Advice Sexuality

Get Real! Does Sex Have to Involve Penetration? The Idea of it Makes Me Totally Sick

Heather Corinna

Whatever the gender of a person or their sexual partner is, no one ever has to have any kind of sex or have sex any given way if it doesn't work for them or it doesn't feel good, physically, emotionally, or both.

Published in partnership with Scarleteen.

whydoihavetohaveanaccount asks:

Okay so I’m pretty sure I’m lesbian and the reason for this is that when I read something naughty straight stuff makes me sick. When I read lesbian erotica I like it…until they start penetrating each other, but everything else excites me and I know I want to have sex. If you are having sex with a girl does there have to be penetration? Is it unusual to not want it? I mean just the thought of it makes me sick.

Heather Corinna replies:

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I think one of the coolest things about sex is that it’s a lot like our taste in music.

When it comes to music, we get to like what we like, and listen only to what we want to listen to when we get a choice. Obviously, in the grocery store or at a club what we hear is not going to be up to us, but that’s not how it goes with sex: Consensual sex always involves having a choice, just like listening to music in our own space does. With music, we also get to try listening to something to see how we feel about it, and if we don’t like it, we can turn it off or switch to another station or song. We can try listening to music other people like too to see if we also like it, and it’s OK whether we do or we don’t.

Sometimes we’ll find we like different music at different times or in different situations. I love listening to Aimee Mann when I’m feeling low, but it’s not at all what I like to listen to when I want to get happy. When I’m high energy or want to get revved up, it’s great to listen to the beloved punk of my youth, but if I want to chill out or my head hurts, that music is like torture. We might have music we love to listen to any time, and music we know we never like, but we’ll also tend to have plenty of music that we like or want sometimes, but don’t at other times.

While sex can be more loaded than music, I’d say that has more to do with what people choose to load it with, or sign on to, than what it’s really supposed to be like when we’re all coming to it in a healthy way. Because really, all those things up there that are true of what music a person likes, doesn’t like, listens to, or chooses not to are just as true of sex and the way we not only can, but ideally should, approach it ourselves and with others.

Sex itself should always be a choice, not an obligation or requirement, and that also goes for how we choose to have sex, and for what kinds of sex we choose to have. And just like there’s no “right” taste in music, only what taste each person has (in general, or at any given time), the same is true about sex.

Whatever the gender of a person or their sexual partner is, no one ever has to have any kind of sex or have sex any given way if it doesn’t work for them or it doesn’t feel good, physically, emotionally, or both. So, for a woman with partners who are also women, no one has to engage in any kind of sex where anything—a body part, a toy, whatever—is inside the vagina if that isn’t what they want, but the same is also true of a woman with partners who are men and also for men with any kind of partners they have.

If and when someone doesn’t want those kinds of sex, but their partner does, no always should trump yes; if someone doesn’t want to do something sexually, that needs to be put before what someone does want to do.

Now, a person who wants something a potential or current sexual partner doesn’t can certainly make a decision to choose a different partner who does want what they do instead of staying with or a partner who doesn’t. Everyone should have the right to choose sexual partnerships that are a good fit for their own sexuality and the sexual lives they want, and that’s the healthy way for any of us to pursue our preferences, not doing what we don’t want to or pressing or forcing someone else to do what they don’t want to. Just like someone who doesn’t want to have a given kind of sex has a right not to, someone who does want a kind of sex has a right to seek it out with people who do.

Is it unusual not to want vaginal entry ever? That’s a tricky question to answer accurately, especially when it’s coming from someone young who it sounds like hasn’t even engaged in any kind of partnered sex at all yet, but is only trying to figure out what they do and don’t want based on erotica or porn—based on fantasy, not reality.

But in general, most folks with vaginas will tend to at least want to see what vaginal entry feels like—even just out of curiosity, alone—and while it doesn’t turn out to be everyone’s favorite thing, and some people find out they certainly don’t want to do that anymore and choose not to, it is something many people enjoy and find they want. From that standpoint, not wanting to do that in any way at all, throughout a whole lifetime, would be unusual.

