As a Sexual Abuse Survivor, Can I Only Connect to People Sexually?

Heather Corinna

Whatever it turns out your sexuality and relationships are like, whatever it turns out you want from them, they're about much, much more than your abuse.

LOVE22 asks:

I was sexually abused, so I was wondering will I only want to find someone who I’m going to stay with for sex?

Heather Corinna replies:

I want to first tell you a few things you should know are true.

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Whatever it turns out your sexuality and relationships are like, whatever it turns out you want from them, they’re about much, much more than your abuse. Because we’ve been abused doesn’t mean either or both of those things will be all about our abuse, or that our abuse will be the biggest influence on them. What our sexuality is, what our relationships are and are like, sexual and non-sexual, are about us as a whole person, not just one part of who we are or one thing that happened to us in our lives.

You are as capable of as many different kinds of relationships as everyone else, and of having whatever kinds of relationships it is or will be that you, yourself want and choose. A healthy, happy sex life and intimate relationships — of whatever kind — which you enjoy and want are just as attainable for you as they are for people who have not been abused.

If you do not want relationships that are only about sex, if you do not want to stay in any relationship only because of sex, you don’t ever have to have those or do that.

Lots of people have things in their life history which make navigating their sexuality difficult or confusing, not just sexual abuse survivors. Sexuality is rarely easy or uncomplicated for anyone.

Some people want and choose to have relationships sometimes that are only or mostly about sex. That is not something exclusive to sexual abuse survivors: it is something some people want sometimes while others do not, including people who have not been abused and people who have been.

Lastly, perhaps most importantly, I want you to know that the person or people who abused you do not have power over you anymore. Your power is back where it belongs now, with you, in your hands. It’s yours, all yours, only to share with someone if you choose to. Your abuser or abusers didn’t take it away from you for good: they didn’t and still don’t have that ability unless you choose to give it to them now. In fact, people who abuse are making clear to us that they’re intimidated by our power, that they feel less powerful than us, which is why they try and take it from us by temporarily overpowering us. But it’s yours: they can’t and don’t own it. Only you can and do, much-more-powerful-than-them you.

I also want to make sure you know that sexual abuse isn’t sex for a victim. It can be for the person who is doing the abusing, but it’s not for the person on the other end, which is why it’s an abuse. Sex, real-deal sex, is something that we do alone or with others that’s about our unique wants, desires and our pleasure — physical and emotional — and when other people are involved, that’s about mutual, shared wants, desires and pleasure. Consensual, healthy partnered sex, unlike sexual abuse, respects everyone involved and is about people giving each other things and sharing things, not about anyone seeking to take something from someone.

I don’t know what, if any, sexual relationships — that have also been wantedly sexual for you, not just the other person — you have had so far, if any. So, I can’t know if you have yet experienced the difference between consensual, wanted and mutually pleasurable sex and sexual abuse. If you haven’t, trust me when I tell you they’re radically different. If you have, you hopefully already know that. If you have sought out sex with others and it hasn’t felt radically different than your abuse did, that’s something I’ll talk about in a little bit.

Because you have been sexually abused, will you only want relationships that are just about sex?

Probably not, just like most folks who haven’t been sexually abused won’t tend to only want those kinds of relationships through their whole lives even if they may or do want those kinds of relationships sometimes. Most people want and have a range of different relationships with different people: like family, mentors, friends, acquaintances, lovers, partners, neighbors, co-workers, people who you collaborate with on things like creative projects, sports, hobbies or community-building and relationships where some of those roles overlap.

What kind of relationships you do and don’t want or have, at any time of your life, is going to be about way more than the fact that you were abused. It’s going to be about the whole person you are and want to be — and whoever those other folks are and want to be — your whole life history, about what kinds of connections and opportunities you discover with others, about the place you’re in in your life at any given time, about the way you feel about people and yourself, your own ethics, ideals, life goals and values, about what kind of time and energy you have: about a lot of things.

Just like everyone else, you may find there are times in your life when the way you connect with someone else is only or mostly sexual, and then that you also want a relationship with them that’s only or mostly about sex. You may find there are times in your life where you want an expressly sexual relationship. Or not. You may want those things sometimes, or with some people, but not at other times, or with other people.

If at any time you want to find someone with whom to have a relationship that’s mostly or only about sex, and that’s what feels most right for both of you, that’s okay. Everyone has that right. If what you want and what feels right are relationships in which sex is only one part of a relationship, that’s okay, too. Everyone also has that right. Even if what you want and what feels right are relationships that aren’t about sex at all, even ever, that is also okay and everyone also has that right.

