is work in other fields where women workers are a majority—even professions that were not initially dominated by women. The EPI study notes that when more women became park rangers, for example, overall pay in that occupation declined. Conversely, as computer programming became increasingly male-dominated, wages in that sector began to soar.

The second major point that Gould and Schieder emphasize is that a woman’s occupational choice does not occur in a vacuum. It is powerfully shaped by forces like discrimination and social norms. “By the time a woman earns her first dollar, her occupational choice is the culmination of years of education, guidance by mentors, parental expectations, hiring practices, and widespread norms and expectations about work/family balance,” Gould told Rewire. One study cited by Gould and Schieder found that in states where traditional attitudes about gender are more prevalent, girls tend to score higher in reading and lower in math, relative to boys. It’s one of many findings demonstrating that cultural attitudes wield a potent influence on women’s achievement. (Unfortunately, the EPI study does not address racism, xenophobia, or other types of bias that, like sexism, shape individuals’ work choices.)

Parental expectations also play a key role in shaping women’s occupational choices. Research reflected in the EPI study shows that parents are more likely to expect their sons to enter male-dominated science, technology, engineering, and math (often called STEM) fields, as opposed to their daughters. This expectation holds even when their daughters score just as well in math.

Another factor is the culture in male-dominated industries, which can be a huge turn-off to women, especially women of color. In one study of women working in science and technology, Latinas and Black women reported that they were often mistaken for janitors—something that none of the white women in the study had experienced. Another found that 52 percent of highly qualified women working in science and technology ended up leaving those fields, driven out by “hostile work environments and extreme job pressures.”

Among those pressures are excessively long hours, which make it difficult to balance careers with unpaid care work, for which women are disproportionately responsible. Goldin’s research, Gould said, shows that “in jobs that have more temporal flexibility instead of inflexibility and long hours, you do see a smaller gender wage gap.” Women pharmacists, for example, enjoy relatively high pay and a narrow wage gap, which Goldin has linked to flexible work schedules and a professional culture that enables work/life balance. By contrast, the gender pay gap is widest in highest-paying fields such as finance, which disproportionately reward those able to work brutally long hours and be on call 24/7.

Fortunately, remedies for the gender wage gap are at hand. Gould said that strong enforcement of anti-discrimination laws, greater wage transparency (which can be achieved through unions and collective bargaining), and more flexible workplace policies would all help to alleviate gender-based pay inequities. Additional solutions include raising the minimum wage, which would significantly boost the pay of the millions of women disproportionately concentrated in the low-wage sector, and enacting paid family leave, a policy that would be a boon for women struggling to combine work and family. All of these issues are looming increasingly large in our national politics.

But in order to advance these policies, it’s vital to debunk the right’s shameless, decades-long disinformation campaign about the gender gap. The fact is, in every occupation and at every level, women earn less than men doing exactly the same work. The right alleges that the official gender pay gap figure exaggerates the role of discrimination. But even statistics that adjust for occupation and other factors can, in the words of the EPI study, “radically understate the potential for gender discrimination to suppress women’s earnings.”

Contrary to conservatives’ claims, women did not choose to be paid consistently less than men for work that is every bit as valuable to society. But with the right set of policies, we can reverse the tide and bring about some measure of economic justice to the hard-working women of the United States.

Analysis Law and Policy

Do Counselors-in-Training Have the Right to Discriminate Against LGBTQ People?

Greg Lipper

Doctors can't treat their patients with leeches; counselors can't impose their beliefs on patients or harm them using discredited methods. Whatever their views, medical professionals have to treat their clients competently.

Whether they’re bakers, florists, or government clerks, those claiming the right to discriminate against LGBTQ people have repeatedly sought to transform professional services into constitutionally protected religious speech. They have grabbed headlines for refusing, for example, to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples or to make cakes for same-sex couples’ weddings-all in the name of “religious freedom.”

A bit more quietly, however, a handful of counseling students at public universities have challenged their schools’ nondiscrimination and treatment requirements governing clinical placements. In some cases, they have sought a constitutional right to withhold treatment from LGBTQ clients; in others, they have argued for the right to directly impose their religious and anti-gay views on their clients.

There has been some state legislative maneuvering on this front: Tennessee, for instance, recently enacted a thinly veiled anti-LGBTQ measure that would allow counselors to deny service on account of their “sincerely held principles.” But when it comes to the federal Constitution, providing medical treatment—whether bypass surgery, root canal, or mental-health counseling—isn’t advocacy (religious or otherwise) protected by the First Amendment. Counselors are medical professionals; they are hired to help their clients, no matter their race, religion, or sexual orientation, and no matter the counselors’ beliefs. The government, moreover, may lawfully prevent counselors from harming their clients, and universities in particular have an interest, recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court, in preventing discrimination in school activities and in training their students to work with diverse populations.