I want to qualify that with a few things, though.

First of all, trying something a few times and in a few different situations throughout life (not just at one time of life or with one person) and not liking it is a very different thing than never wanting to try at all. And not having an interest in trying something is also a very different thing from having a strong feeling of aversion: something like feeling utterly sick at even the thought.

Also, not everyone with a vagina is comfortable with gender roles often ascribed to people with vaginas, including when it comes to sex. What some people can feel averse to, or just want to avoid, when it comes to intercourse, are some of those assumed or ascribed roles, like being subservient or submissive, like being a “hole” for someone else to fill, or like being “the girl,” in a relationship or sexual interaction, period. None of those things are how it has to be with sex that involves vaginal entry, but those are pervasive ideas, and plenty of people don’t feel comfortable with them; some feel very uncomfortable with even the possibility of them being a part of any sex they have.

Our world has also set up vaginal intercourse, specifically, as the “default” sexual activity—as the one kind of sex the majority of people will tend to think of or figure went on when someone says “I had sex.” That certainly isn’t the only kind of sex people have—even straight people—it’s just one of many ways to be sexual with someone else, but that’s not how it’s presented a lot of the time. When something is framed like that, as the thing to do, people will tend to learn, covertly and overtly, that that’s what sex is and that’s what they should want. Strong messages that people should want something tend to pack quite a punch, especially for people—as many are—who are very concerned with normalcy. So, with a message like that around intercourse or other kinds of vaginal entry, it’s tough for us to really say how many people who do that do so because it’s what they uniquely want, and how many people do it or want it because they’ve learned they’re supposed to.

Look, if the “default” sex in our world was, say, putting peanuts up our noses, way more people would be doing that or wanting that than people who are doing that or want to now. When anything is set up as a norm, or as the definitive Thing to Be Doing, then a lot of people are going to want that thing, probably more than would want to do it if it wasn’t.

Most importantly, I think, concern with what’s “normal,” “typical,” or “usual” when it comes to human sexuality is a lot less useful and helpful than it can seem. Even calling anything one of those words accurately is always iffy. I say this a lot, but if we know anything at all about human sexuality by now, we know that what’s most normal isn’t everyone being the same, but diversity. When it comes to the sexualities and sexual lives of the billions of people there are in the world, we know that what people do and don’t do, like, and don’t like is much, much more diverse than it’s usually assumed to be or presented as. What’s normal is diversity, not everyone doing the same thing, or doing the same things the same ways.

What we also know by now is that when people go about their sex lives in a way where they’re focused more or only on what they think they’re supposed to do or want than focused on what they actually want it usually doesn’t lead to the healthiest, happiest, most satisfying and enriching sexual lives. Sexual expression is a very personal, individual expression, just like art or the way we talk. What sex is really, ideally, supposed to be about is who we uniquely are sexually, and when sex includes partners, who we each are ourselves and who we are, again, uniquely, together. That’s the way of approaching sex that people tend to most enjoy and find benefits them and their lives most, not trying to be “normal.” That’s also what tends to make sex be anything but a total bore.

That all said, I do want to talk a little about aversion. Aversion is a word for a feeling we have, about anything, which is an extreme dislike or disinclination. Aversion is a different feeling than apathy or disinterest. And because we like or want to do one thing doesn’t have to mean we feel an aversion to something else, and also isn’t usually because we feel an aversion to something else.

Aversion usually is something we want to resolve or at least have some understanding of. Not because we have to want, like, or do anything we feel an aversion to; we don’t. In other words, what I’m not saying is that someone has to “fix” themselves to make themselves like, want, or do what they feel an aversion to. Rather, we usually want to resolve it because feelings of aversion are very uncomfortable, cause people distress, and usually come from somewhere: from something we usually do need to work out or at least identify.