That said, there are some things that can come up are this when we’ve survived sexual abuse you can make yourself aware of and just keep in mind.

A lot of people present sexual abuse survivors as being more sexual than other people, or as seeking out sex-only relationships more. However, that’s often about stereotyping people, is sometimes even about victim-blaming and abuse enabling (about repeating or mirroring attitudes abusers have), and can have a lot to do with people paying much more attention to our sexual behavior than to the sexual behavior of people who have not been abused or who have, but don’t call what happened to them abuse or who didn’t tell anybody. It also has something to do with people thinking far fewer people have been sexually abused than those of us who actually have been, and with some people mistaking repeated abuses or rapes for consensual sex. I talk about all of that here if you want to read up on it in depth.

It may be you find you feel curious about experiencing sex so that you can know and experience the difference between that and abuse: if so, that’s okay. Lots of people are curious about sex and what it is for a whole host of reasons, and that reason is no less valid than any other. Looking to answer that question is also certainly understandable. It’s an important question, and while we can answer it without having or experiencing sex to some degree, we can want to tangibly explore, feel and experience that answer. It may also be that you feel scared of very emotionally intimate relationships, especially if the person or people who abused you were people you trusted. That can happen, too.

It can also happen that for anyone who has had control and power taken away from them around their bodies and sex — which is the case for anyone sexually abused, but can also be something people experience because of other things, like not being able to identify or present their gender as they feel it, having been abused in other ways, or for those who were shamed around their bodies or sexuality — that you want to seek out situations where that’s in your control. If and when you find that’s something you want to do and feels right for you, as long as the other person also gets to have control and power over their own body, that’s okay, too. That’s also one of those things we know is not at all just about sexual abuse survivors: many people, if not all people, explore power and empowerment in their sex lives.

If you’re asking this question because you have felt, so far, like sex-only relationships are the only ones you’re in, or like you can only connect with other people on a sexual level, there are some things I’d check in with yourself about. I’d also do some checking in if you’ve been having any kind of sex with people and find that sex feels the same as your abuse, or that you feel in it like you felt when you were abused.

Sometimes, when we’ve been sexually abused, especially before we’re gotten any real help with and done a lot of work on healing, we might feel like our only value is sexual, and so seek out sexual relationships when that isn’t what we really want because we figure that’s all we’re good for. One of the ways sexual abuse can impact us is to kind of hijack our sexuality some, especially for a while right after abuse happens, or to make us feel like since someone (the person or people who abused us) decided we were an object for sex that they were right. Sometimes sexual abuse can also confuse us, making it seem like the way abuse is is the way sex is or is supposed to be, especially if our abuser or abusers told us what was happening was sex, not abuse, said it was good, not bad, or told us it was what we wanted, even though it wasn’t what we wanted at all. Just know that none of that is true: those are all things someone decided or said who was not a healthy person and whose judgment you can know was clearly seriously flawed, since they abused you, something healthy people in a sound state of mind just don’t do.

If it ever feels like you’re feeling that those kinds of things are true and that your only value is sexual, like that’s the only way other people will connect with you, or any sex or sexual relationships you’re part of remind you a whole lot of your abuse, it’s usually a good idea to back it up, step away from sexual relationships for a while, and do some more work on your own healing first, without sexual relationships for a bit, and to also stick to relationships where you feel able to be a whole person and feel cared for as all of who you are, not only one part. In order to have healthy sex lives, one thing all of us need is to really value ourselves as whole people, not parts, so anytime we’re not, that’s something we want to work on and put our time and energy into, whether we feel that way because of abuse or because of something else.

There are some things you can ask yourself to check in around this if you are feeling like all you are good for or can have are sex-only relationships, or like that’s all you want, but you don’t feel right about it.Is that what you really want, for instance? It’s okay if it is (and so long as it’s also something the other people only want, too), but you want to be sure it really is so that you don’t wind up putting yourself in a position where, yet again, you feel like things are happening outside your control or which you don’t want or feel good about. Obviously, if you do want those kinds of relationships and it does feel right, you’ll want to make sure you also feel able to navigate and manage them well, as they can be pretty tricky, especially when you’re young.

