Commentary Sexuality

Get Real! She Won’t Stop Pressuring Me for Sex and Babies

Heather Corinna

If and when we want to have sex in such a way where we only think of our own wants and needs, we can always have that easily with masturbation. But once more than one person is involved in sex, more than one person needs to be seen, heard and considered.

Published in partnership with Scarleteen.

marshmallowthreat1 asks:

I’m in an on again-off again type relationship with my “girlfriend.” We get along and everything, but on some things we don’t see eye to eye. We’ve had sex before, and that’s kind of the problem. She keeps pressuring me into having sex! You don’t really hear it this way with guys, but it’s the truth. She knows what she wants, and she wants it now! It’s not that I don’t want to have sex with her, or that I don’t LIKE having sex with her, but sometimes I just enjoy romance. Or just hanging out. Sex isn’t everything. And another thing: she wants a baby! She’s nineteen, and I’m eighteen. I’ve reminded her that neither of us drive or have jobs. I just graduated high school (at the time I was still IN school) but still, I can’t change her mind. So I don’t really know what to say. How can i get through to her that sex isn’t everything, and that we’re definitely not ready for a baby?

Heather Corinna replies:

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I’m so sorry that you’ve found yourself in what sounds like some big time bad-news dynamics. There are some things where not being in agreement isn’t a big deal, or is problematic, but not massive. However, having conflict about sex and reproduction like this, especially if one person refuses to honor the other in what they do not want, usually is massive.

You know, we do hear about people of all genders, including guys, experiencing sexual pressure from partners. I’m well aware that this is by no means only something that happens to women or girls, and by no means is something only men or boys, do. I’d say that at least a few times a month, I enter into a discussion with a girl who is pressuring or coercing a boyfriend and need to explain to her that guys can not be ready for sex, too, that guys can not want to have sex sometimes, too, and that real consent isn’t just something it’s important guys get from girls: it’s something everyone always need to seek out from everyone, only moving forward with anything sexual if the other person does give full and enthusiastic consent, and not making a move or stopping if the other person isn’t doing that.

I’m also aware that a whole lot of guys who experience feeling pressured feel very alone in it, like they’re the only ones it’s happening to, or the only ones who aren’t delighted to be pushed into sex. I want to make sure that you know that you’re not alone. This does happen to other guys — probably more than you or are aware of — and very few people are ever happy to be pressured for sex they don’t want, don’t feel ready for or want in a balance with everything else, rather than to the exclusion of everything else. I think it’s also safe to say very few people are happy in an unhealthy relationship, which it sounds like you might be in.

Same goes with a partner pushing parenting or babymaking. You might not hear guys in your life talking about feeling like you are around that or sex, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. What that silence probably indicate isn’t that this isn’t happening, but that a lot of guys probably feel like it isn’t okay to voice it when it is, or that it isn’t okay to feel unhappy about it. Of course, with both of these issues, there can also always be masculinity issues to counter: some guys feel pretty strongly that they’re not “real men” or masculine enough, or other men aren’t, if and when a guy finds himself in the position of being manipulated, pressured, coerced or abused by a woman, or wants to decline sex or have it less frequently than it’s made available. Hopefully, you already know that’s not true. If not, please know that’s not true. And it’s also the kind of attitude which really hurts men instead of helping them.

We also hear more about reproductive coercion — when a partner pressures the other, through verbal threats, physical aggression, or birth-control sabotage, to become pregnant or co-create a pregnancy, which is what it sounds like has been happening here — when it’s women (usually the people who can become pregnant) being coerced. There’s one sound reason for that, which is that in those cases, it’s about all the kinds of things you could be pushed into here, but with the huge added issue of it being something that’s happening to your whole body and health. It also is, to my knowledge, more common that way, but really, we might not know, especially since study on reproductive coercion is still new as a whole. Hopefully, over time, it will address how anyone can experience this kind of coercion, and how very much no one should ever feel they have the right to involve someone in creating a pregnancy who does not consent to be involved and does not want to be. But no matter who it is happening to, this can be some really serious stuff that is pretty unhealthy, and can also potentially derail your life.