The plaintiffs in these cases have nonetheless argued that their schools are unfairly and unconstitutionally targeting them for their religious beliefs. But these students are not being targeted, any more than are business owners who must comply with civil rights laws. Instead, their universities, informed by the rules of the American Counseling Association (ACA)—the leading organization of American professional counselors—merely ask that all students learn to treat diverse populations and to do so in accordance with the standard of care. These plaintiffs, as a result, have yet to win a constitutional right to discriminate against or impose anti-LGBTQ views on actual or prospective clients. But cases persist, and the possibility of conflicting court decisions looms.

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Keeton v. Anderson-Wiley

The first major challenge to university counseling requirements came from Jennifer Keeton, who hoped to receive a master’s degree in school counseling from Augusta State University. As detailed in the 2011 11th Circuit Court of Appeals decision considering her case, Keeton entered her professional training believing that (1) “sexual behavior is the result of personal choice for which individuals are accountable, not inevitable deterministic forces”; (2) “gender is fixed and binary (i.e., male or female), not a social construct or personal choice subject to individual change”; and “homosexuality is a ‘lifestyle,’ not a ‘state of being.'”

It wasn’t those views alone, however, that sunk her educational plans. The problem, rather, was that Keeton wanted to impose her views on her patients. Keeton had told both her classmates and professors about her clinical approach at a university-run clinic, and it wasn’t pretty:

  • She would try to change the sexual orientation of gay clients;
  • If she were counseling a sophomore student in crisis questioning his sexual orientation, she would respond by telling the student that it was not OK to be gay.
  • If a client disclosed that he was gay, she would tell him that his behavior was wrong and try to change it; if she were unsuccessful, she would refer the client to someone who practices “conversion therapy.”

Unsurprisingly, Keeton also told school officials that it would be difficult for her to work with LGBTQ clients.

Keeton’s approach to counseling not only would have flouted the university’s curricular guidelines, but also would have violated the ACA’s Code of Ethics.

Her conduct would have harmed her patients as well. As a school counselor, Keeton would inevitably have to counsel LGBTQ clients: 57 percent of LGBTQ students have sought help from a school professional and 42 percent have sought help from a school counselor. Suicide is the leading cause of death for LGBTQ adolescents; that’s twice or three times the suicide rate afflicting their heterosexual counterparts. And Keeton’s preferred approach to counseling LGBTQ students would harm them: LGBTQ students rejected by trusted authority figures are even more likely to attempt suicide, and anti-gay “conversion therapy” at best doesn’t work and at worst harms patients too.

Seeking to protect the university’s clinical patients and train her to be a licensed mental health professional, university officials asked Keeton to complete a remediation plan before she counseled students in her required clinical practicum. She refused; the university expelled her. In response, the Christian legal group Alliance Defending Freedom sued on her behalf, claiming that the university violated her First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and the free exercise of religion.

The courts disagreed. The trial court ruled against Keeton, and a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit unanimously upheld the trial court’s ruling. The 11th Circuit explained that Keeton was expelled not because of her religious beliefs, but rather because of her “own statements that she intended to impose her personal religious beliefs on clients and refer clients to conversion therapy, and her own admissions that it would be difficult for her to work with the GLBTQ population and separate her own views from those of the client.” It was Keeton, not the university, who could not separate her personal beliefs from the professional counseling that she provided: “[F]ar from compelling Keeton to profess a belief or change her own beliefs about the morality of homosexuality, [the university] instructs her not to express her personal beliefs regarding the client’s moral values.”

Keeton, in other words, crossed the line between beliefs and conduct. She may believe whatever she likes, but she may not ignore academic and professional requirements designed to protect her clients—especially when serving clients at a university-run clinic.

As the court explained, the First Amendment would not prohibit a medical school from requiring students to perform blood transfusions in their clinical placements, nor would it prohibit a law school from requiring extra ethics training for a student who “expressed an intent to indiscriminately disclose her client’s secrets or violate another of the state bar’s rules.” Doctors can’t treat their patients with leeches; counselors can’t impose their beliefs on patients or harm them using discredited methods. Whatever their views, medical professionals have to treat their clients competently.

Ward v. Polite

The Alliance Defending Freedom’s follow-up case, Ward v. Polite, sought to give counseling students the right to withhold service from LGBTQ patients and also to practice anti-gay “conversion therapy” on those patients. The case’s facts were a bit murkier, and this led the appeals court to send it to trial; as a result, the student ultimately extracted only a modest settlement from the university. But as in Keeton’s case, the court rejected in a 2012 decision the attempt to give counseling students the right to impose their religious views on their clients.