If sex-only relationships are something that you feel you’d not want to actively choose, but find yourself falling into, or feel like those are the only relationships available to you, then you want to work to make different choices so that you’re not doing anything that doesn’t feel right to you and that isn’t what you want. That’s true about sexual choices just like any other kinds of choices in life. Whatever area we’re making choices in, we want to always try and think about what we really want for ourselves and what feels right, deep in our guts and in our heads, and lead with that. If something doesn’t feel right or makes us feel bad about ourselves, it’s usually because it isn’t right for us and isn’t good for us. Remember that we’re not always going to have the opportunity to have the kinds of relationships we really want at a given time, that’s just life, and that when our only options are not what we want, having no relationship is better than being in something we don’t want, like or feel good in.

I’d strongly suggest that if you’ve not yet gotten any good, ongoing help healing from your abuse that you seek that out.

Healing is a lifelong process, and while it usually gets easier over time, it’s pretty much always hard, if not impossible, without help and support. It also often won’t get easier as quickly if we try and go it alone. We can lean on that help and support to work things out like this, or to give us a hand if and when we find that we’re winding up in things or doing things we don’t think we really want or which don’t leave us feeling good.

What that help and support is isn’t always the same thing for everyone. Counseling from someone trained to help trauma survivors is an excellent option. So are support groups where you can listen and talk to other survivors, reading other survivor’s stories or using books or workbooks to help yourself, doing creative work to heal, like using art or writing as therapy, some kinds of bodywork, like therapeutic massage or bodyworking, like getting involved in a kind of physical activity that can hep us get back in touch with our own bodies and help us feel strong and whole in them, like dance, or something we can learn for self-defense like a martial art. You can use any combination of those kinds of things, and more, to facilitate and help you heal, and I’d suggest picking at least one or two.

I want to also remind you that you’re still only in your mid-teens, which makes you very young in the big picture of your whole life and your whole sexual life. Not knowing what you want or might want sexually typical just because of your age and in a lot of ways, is a given at this time in your life, with or without a history of abuse. So, you might also just want to try and accept that since you can’t predict the future, there’s no way of knowing right now what kinds of relationships you’ll want or have throughout your life. That’s something that you, like anyone else, will just feel out, experience and figure out as you go. But what you can know is that all of that is going to be up to you, and whatever it is you find that you really want and feel good about is going to be okay.

I’m going to leave you with a bunch of links to look at, but I’d also like to suggest a couple books I think you might find helpful. Those are, It Happened to Me: A Teen’s Guide to Overcoming Sexual Abuse by William Lee Carter, How Long Does It Hurt: A Guide to Recovering from Incest and Sexual Abuse for Teenagers, Their Friends, and Their Families by Cynthia L. Mather and The Me Nobody Knows: A Guide for Teen Survivors by Barbara Bean.

I also want to make sure to link you up to our message boards, where you’re welcome to talk more with me if you like, any of our volunteers, and where you can also talk to other survivors of abuse and find great peer support. It’s so easy to feel all alone in this, but you’re not alone, and you don’t have to be. You also don’t have to be silent or go without talking about your abuse or your process in healing. Pandora’s Project is another excellent online resource where you can get more information and talk with fellow survivors.

Here are those links for you:

Analysis Economic Justice

New Pennsylvania Bill Is Just One Step Toward Helping Survivors of Economic Abuse

Annamarya Scaccia

The legislation would allow victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking to terminate their lease early or request locks be changed if they have "a reasonable fear" that they will continue to be harmed while living in their unit.

Domestic violence survivors often face a number of barriers that prevent them from leaving abusive situations. But a new bill awaiting action in the Pennsylvania legislature would let survivors in the state break their rental lease without financial repercussions—potentially allowing them to avoid penalties to their credit and rental history that could make getting back on their feet more challenging. Still, the bill is just one of several policy improvements necessary to help survivors escape abusive situations.

Right now in Pennsylvania, landlords can take action against survivors who break their lease as a means of escape. That could mean a lien against the survivor or an eviction on their credit report. The legislation, HB 1051, introduced by Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-Montgomery County), would allow victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking to terminate their lease early or request locks be changed if they have “a reasonable fear” that they will continue to be harmed while living in their unit. The bipartisan bill, which would amend the state’s Landlord and Tenant Act, requires survivors to give at least 30 days’ notice of their intent to be released from the lease.

Research shows survivors often return to or delay leaving abusive relationships because they either can’t afford to live independently or have little to no access to financial resources. In fact, a significant portion of homeless women have cited domestic violence as the leading cause of homelessness.

“As a society, we get mad at survivors when they don’t leave,” Kim Pentico, economic justice program director of the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV), told Rewire. “You know what, her name’s on this lease … That’s going to impact her ability to get and stay safe elsewhere.”

“This is one less thing that’s going to follow her in a negative way,” she added.