For example, often feelings of aversion come from some kind of trauma. With and around sex, having experienced sexual abuse, assault, or shaming are common causes of sexual aversion. For instance, some people who were raised with strong messages about how their genitals or sex are sinful or evil or gross or off-limits experience sexual aversion as a result (either on the whole, or just around certain activities). Some people who have been sexually abused or assaulted find they feel aversion to the idea or experience of consensual sexual activities which were the activities involved—without consent—when they were abused or assaulted. You can probably understand why that might happen for anyone with those experiences.

To give you a personal example of aversion from trauma, my dominant hand was smashed and partially severed as a child in an accident. If and when I find myself in situations where I could seriously injure my hand—like when cooking and using knives that feel too big for me to balance properly—I tend to have a strongly averse reaction. That’s about post-traumatic stress, but that’s also sometimes about caution. I know, after all, what a serious hand injury can mean and have reasons to feel fearful about it. I also know that not being cautious can make a serious injury much more likely.

Hopefully, an example like that one also illustrates that aversion doesn’t have to be seen as a bad thing or something to feel embarrassed about. It can be totally neutral and even beneficial in some ways. It is beneficial for me to be extra-careful with my hands, for example. At the same time, it’s also helpful for me to know why I experience those feelings, to have an awareness of when they’re sound and when they aren’t—and also to just recognize when I’m feeling scared—and to work through the root of some of those feelings so I can deal with them and do the things I actually want to do. That keeps my feelings of aversion from being a big obstacle in my life. That awareness also helps me to cut myself a break about it and not get all judgy about not wanting to do things other people experience as no big whoop. Processing and working through trauma we’ve been through is important for our mental health, and for the quality of our lives.

Aversion can also be a reaction to pressures of some kind. For instance, no one could blame anyone who isn’t straight for having strong, negative feelings about a way of living, loving, or having sex that is pushed on them like no one’s business, sometimes in some really ugly ways. That happens incessantly to almost all of us, and some people do develop string feelings of aversion because of it, which is hardly a shocker.

I also want to make clear that sexual orientation is usually defined as who, if anyone, we are attracted to emotionally and sexually, not who we aren’t or who we feel aversion to. In other words, a lesbian person is not someone who doesn’t like men or intercourse within a heterosexual framework, or feels averse to them, and so chooses women. While some lesbian people—like some any-people—may experience aversion to those, or dislike them, what it is that makes them lesbian is an attraction to women, not an aversion to men.

In order to figure out how you feel about women, you want to focus on women, not men or descriptions of straight sex. To figure out how you feel about potentially being lesbian, your reaction to heterosexual sex or sex that involves anything being inside your vagina isn’t going to be very helpful. And of course, women aren’t just what kind of sex they do or don’t have, so how you feel about sex with entry, including between women, isn’t likely to tell you how you feel about women as whole people. Being lesbian, like being any orientation, is about more than just sex, since even our sexual relationships are usually about more than sex. It’s about love too, or at least really liking someone as a whole person in a way that’s not just about sex; that’s more often the bigger piece here.

Let’s also talk a little about porn or erotica. Porn, whether it’s written or visual, isn’t the best way to try and sort any of this out because it’s about fantasy—it’s fiction, not nonfiction. It’s also about the fantasy of someone else: the person creating it, not the person reading it. Sometimes it may be a fantasy you share, but it’s not one you’ve made unless the person who wrote it or made it was you. And, as you’ve discovered, sometimes you might share parts of that created or manufactured fantasy, but not others. When that happens, it can be because you don’t like the sexual activity being talked about or shown, but it can also be about not liking the way that activity is presented or talked about too.

When we’re trying to figure out what our orientation is or what kinds of sex we want to have, while our fantasies (or someone else’s) can give us some cues, that’s about it. To really get at how we feel and what we want in these departments, we’re going to need to be dealing with real people in real life. We also often can’t figure out what we want sexually with any partner until we are actually with that person, or at least know who they are. Again, it’s a lot like what music we want to listen to—it’s hard to know until we can actually hear it and until we’re in the space to make a choice, with whatever unique mood, situation, and place of life we’re in.

