Commentary Sexuality

He Won’t Have Sex Anymore: How Can I Change His Mind?

Heather Corinna

Have a partner who wants to step away from sex with you or take a break? If you're wondering what to do to change that, the only right answer is nothing at all. We need to always respect a person's sexual limits and boundaries, whatever their gender.

Published in partnership with Scarleteen

Anonymous asks:

My boyfriend and I have been going out for more a than a year now and we have grown extremely close. We use to have sex regularly and then he just kind of halted it. I want to have sex but he does not want to because of the potential of pregnancy. I suggest using condoms but he still refuses. Is there any way I can convince him to have sex again or will it seem like I am desperate? Please help!

Heather Corinna replies:

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I’m not concerned about you looking desperate by doing anything to try and convince your partner to have sex it seems he’s made clear he’s not comfortable having. What I am concerned about with any situation like this is your partner possibly not having his limits and boundaries respected. That’s the big deal here in my book.

Are there things you could do to convince him to have sex with you? Probably. But it doesn’t matter what those things might be. I’m certainly not going to suggest them.

That’s because I feel very strongly you should not try and change his mind about this in the first place. Trying to change someone’s mind about sex we want, but they don’t want or feel comfortable with, is coercion. In other words, when anyone is doing that, that’s not a healthy framework nor one where, if sex does then occur as a result of that other person trying to change a partner’s no or not now to a yes, the sex would not be fully and freely consensual. You probably don’t need me to tell you that that’s a big, bad deal, even if and when that’s the last thing you intended to do.

What I think you should do, and what any of us always need to do in healthy sexual relationships or interactions, is respect the limit he has set, just like I’d hope he would do for you were the shoe on the other foot.

He’s said he’s not comfortable having whatever kinds of sex he’s not comfortable having right now because he’s concerned about unwanted pregnancy, and it seems he doesn’t feel using condoms alone, like you suggested, would make him feel comfortable enough to engage in sex as a whole, or whatever kinds of sex he’s taken off the table. So, for right now, that’s just how it is, and is something you need to accept.

Now, if he really wants to be having those kinds of sex, and the only issue he has voiced so far that is making sex not-okay for him is the risk of pregnancy and a lack of prevention that is effective enough to make him feel comfortable, AND he has not shut the door on this, but made clear he’d love to have sex were it not for this thing, then you two can certainly talk some more about this. Him voicing that might have sounded something like, “I really, really want to be sexual with you, and I wish I felt okay about it, believe me. But I just don’t, because I am just not okay with the pregnancy risk. If there wasn’t one, I wouldn’t be having this issue.”

If that’s the case, you can open a supportive, pressure-free conversation by first making clear that you respect the limit he has set, and have every intention of continuing to respect it. But, you can add, if he’d really like to be having sex, and he’d like to talk or research some more together to see if you can find a way to engage in sex that does feel right for him and does take care of his conflicts with it now, you’d like to talk about that, too, and see if you can’t find a solution together that works for both of you.

Maybe condoms don’t take care of his discomfort with the pregnancy risk, for example, but maybe condoms and a second reliable form of contraception would. If he does want to look into something like that, perhaps if you two can find a method or combination of methods you both do feel comfortable with, then he’ll change his own mind because he got what he needed to change the situation so that it’s one he is comfortable with. Again, this is assuming he really wants to be engaging in sex right now: if he does, then doing what you can to help him find what he needs for you to both pursue something you want and both feel comfortable with is totally healthy, and isn’t disrespectful of the lines he has drawn.

If that sounds like the right thing to him, and he feels good about that, you two could start by looking at pieces here like this or this, or at Planned Parenthood’s excellent birth control information both want, while working with their boundaries, rather than pushing against them or ignoring them.

Let’s say he doesn’t want to look into other methods right now or did, but still finds nothing gets him comfortable enough, or still isn’t comfortable with other kinds of sex, or just doesn’t want to talk about this anymore for now, period. What then? Again, you’re going to start by accepting that. Then you have a couple options to consider.