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Pennsylvania landlords have raised concerns about the law over liability and rights of other tenants, said Ellen Kramer, deputy director of program services at the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence, which submitted a letter in support of the bill to the state House of Representatives. Lawmakers have considered amendments to the bill—like requiring “proof of abuse” from the courts or a victim’s advocate—that would heed landlord demands while still attempting to protect survivors.

But when you ask a survivor to go to the police or hospital to obtain proof of abuse, “it may put her in a more dangerous position,” Kramer told Rewire, noting that concessions that benefit landlords shift the bill from being victim-centered.

“It’s a delicate balancing act,” she said.

The Urban Affairs Committee voted HB 1051 out of committee on May 17. The legislation was laid on the table on June 23, but has yet to come up for a floor vote. Whether the bill will move forward is uncertain, but proponents say that they have support at the highest levels of government in Pennsylvania.

“We have a strong advocate in Governor Wolf,” Kramer told Rewire.

Financial Abuse in Its Many Forms

Economic violence is a significant characteristic of domestic violence, advocates say. An abuser will often control finances in the home, forcing their victim to hand over their paycheck and not allow them access to bank accounts, credit cards, and other pecuniary resources. Many abusers will also forbid their partner from going to school or having a job. If the victim does work or is a student, the abuser may then harass them on campus or at their place of employment until they withdraw or quit—if they’re not fired.

Abusers may also rack up debt, ruin their partner’s credit score, and cancel lines of credit and insurance policies in order to exact power and control over their victim. Most offenders will also take money or property away from their partner without permission.

“Financial abuse is so multifaceted,” Pentico told Rewire.

Pentico relayed the story of one survivor whose abuser smashed her cell phone because it would put her in financial dire straits. As Pentico told it, the abuser stole her mobile phone, which was under a two-year contract, and broke it knowing that the victim could not afford a new handset. The survivor was then left with a choice of paying for a bill on a phone she could no longer use or not paying the bill at all and being turned into collections, which would jeopardize her ability to rent her own apartment or switch to a new carrier. “Things she can’t do because he smashed her smartphone,” Pentico said.

“Now the general public [could] see that as, ‘It’s a phone, get over it,'” she told Rewire. “Smashing that phone in a two-year contract has such ripple effects on her financial world and on her ability to get and stay safe.”

In fact, members of the public who have not experienced domestic abuse may overlook financial abuse or minimize it. A 2009 national poll from the Allstate Foundation—the philanthropic arm of the Illinois-based insurance company—revealed that nearly 70 percent of Americans do not associate financial abuse with domestic violence, even though it’s an all-too-common tactic among abusers: Economic violence happens in 98 percent of abusive relationships, according to the NNEDV.

Why people fail to make this connection can be attributed, in part, to the lack of legal remedy for financial abuse, said Carol Tracy, executive director of the Women’s Law Project, a public interest law center in Pennsylvania. A survivor can press criminal charges or seek a civil protection order when there’s physical abuse, but the country’s legal justice system has no equivalent for economic or emotional violence, whether the victim is married to their abuser or not, she said.

Some advocates, in lieu of recourse through the courts, have teamed up with foundations to give survivors individual tools to use in economically abusive situations. In 2005, the NNEDV partnered with the Allstate Foundation to develop a curriculum that would teach survivors about financial abuse and financial safety. Through the program, survivors are taught about financial safety planning including individual development accounts, IRA, microlending credit repair, and credit building services.

State coalitions can receive grant funding to develop or improve economic justice programs for survivors, as well as conduct economic empowerment and curriculum trainings with local domestic violence groups. In 2013—the most recent year for which data is available—the foundation awarded $1 million to state domestic violence coalitions in grants that ranged from $50,000 to $100,000 to help support their economic justice work.

So far, according to Pentico, the curriculum has performed “really great” among domestic violence coalitions and its clients. Survivors say they are better informed about economic justice and feel more empowered about their own skills and abilities, which has allowed them to make sounder financial decisions.

This, in turn, has allowed them to escape abuse and stay safe, she said.

“We for a long time chose to see money and finances as sort of this frivolous piece of the safety puzzle,” Pentico told Rewire. “It really is, for many, the piece of the puzzle.”

Public Policy as a Means of Economic Justice

Still, advocates say that public policy, particularly disparate workplace conditions, plays an enormous role in furthering financial abuse. The populations who are more likely to be victims of domestic violence—women, especially trans women and those of color—are also the groups more likely to be underemployed or unemployed. A 2015 LGBT Health & Human Services Network survey, for example, found that 28 percent of working-age transgender women were unemployed and out of school.