Julea Ward studied counseling at Eastern Michigan University; like Keeton, she was training to be a school counselor. When she reviewed the file for her third client in the required clinical practicum, she realized that he was seeking counseling about a romantic relationship with someone of the same sex. As the Court of Appeals recounted, Ward did not want to counsel the client about this topic, and asked her faculty supervisor “(1) whether she should meet with the client and refer him [to a different counselor] only if it became necessary—only if the counseling session required Ward to affirm the client’s same-sex relationship—or (2) whether the school should reassign the client from the outset.” Although her supervisor reassigned the client, it was the first time in 20 years that one of her students had made such a request. So Ward’s supervisor scheduled a meeting with her.

Then things went off the rails. Ward, explained the court, “reiterated her religious objection to affirming same-sex relationships.” She told university officials that while she had “no problem counseling gay and lesbian clients,” she would counsel them only if “the university did not require her to affirm their sexual orientation.” She also refused to counsel “heterosexual clients about extra-marital sex and adultery in a values-affirming way.” As for the professional rules governing counselors, Ward said, “who’s the [American Counseling Association] to tell me what to do. I answer to a higher power and I’m not selling out God.”

All this led the university to expel Ward, and she sued. She claimed that the university violated her free speech and free exercise rights, and that she had a constitutional right to withhold affirming therapy relating to any same-sex relationships or different-sex relationships outside of marriage. Like Keeton, Ward also argued that the First Amendment prohibited the university from requiring “gay-affirmative therapy” while prohibiting “reparative therapy.” After factual discovery, the trial court dismissed her case.

On appeal before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, Ward eked out a narrow and temporary win: The court held that the case should go to a jury. Because the university did not have a written policy prohibiting referrals, and based on a few troubling faculty statements during Ward’s review, the court ruled that a reasonable jury could potentially find that the university invoked a no-referrals policy “as a pretext for punishing Ward’s religious views and speech.” At the same time, the court recognized that a jury could view the facts less favorably to Ward and rule for the university.

And although the decision appeared to sympathize with Ward’s desire to withhold service from certain types of clients, the court flatly rejected Ward’s sweeping arguments that she had the right to stray from the school curriculum, refuse to counsel LGBTQ clients, or practice anti-gay “conversion therapy.” For one, it said, “Curriculum choices are a form of school speech, giving schools considerable flexibility in designing courses and policies and in enforcing them so long as they amount to reasonable means of furthering legitimate educational ends.” Thus, the problem was “not the adoption of this anti-discrimination policy, the existence of the practicum class or even the values-affirming message the school wants students to understand and practice.” On the contrary, the court emphasized “the [legal] latitude educational institutions—at any level—must have to further legitimate curricular objectives.”

Indeed, the university had good reason to require counseling students—especially those studying to be school counselors—to treat diverse populations. A school counselor who refuses to counsel anyone with regard to nonmarital, nonheterosexual relationships will struggle to find clients: Nearly four in five Americans have had sex by age 21; more than half have done so by the time they turn 18, while only 6 percent of women and 2 percent of men are married by that age.

In any event, withholding service from entire classes of people violates professional ethical rules even for nonschool counselors. Although the ACA permits client referrals in certain circumstances, the agency’s brief in Ward’s case emphasized that counselors may not refuse to treat entire groups. Ward, in sum, “violated the ACA Code of Ethics by refusing to counsel clients who may wish to discuss homosexual relationships, as well as others who fail to comport with her religious teachings, e.g., persons who engage in ‘fornication.'”

But Ward’s approach would have been unethical even if, in theory, she were permitted to withhold service from each and every client seeking counseling related to nonmarital sex (or even marital sex by same-sex couples). Because in many cases, the need for referral would arise well into the counseling relationship. And as the trial court explained, “a client may seek counseling for depression, or issues with their parents, and end up discussing a homosexual relationship.” No matter what the reason, mid-counseling referrals harm clients, and such referrals are even more harmful if they happen because the counselor disapproves of the client.

Fortunately, Ward did not win the sweeping right to harm her clients or otherwise upend professional counseling standards. Rather, the court explained that “the even-handed enforcement of a neutral policy”—such as the ACA’s ethical rules—”is likely to steer clear of the First Amendment’s free-speech and free-exercise protections.” (Full disclosure: I worked on an amicus brief in support of the university when at Americans United.)

Ward’s lawyers pretended that she won the case, but she ended up settling it for relatively little. She received only $75,000; and although the expulsion was removed from her record, she was not reinstated. Without a graduate counseling degree, she cannot become a licensed counselor.