I want to first be clear: whether someone is a girl, a guy or a prairie vole, it is totally okay to want to be sexual with someone and to pursue being sexual with someone you want to be sexual with when it feels right for you. But, of course, when there is anyone else involved, the same also always has to be true for them. And anytime anyone is giving us a red light, for any reason, while we may feel bummed out, and it’s okay to feel bummed out, we always need to stop at that light and only ever move forward if it turns green, rather than trying to run it. But you wanting to be sexual and being bummed he doesn’t, or does, but just isn’t cool with that right now? That’s okay. You get to feel disappointed. You also get to still want to be sexual with someone even if they don’t want to be sexual with you, now or ever, or do, but it’s just not right for them. You wanting to be sexual when someone else who doesn’t also doesn’t make you desperate. It just makes you someone who wants a thing someone else doesn’t want or doesn’t feel comfortable with right now, that’s all.

So, what are those options if he doesn’t want to talk any more about this or explore things that might make him more comfortable with you?

Perhaps obviously, if you want an exclusive sexual relationship that is also a romantic relationship and he just doesn’t want that right now, or can’t provide that, you don’t have to stay with this person as that partner or in that kind of relationship. You, like anyone else, always have the option to move away from this relationship or switch it to a platonic friendship if a non-sexual relationship just is not what you want or need and you want to seek out a sexual relationship with someone else for whom sex does feel like the right thing right now. And if that is where you’re at right now, and that’s what you want to do, that’s okay.

It might help to know that more often than not, our first or early relationships tend to be stepping stones in our personal and social development and rarely become very long-term or lifelong sexual or romantic relationships. At any age or time of life, people leave or change relationships when the wants and needs of the people in them aren’t being met, or because the people involved want or are ready for very different things. Sometimes those issues are about whether people want to get married or not, have kids or not, live in the same part of the world or not, have the same values or politics or not, communicate well or don’t, and sometimes they’re about sex. There are really no absolutes about right or wrong reasons to shift or move on from a given relationship, and that’s true of any kind of relationship, too, not just romantic or sexual relationships. You’ve probably experienced that with a friendship at least once in your life already by now. So, if you, he, or both of you feel that around this issue or others, you just might not be the best fit for this kind of relationship anymore, ending it or changing it to a different kind of relationship are valid options.

But sometimes in our relationships — and the longer they last, the more sometimes tends to shift to often — there is going to be some ebb and flow around parts of it, or the people within it, that shift or change, or that are or aren’t happening at a given time. People don’t tend to stay the same through all of life, nor do our lives, so the same is true of our relationships. They will not tend to stay the same over time. Now and then we might find that one part of our relationship is taking more of a lead, or becoming more central than another, or that some part of our relationship or something we do together within it needs to get shelved for a while or be put on hold for any number of reasons. That can happen with a lot of things besides sex or the sexual part of a relationship, but it also absolutely can happen with sex, too.

If you have found and still find a lot of value in the relationship as a whole, and in all the other parts of this relationship besides the sexual piece — like your friendship, like the romantic parts of this is a romantic relationship, like the other paces you two connect with, or ways you are different, but feel like they balance you out — and it’s also a relationship you both want to keep sexually exclusive, then you can also to think about waiting this out or sticking with this and investing the patience, energy and time in working out whatever you both want and need to around it.

And in this case, that might just be about pregnancy risks, but this might also be about more than only that. I don’t know how all of this has been going with you two so far, or what the biggest history of your sexual relationship has been like, but, for instance, if you have been pushing when he has set this limit or others, that certainly could be a sound reason he might want to take sex off the table. I’m not saying you have, but if so, that could totally be part of this. It could also be a world of other things. Sometimes people who feel ready for sex or a certain kind of sex only find out after they engage in it that they weren’t ready, or need things they didn’t know they did before sex was actual, not an abstract. And while needing or wanting to put a stop or a pause on sex can be hard for a lot of people to talk to a partner about, this can be particularly hard for guys. Culturally and interpersonally, guys can be under more pressures to engage in sex than women are: in a lot of ways, the pressure a lot of guys experience to be having sex — from friends, girlfriends or boyfriends, the media, and even family members — is similar to the kinds of pressures a lot of young women experience NOT to have sex, or only to do so in certain social contexts.