If your girlfriend is not accepting your no to sex and not accepting your no to co-creating a pregnancy or becoming a parent, my advice anytime anyone finds themselves in any kind of relationship or interaction where sexual pressuring, reproductive pressuring or both are going on is to get out of it. That is always the very best advice I can give, and the advice I know is most likely to elicit the best result for a person being pressured or coerced, including steering them towards a life and partnerships without those things in them. This is not the stuff healthy, happy relationships are made of.

In sexual relationships and interactions which are healthy and equitable, anytime someone says no to something, or “not yet,” “not now,” or “not so often please,” the other person respects that, rather than stepping all over it, dismissing it, or trying to argue or otherwise steamroll over that person to get what they want for themselves. When it comes to sex and consent, no always needs to trump yes, and that just shouldn’t be that big of a deal. You’re right: sex isn’t everything. No one will die if they don’t have sex with somebody, for crying out loud. For sure, sex with a partner can be really nice, even awesome, but it’s not food, air or water. It’s a privilege, not a necessity or a right.

If and when we want to have sex in such a way where we only need to think of our needs, any of us can always have that very easily. If we are able to engage in sex with a partner, we are also able to masturbate. But if there is anyone else directly involved, we don’t get to have our wants be the only ones that matter or which always come first. Once more than one person is involved in sex, more than one person needs to be seen, heard and considered. Hopefully, that’s a gimme in a relationship or sexual interaction, because emotionally healthy people aren’t going to want to engage in sex with someone who also doesn’t want to.

But it sounds to me like the person you’ve been with might not be very emotionally healthy, and isn’t understanding or accepting that in these things that involve you, they can’t just be about her and what she wants.

What I want for you — what I want for everyone — is a partner who respects you and who cares for you. Honoring our feelings about when and if to have sex and make babies is pretty ground-zero stuff as far as both those things go. It looks like you’re with someone who either wants things you just don’t and can’t see anyone in the picture besides herself or who can see you, and hear your objections, but doesn’t care. Either way, that’s not good. It’s also potentially dangerous for you when it comes to your feelings and the arc of the life that you want.

Reproductive coercion is considered a serious abuse, and I think that’s sound. Our right, whatever our gender, to decide if and when, to the degree we can control it, we want to become pregnant or co-create a pregnancy and to become parents is a vital, essential human right. This is also an issue where another tiny person can potentially come into play who doesn’t get any choices.

If she becomes pregnant, you, as the person who isn’t yourself pregnant, cannot dictate what she does with her pregnancy outside giving or withholding your consent for an adoption. If she chooses to remain pregnant and parent, then that’s just going to be how it is, including financial support of some level and then whatever else you would feel you wanted to do, or felt was right to do, when it comes to parenting. And that would mean with her, by the way, in some way. In other words, the way this person is behaving now? In one way or another, you’d be stuck dealing with her as a co-parent. If you had a kid you really cared about, and her behavior with them was similar to the way she’s behaving with you, that could equal a lot of full-time heartbreak for you. I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest that someone who can’t respect a partner’s no with something this huge is probably not going to be a great parent. This is a kind of behavior that really has legs in terms of how many people’s lives it can potentially really screw up.

I don’t mean to be all Doomsday here, I just want to impress some very possible scenarios and very probably risks you’d be taking if you stay involved sexually with this person who I hear you saying, very clearly, is pretty hell-bent on getting what she wants regardless of what you do. There are a lot of reasons to make our sexual decisions carefully, and this is a biggie. Choosing to be with someone sexually where pregnancy can happen who you know is in profound disagreement with you about what to do should a pregnancy happen, or worse still, who might aim to co-create a pregnancy against your will is a very risky situation to put yourself in, whether you’re someone who can become pregnant or you’re not.

I think being pushed into sex is a very serious abuse, too, one which is often a crime. Somebody pushing a boundary they didn’t know was there, then totally getting it and backing off when you state it is one thing. But when someone has a pattern of coercion, then we need to know we’re likely dealing with a pattern of abuse, which, like abuse tends to, will probably also escalate over time. All very serious, which is why I’m giving you very serious advice.