Cash v. Hofherr

The latest anti-gay counseling salvo comes from Andrew Cash, whose April 2016 lawsuit against Missouri State University attempts to rely on yet murkier facts and could wind up, on appeal, in front of the more conservative U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. In addition to his range of constitutional claims (freedom of speech, free exercise of religion, equal protection of law), he has added a claim under the Missouri Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

The complaint describes Cash as “a Christian with sincerely-held beliefs”—as opposed to insincere ones, apparently—”on issues of morality.” Cash started his graduate counseling program at Missouri State University in September 2007. The program requires a clinical internship, which includes 240 hours of in-person client contact. Cash decided to do his clinical internship at Springfield Marriage and Family Institute, which appeared on the counseling department’s list of approved sites. Far from holding anti-Christian bias, Cash’s instructor agreed that his proposed class presentation on “Christian counseling and its unique approach and value to the Counseling profession” was an “excellent” idea.

But the presentation itself revealed that Cash intended to discriminate against LGBTQ patients. In response to a question during the presentation, the head of the Marriage and Family Institute stated that “he would counsel gay persons as individuals, but not as couples, because of his religious beliefs,” and that he would “refer the couple for counseling to other counselors he knew who did not share his religious views.” Because discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation violates ACA guidelines, the university determined that Cash should not continue counseling at the Marriage and Family Institute and that it would be removed from the approved list of placements. Cash suggested, however, that he should be able to withhold treatment from same-sex couples.

All this took place in 2011. The complaint (both the original and amended versions) evades precisely what happened between 2012 and 2014, when Cash was finally expelled. You get the sense that Cash’s lawyers at the Thomas More Society are trying to yadda-yadda-yadda the most important facts of the case.

In any event, the complaint does acknowledge that when Cash applied for a new internship, he both ignored the university’s instructions that the previous hours were not supposed to count toward his requirement, and appeared to be “still very much defend[ing] his previous internship stating that there was nothing wrong with it”—thus suggesting that he would continue to refuse to counsel same-sex couples. He continued to defend his position in later meetings with school officials; by November 2014, the university removed him from the program.

Yet in challenging this expulsion, Cash’s complaint says that he was merely “expressing his Christian worldview regarding a hypothetical situation concerning whether he would provide counseling services to a gay/homosexual couple.”

That’s more than just a worldview, though. It also reflects his intent to discriminate against a class of people—in a manner that violates his program’s requirements and the ACA guidelines. Whether hypothetically or otherwise, Cash stated and reiterated that he would withhold treatment from same-sex couples. A law student who stated, as part of his clinic, that he would refuse to represent Christian clients would be announcing his intent to violate the rules of professional responsibility, and the law school could and would remove him from the school’s legal clinic. And they could and would do so even if a Christian client had yet to walk in the door.

But maybe this was just a big misunderstanding, and Cash would, in practice, be willing and able to counsel same-sex couples? Not so, said Cash’s lawyer from the Thomas More Society, speaking about the case to Christian news outlet WORLD: “I think Christians have to go on the offensive, or it’s going to be a situation like Sodom and Gomorrah in the Bible, where you aren’t safe to have a guest in your home, with the demands of the gay mob.” Yikes.

Although Cash seems to want a maximalist decision allowing counselors and counseling students to withhold service from LGBTQ couples, it remains to be seen how the case will turn out. The complaint appears to elide two years’ worth of key facts in order to present Cash’s claims as sympathetically as possible; even if the trial court were to rule in favor of the university after more factual development, Cash would have the opportunity to appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, one of the country’s most conservative federal appeals courts.

More generally, we’re still early in the legal battles over attempts to use religious freedom rights as grounds to discriminate; only a few courts across the country have weighed in. So no matter how extreme Cash or his lawyers may seem, it’s too early to count them out.

* * *

The cases brought by Keeton, Ward, and Cash not only attempt to undermine anti-discrimination policies. They also seek to change the nature of the counselor-client relationship. Current norms provide that a counselor is a professional who provides a service to a client. But the plaintiffs in these cases seem to think that counseling a patient is no different than lecturing a passerby in the town square, in that counseling a patient necessarily involves expressing the counselor’s personal and religious beliefs. Courts have thus far rejected these attempts to redefine the counselor-patient relationship, just as they have turned away attempts to challenge bans on “reparative therapy.”

The principles underlying the courts’ decisions protect more than just LGBTQ clients. As the 11th Circuit explained in Keeton, the university trains students to “be competent to work with all populations, and that all students not impose their personal religious values on their clients, whether, for instance, they believe that persons ought to be Christians rather than Muslims, Jews or atheists, or that homosexuality is moral or immoral.” Licensed professionals are supposed to help their clients, not treat them as prospective converts.