“That’s where [economic abuse] gets complicated,” Tracy told Rewire. “Some of it is the fault of the abuser, and some of it is the public policy failures that just don’t value women’s participation in the workforce.”

Victims working low-wage jobs often cannot save enough to leave an abusive situation, advocates say. What they do make goes toward paying bills, basic living needs, and their share of housing expenses—plus child-care costs if they have kids. In the end, they’re not left with much to live on—that is, if their abuser hasn’t taken away access to their own earnings.

“The ability to plan your future, the ability to get away from [abuse], that takes financial resources,” Tracy told Rewire. “It’s just so much harder when you don’t have them and when you’re frightened, and you’re frightened for yourself and your kids.”

Public labor policy can also inhibit a survivor’s ability to escape. This year, five states, Washington, D.C., and 24 jurisdictions will have passed or enacted paid sick leave legislation, according to A Better Balance, a family and work legal center in New York City. As of April, only one of those states—California—also passed a state paid family leave insurance law, which guarantees employees receive pay while on leave due to pregnancy, disability, or serious health issues. (New Jersey, Rhode Island, Washington, and New York have passed similar laws.) Without access to paid leave, Tracy said, survivors often cannot “exercise one’s rights” to file a civil protection order, attend court hearings, or access housing services or any other resource needed to escape violence.

Furthermore, only a handful of state laws protect workers from discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, and pregnancy or familial status (North Carolina, on the other hand, recently passed a draconian state law that permits wide-sweeping bias in public and the workplace). There is no specific federal law that protects LGBTQ workers, but the U.S. Employment Opportunity Commission has clarified that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does prohibit discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation.

Still, that doesn’t necessarily translate into practice. For example, the National Center for Transgender Equality found that 26 percent of transgender people were let go or fired because of anti-trans bias, while 50 percent of transgender workers reported on-the-job harassment. Research shows transgender people are at a higher risk of being fired because of their trans identity, which would make it harder for them to leave an abusive relationship.

“When issues like that intersect with domestic violence, it’s devastating,” Tracy told Rewire. “Frequently it makes it harder, if not impossible, for [victims] to leave battering situations.”

For many survivors, their freedom from abuse also depends on access to public benefits. Programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the child and dependent care credit, and earned income tax credit give low-income survivors access to the money and resources needed to be on stable economic ground. One example: According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, where a family of three has one full-time nonsalary worker earning $10 an hour, SNAP can increase their take-home income by up to 20 percent.

These programs are “hugely important” in helping lift survivors and their families out of poverty and offset the financial inequality they face, Pentico said.

“When we can put cash in their pocket, then they may have the ability to then put a deposit someplace or to buy a bus ticket to get to family,” she told Rewire.

But these programs are under constant attack by conservative lawmakers. In March, the House Republicans approved a 2017 budget plan that would all but gut SNAP by more than $150 million over the next ten years. (Steep cuts already imposed on the food assistance program have led to as many as one million unemployed adults losing their benefits over the course of this year.) The House GOP budget would also strip nearly $500 billion from other social safety net programs including TANF, child-care assistance, and the earned income tax credit.

By slashing spending and imposing severe restrictions on public benefits, politicians are guaranteeing domestic violence survivors will remain stuck in a cycle of poverty, advocates say. They will stay tethered to their abuser because they will be unable to have enough money to live independently.

“When women leave in the middle of the night with the clothes on their back, kids tucked under their arms, come into shelter, and have no access to finances or resources, I can almost guarantee you she’s going to return,” Pentico told Rewire. “She has to return because she can’t afford not to.”

By contrast, advocates say that improving a survivor’s economic security largely depends on a state’s willingness to remedy what they see as public policy failures. Raising the minimum wage, mandating equal pay, enacting paid leave laws, and prohibiting employment discrimination—laws that benefit the entire working class—will make it much less likely that a survivor will have to choose between homelessness and abuse.

States can also pass proactive policies like the bill proposed in Pennsylvania, to make it easier for survivors to leave abusive situations in the first place. Last year, California enacted a law that similarly allows abuse survivors to terminate their lease without getting a restraining order or filing a police report permanent. Virginia also put in place an early lease-termination law for domestic violence survivors in 2013.

A “more equitable distribution of wealth is what we need, what we’re talking about,” Tracy told Rewire.

As Pentico put it, “When we can give [a survivor] access to finances that help her get and stay safe for longer, her ability to protect herself and her children significantly increases.”

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.