So, my very, very best advice if this sounds like those things? Get outta this. Pronto.

If you have already tried to get through to her with these things and have not been able to, you’re probably not going to be able to. It’s not that complicated, after all, and really, any of us should only need to hear this stuff once. If someone keeps hearing your no’s again and again and again and isn’t responding, you have to know they’re not going to. And in the meantime, not only does trying to stand up for yourself again and again keep wearing you and how you feel about yourself down, it keeps putting you at risk of some major hazards. It’s kind of like standing outside when there’s a tornado and telling it to go away instead of getting yourself to a shelter. You can’t compel a tornado to chill out with logic or emotional appeals. The same goes for emotionally unhealthy, manipulative, controlling or abusive people, the kind of people who push others into sex or reproduction. You can’t magically change them or get them to behave differently: the best you can do, the best any of us can do, is to stop enabling them and get away from them, focusing on keeping ourselves safe and sound.

To boot? You just don’t sound happy. That’s hardly a shocker, but there’s just no reason to stay in a relationship like this that’s making you unhappy, that has these kinds of conflicts in it, and where it sounds like it’s pretty much a one-man show that’s not about you.

If you don’t feel able to leave right now, or aren’t sure you need to — like maybe she’s not pushing these things as much as it sounds to me like she is — then alternately, I’d suggest a few things. For one, I’d make it very, very clear that you do NOT want to reproduce any time soon, and if that’s what she wants with someone right now, she needs to choose someone else who wants that, and that isn’t you. Period. No negotiating, that’s just your bottom line. Next? You set another hard limit where you make clear you have felt sexually pressured, explain how, and that those behaviors need to stop, like yesterday. If and when she asks for something sexual and you say anything but yes — and because you want to — she needs to back the heck off and stay backed off. If she just “wants what she wants now” and can’t deal with that, she needs to know that is not the way it works in relationships with other people. She has the option to only think about her own wants, but not if she’s going to be in a relationship with you and want those things from you.

If you continue to be sexual with this person, I can’t say enough how important it obviously is that you either nix the kinds of sex which can create a pregnancy, or if you are going to do that, that you are religiously compliant with the methods of birth control you can use. While your choice in methods is limited, you can at least double up by both using condoms and practicing withdrawal, two methods you can be in charge of. Combining those two would bring the risk of pregnancy down to awfully close to zero. But frankly, were I in your shoes, I wouldn’t be taking any risks at all with the way it sounds like she’s been talking. Instead, I’d be keeping my body far away from this person.

I’d also suggest you find someone in your life you trust to tell about all of this, someone you know cares about you, is supportive of you, and who will respect the fact that no, it’s not okay for anyone to pressure you, no matter what your gender is. You’ve got my feedback, but having someone who knows you in-person to give theirs and also just have your back would be even better. If you do leave this person, and they go off the rails about it, then you also have someone to help you deal with that.

I think just getting away from this is your best choice, though. I’d see anything else as a concession, and one that not only puts you at risk of some unwanted consequences, but which also is likely to make sure you remain as unhappy as you are, or become even more unhappy.

If this person wants a partner where the relationship is mostly sexual, and not with the level of other things, including romance, that you want, she can find someone else who wants that same dynamic. If this person wants a partner who also wants to create a pregnancy with her right now, she can find someone like that, too. But that person is not you, obviously. And that’s something she needs to respect and accept, not try to change or dismiss. The same stuff goes for you, too, though: if you want a partner who does NOT do the things she’s doing, and who does consider what you want — and to whom that’s really important — you can have that, too.

Of course, you’re much more likely to find someone who wants a relationship where both of you matter than she is to find someone who only wants a relationship where she does. And no matter how you slice it, you’d be getting the better deal then whoever signs on to this kind of thing with her or than she would. Nobody wins in one-sided relationships: everybody gets cheated, because that just doesn’t offer anyone the really good stuff we can share with someone else.