That isn’t to say this must be about more than the pregnancy issue. That could be all it’s about. But if it’s not, you’re going to want to know what else it is about, and you’re both going to want to be able to talk about and work through whatever those things are if you’re going to stay in a relationship. And one of the best ways to create the kind of safe, emotional space for him where he can feel able to voice other, perhaps trickier, issues than the pregnancy issue is to have him know, without a doubt, that his limits are always things you will always accept and respect.

I’d also say that if you find the pause he’s pressed on this is making you feel really insecure or freaked out, it’s good to try and figure out why: good for your relationship, but also good for yourself. It might just be that you’re bumming because you feel a desire for sex with this person, enjoy engaging in sex with this person, and it blows it’s not happening right now. But it might be more than that. For instance, if sex with a partner is part of the way you experience and explore intimacy together, it can sometimes wind up being one of the only ways: it can get out of balance. If sex stops or is taking a breather and people feel like they’re not getting any intimacy, that can be a way of identifying you might need some other ways to be and feel that close in your relationship. Even when sex is happening, relationships that are about more than sex don’t fare well when sex is the only route to intimacy. Another common issue is that a lot of people have a ton of self-esteem or validation of their appeal or attractiveness tied to sex. If and when sex stops, people can find they feel very insecure, worry they aren’t wanted, worry they aren’t attractive. Something like that is another thing when, if that is what’s going on, you’ll want to remedy that whether sex is happening or not, because that can also really mess up your relationship with someone else as well as your relationship with your own sexuality. You can take time to explore and expand other ways to amp your self-esteem and the other ways to feel self-confident, which is good for you regardless. Again, having a balance is important for a healthy sexuality, healthy relationships and just a healthy, happy you.

Those are just two possibilities of many. Take the time to think about them and others and check in with yourself, and maybe your partner, too. It may be that this conflict winds up showing one of both of you things you might not have noticed before and would really benefit from being aware of and sorting out.

Now and then, taking a break from sex in relationships can provide great opportunities for us to not just grow other parts of it, but to improve the sexual part of it, too. Having the chance and the time to really talk more about sex, our sexual limits and boundaries, the sexual dynamics in a relationship, the places in our own sexualities we find, through our relationship, are different than we expected, or may need some creative work or thinking through? These are all awesome opportunities, and things we can sometimes inadvertently shortcut when we’re having sex. If you’re choosing to stick in this relationship as it is, but actively engaging in sex or some kinds of sex is off the table for now, I suggest identifying the positives you can glean from the situation and really running with them.

Again, with any of this, just be very sure you are not pushing, but always opening with and making all the room in the world for his limits. If he doesn’t want to talk about this at all, or comes to a stop at any point, all you can respectfully do is wait until he does feel better about the kinds of sex you want to have or about talking more about it. The ball with this, as it were, will need to largely stay in his court: when and if he’s ready, he will throw the ball back. And if it turns out he just doesn’t ever come back around to wanting to engage in sex, then you’ll need to accept this just isn’t going to be a sexual relationship like it was before again, and you two can make whatever changes or adjustments you want or need to account for that.

There’s nothing desperate about someone honoring someone else’s limits and boundaries around something they themselves want, while still owning your own wants in a way that leaves room for both of you to be the different people you are, in the different places you are. That’s the opposite of desperate, and even more importantly, that’s a way to really demonstrate to the people we care about that we earnestly do care, to increase trust and intimacy and to help everyone feel more comfortable with sex — whether we’re having it or not.

I’m leaving you with some links I think might help, especially if you two do talk more and you need some helps with those conversations. I also included a link to a piece on masturbation, which is always something else we can put more energy into exploring, and something else that tends to benefit our sexuality, at any time, including times when sex with a partner isn’t available to us or the right thing.

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.