If you need some motivation for getting gone, know that this relationship is likely keeping you from interactions and openness which could open the door to a much healthier, happier relationship without these dynamics. One where the other person wanted the same kinds of things you do, or when they didn’t, totally honored the fact that you don’t. One where no one is pressuring anyone for anything, including sex or babies. One where when you said you really did not want something or were not ready for something, rather than the other person walking all over you, they’d take that seriously and do their dardnest to make sure they were not putting you in the position of ever having to do anything you didn’t want to do or didn’t feel ready for. One where the other person may want what they want, but they care a whole lot about what you want — and don’t want — too.

Wouldn’t that be awesome? You bet it would. Wouldn’t it suck to miss out on something so awesome because you chose to stay in something so miserable? Hells, yes.

So, no you probably can’t change her mind, and probably can’t change her behavior, either. But you can certainly change how much you’re impacted by it, or if you are at all by opting out. That is something that you have the power and ability to do. You said this has been off-again, on-again. I think it’s past time to turn it off and leave it off.

Along with my very best wishes, I’m going to leave you a few links I think might help you evaluate all of this, make some positive moves that really are best for you, and know more of what to look for in healthy interactions and relationships:

Commentary Politics

On Immigration, Major Political Parties Can’t Seem to Agree on What’s ‘Un-American’

Tina Vasquez

As far as immigration is concerned, neither the Democrats nor Republicans are without their faults, though positions taken at the conventions were clearly more extreme in one case than the other.

Read more of our coverage of the Democratic National Convention here.

Immigration has been one of the country’s most contentious political topics and, not surprisingly, is now a primary focus of this election. But no matter how you feel about the subject, this is a nation of immigrants in search of “el sueño Americano,” as Karla Ortiz reminded us on the first night of the Democratic National Convention (DNC). Ortiz, the 11-year-old daughter of two undocumented parents, appeared in a Hillary Clinton campaign ad earlier this year expressing fear that her parents would be deported. Standing next to her mother on the DNC stage, the young girl told the crowd that she is an American who wants to become a lawyer to help families like hers.

It was a powerful way to kick-start the week, suggesting to viewers Democrats were taking a radically different approach to immigration than the Republican National Convention (RNC). While the RNC made undocumented immigrants the scapegoats for a variety of social ills, from U.S. unemployment to terrorism, the DNC chose to highlight the contributions of immigrants: the U.S. citizen daughter of undocumented parents, the undocumented college graduate, the children of immigrants who went into politics. Yet, even the stories shared at the DNC were too tidy and palatable, focusing on “acceptable” immigrant narratives. There were no mixed-status families discussing their deported parents, for example.

As far as immigration is concerned, neither the Democrats nor Republicans are without their faults, though positions taken at the conventions were clearly more extreme in one case than the other. By the end of two weeks, viewers may not have known whether to blame immigrants for taking their jobs or to befriend their hardworking immigrant neighbors. For the undocumented immigrants watching the conventions, the message, however, was clear: Both parties have a lot of work to do when it comes to humanizing their communities.  

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“No Business Being in This Country”

For context, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and his running mate Mike Pence are the decidedly anti-immigrant ticket. From the beginning, Trump’s campaign has been overrun by anti-immigrant rhetoric, from calling Mexicans “rapists” and “killers” to calling for a ban on Muslim immigration. And as of July 24, Trump’s proposed ban now includes people from countries “compromised by terrorism” who will not be allowed to enter the United States, including anyone from France.

So, it should come as no surprise that the first night of the RNC, which had the theme of “Make America Safe Again,” preyed on American fears of the “other.” In this case: undocumented immigrants who, as Julianne Hing wrote for the Nation, “aren’t just drug dealers and rapists anymorenow they’re murderers, too.”

Night one of the RNC featured not one but three speakers whose children were killed by undocumented immigrants. “They’re just three brave representatives of many thousands who have suffered so gravely,” Trump said at the convention. “Of all my travels in this country, nothing has affected me more, nothing even close I have to tell you, than the time I have spent with the mothers and fathers who have lost their children to violence spilling across our borders, which we can solve. We have to solve it.”

Billed as “immigration reform advocates,” grieving parents like Mary Ann Mendoza called her son’s killer, who had resided in the United States for 20 years before the drunk driving accident that ended her police officer son’s life, an “illegal immigrant” who “had no business being in this country.”

It seemed exploitative and felt all too common. Drunk driving deaths are tragically common and have nothing to do with immigration, but it is easier to demonize undocumented immigrants than it is to address the nation’s broken immigration system and the conditions that are separating people from their countries of originconditions to which the United States has contributed. Trump has spent months intentionally and disingenuously pushing narratives that undocumented immigrants are hurting and exploiting the United States, rather than attempting to get to the root of these issues. This was hammered home by Mendoza, who finished her speech saying that we have a system that cares more about “illegals” than Americans, and that a vote for Hillary “puts all of our children’s lives at risk.”

There was also Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, a notorious racist whose department made a practice of racially profiling Latinos and was recently found to be in civil contempt of court for “repeatedly and knowingly” disobeying orders to cease policing tactics against Latinos, NPR reported.

Like Mendoza, Arpaio told the RNC crowd that the immigration system “puts the needs of other nations ahead of ours” and that “we are more concerned with the rights of ‘illegal aliens’ and criminals than we are with protecting our own country.” The sheriff asserted that he was at the RNC because he was distinctly qualified to discuss the “dangers of illegal immigration,” as someone who has lived on both sides of the border.

“We have terrorists coming in over our border, infiltrating our communities, and causing massive destruction and mayhem,” Arpaio said. “We have criminals penetrating our weak border security systems and committing serious crimes.”

Broadly, the takeaway from the RNC and the GOP nominee himself is that undocumented immigrants are terrorists who are taking American jobs and lives. “Trump leaned on a tragic story of a young woman’s murder to prop up a generalized depiction of immigrants as menacing, homicidal animals ‘roaming freely to threaten peaceful citizens,’” Hing wrote for the Nation.

When accepting the nomination, Trump highlighted the story of Sarah Root of Nebraska, a 21-year-old who was killed in a drunk-driving accident by a 19-year-old undocumented immigrant.

“To this administration, [the Root family’s] amazing daughter was just one more American life that wasn’t worth protecting,” Trump said. “One more child to sacrifice on the altar of open borders.”

It should be noted that the information related to immigration that Trump provided in his RNC speech, which included the assertion that the federal government enables crime by not deporting more undocumented immigrants (despite deporting more undocumented immigrants than ever before in recent years), came from groups founded by John Tanton, a well-known nativist whom the Southern Poverty Law center referred to as “the racist architect of the modern anti-immigrant movement.”

“The Border Crossed Us”

From the get-go, it seemed the DNC set out to counter the dangerous, anti-immigrant rhetoric pushed at the RNC. Over and over again, Democrats like Congressional Hispanic Caucus Chair Rep. Linda Sánchez (D-CA) hit back hard against Trump, citing him by name and quoting him directly.

“Donald Trump believes that Mexican immigrants are murderers and rapists. But what about my parents, Donald?” Sánchez asked the crowd, standing next to her sister, Rep. Loretta Sánchez (D-CA). “They are the only parents in our nation’s 265-year history to send not one but two daughters to the United States Congress!”

Each speech from a Latino touched on immigration, glossing over the fact that immigration is not just a Latino issue. While the sentiments were positiveillustrating a community that is thriving, and providing a much-needed break from the RNC’s anti-immigrant rhetoricat the core of every speech were messages of assimilation and respectability politics.

Even in gutsier speeches from people like actress Eva Longoria, there was the need to assert that her family is American and that her father is a veteran. The actress said, “My family never crossed a border. The border crossed us.”

Whether intentional or not, the DNC divided immigrants into those who are acceptable, respectable, and worthy of citizenship, and those—invisible at the convention—who are not. “Border crossers” who do not identify as American, who do not learn English, who do not aspire to go to college or become an entrepreneur because basic survival is overwhelming enough, what about them? Do they deserve to be in detention? Do their families deserve to be ripped apart by deportation?

At the convention, Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-IL), a champion of immigration reform, said something seemingly innocuous that snapped into focus the problem with the Democrats’ immigration narrative.

“In her heart, Hillary Clinton’s dream for America is one where immigrants are allowed to come out of the shadows, get right with the law, pay their taxes, and not feel fear that their families are going to be ripped apart,” Gutiérrez said.

The Democratic Party is participating in an all-too-convenient erasure of the progress undocumented people have made through sheer force of will. Immigration has become a leading topic not because there are more people crossing the border (there aren’t) or because nativist Donald Trump decided to run for president, but because a segment of the population has been denied basic rights and has been fighting tooth and nail to save themselves, their families, and their communities.

Immigrants have been coming out of the shadows and as a result, are largely responsible for the few forms of relief undocumented communities now have, like Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which allows certain undocumented immigrants who meet specific qualifications to receive a renewable two-year work permit and exemption from deportation. And “getting right with the law” is a joke at this point. The problem isn’t that immigrants are failing to adhere to immigration laws; the problem is immigration laws that are notoriously complicated and convoluted, and the system, which is so backlogged with cases that a judge sometimes has just seven minutes to determine an immigrant’s fate.

Becoming a U.S. citizen is also really expensive. There is a cap on how many people can immigrate from any given country in a year, and as Janell Ross explained at the Washington Post:

There are some countries, including Mexico, from where a worker with no special skills or a relative in the United States can apply and wait 23 years, according to the U.S. government’s own data. That’s right: There are people receiving visas right now in Mexico to immigrate to the United States who applied in 1993.

But getting back to Gutierrez’s quote: Undocumented immigrants do pay taxes, though their ability to contribute to our economy should not be the one point on which Democrats hang their hats in order to attract voters. And actually, undocumented people pay a lot of taxes—some $11.6 billion in state and local taxes last year, according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy—while rarely benefiting from a majority of federal assistance programs since the administration of President Bill Clinton ended “welfare as we know it” in 1996.

If Democrats were being honest at their convention, we would have heard about their failure to end family detention, and they would have addressed that they too have a history of criminalizing undocumented immigrants.

The 1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act and the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, enacted under former President Clinton, have had the combined effect of dramatically increasing the number of immigrants in detention and expanding mandatory or indefinite detention of noncitizens ordered to be removed to countries that will not accept them, as the American Civil Liberties Union notes on its site. Clinton also passed the North American Free Trade Agreement, which economically devastated Mexican farmers, leading to their mass migration to the United States in search of work.

In 1990, then-Sen. Joe Biden introduced the Violence Against Women Act, which passed in 1994 and specifically excluded undocumented women for the first 19 of the law’s 22 years, and even now is only helpful if the victim of intimate partner abuse is a child, parent, or current/former spouse of a U.S. citizen or a permanent resident.

In addition, President Obama is called by immigrant rights advocates “deporter in chief,” having put into place a “deportation machine” that has sent more than two million migrants back to their country of origin, more than any president in history. New arrivals to the United States, such as the Central American asylum seekers coming to our border escaping gender-based violence, are treated with the same level of prioritization for removal as threats to our national security. The country’s approach to this humanitarian crisis has been raiding homes in the middle of the night and placing migrants in detention centers, which despite being rife with allegations of human rights abuses, are making private prison corporations millions in revenue.

How Are We Defining “Un-American”?

When writing about the Democratic Party, community organizer Rosa Clemente, the 2008 Green Party vice president candidate, said that she is afraid of Trump, “but not enough to be distracted from what we must do, which is to break the two-party system for good.”

This is an election like we’ve never seen before, and it would be disingenuous to imply that the party advocating for the demise of the undocumented population is on equal footing with the party advocating for the rights of certain immigrants whose narratives it finds acceptable. But this is a country where Republicans loudly—and with no consequence—espouse racist, xenophobic, and nativist beliefs while Democrats publicly voice support of migrants while quietly standing by policies that criminalize undocumented communities and lead to record numbers of deportations.

During two weeks of conventions, both sides declared theirs was the party that encapsulated what America was supposed to be, adhering to morals and values handed down from our forefathers. But ours is a country comprised of stolen land and built by slave labor where today, undocumented immigrants, the population most affected by unjust immigration laws and violent anti-immigrant rhetoric, don’t have the right to vote. It is becoming increasingly hard to tell if that is indeed “un-American” or deeply American.

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.