Lastly, let’s get real about the idea of the kind of sex that’s freaking you out: the idea of letting someone literally inside our bodies, whether we’re talking about the vagina, anus, or mouth—and outside sexual scenarios, with things like a surgery—is pretty freaky in some ways, and can even feel scary, especially when we’re nothing close to ready for that in our lives or in a given relationship.

CJ and I talk about that in Let’s Get Metaphysical: The Etiquette of Entry, when we say things like:

Letting someone enter us physically requires that we trust them to accept us for who we are, with all our imperfections. Letting someone enter into our bodies requires that we both know and believe that this person will not hurt us. It means that we are allowing someone to literally be taken inside of us and, for that time, be a part of our physical makeup. This might sound a little hokey, but entrance into another body — whether you are inviting it for yourself or someone else is inviting you inside of them — is often a profound moment of connection. While all sexual activity, regardless of whether or not there is entry present, is an opportunity for this sort of connection, physically crossing into and entering into another body can be highly emotional for a lot of people. But it’s easy to forget or overlook that when you’re busy thinking about everything else, like how to physically go about it or how you’re performing or whether or not you’re “doing it right”.

That also means that when someone else is letting us into their body that we are being trusted to be respectful and aware that the person we are entering is in a position of some vulnerability, probably greater than ours as the enter-er. It means when we are entering someone’s body, if we’re really considering that other person, we are going to want to have an awareness about the fact that someone is letting us be, very literally, a part of their body for a while, connected to them in a number of ways, some or all of which may feel very deep to them.

Things like that are part of why a lot of people consider sex with entry to be more intimate than sex without it. That’s also why these kinds of sex can sometimes just feel plain old scary. And why when it comes to our sexual development per how we express ourselves sexually, we don’t tend to start right at the gate by letting people into our bodies, but instead usually start with external kinds of sex with people, or even our own masturbation. So, some of your feelings here may also be about these issues too.

Again, none of this means you or anyone else has to have these kinds of sex or that something is the matter with you if you don’t want to try them, or do try them and find you aren’t into them. But I also think that it might be a little bit early in your life and life experiences to even try and figure out what you want and don’t want, and certainly if it’s only based on impressions you have from fictions or other people’s experiences.

If and when you’re in a real-life sexual situation or relationship, who knows how you might feel. You might experience being with someone where every single way of being sexual with them doesn’t feel right to you, not just intercourse, but other sexual activities too. You might find that in a different relationship you and the other person want to explore absolutely everything you possibly can together. You might discover, as people often do, that how a given sexual activity with someone feels isn’t just about that activity or those body parts, but about the interpersonal dynamics and relationship between you—about the how, not just the what.

So here’s my advice: For starters, know that it is an absolute given that you do not ever have to have any kind of sex you don’t want to and don’t feel good about, nor do you have to have any kind of sexual relationship you don’t want, or any sexual partner you don’t want. Do what you can to really understand and feel that as a given—that’s something that’s so important for everyone to really know, understand, and accept, both about themselves but also about anyone and everyone else. When we approach any sexual relationships or interactions with that as a given for ourselves and our partners, we’re coming to sex then with one of the most important foundations for a sexual life that’s healthy and comfortable for everyone.

I’d also suggest trying to cultivate the same kind of acceptance around ideas of what’s sexually typical and isn’t, working to make it a given that whether someone does or doesn’t want a kind of sex—in general or at any given time—that someone else does or even that a lot of people do, it’s all good. We don’t all have to be the same, which is good, because we’re not all the same. Even if you are unusual in any way, you get to be unusual, and it’s just as OK to be atypical as it is to be typical. Plus, more times than not, those things aren’t even based on realities, so our ideas of what’s normal or typical or usual are often skewed.

Do take some time to try and identify where those feelings of aversion are coming from, and try to make some peace with them. I’d suggest that stepping away from the porn a bit instead of digging in might be a good move; some space away from other people’s suggestions or presentations of something is important when we’re trying to identify our own feelings about it. What making peace means for you isn’t something I can dictate—only you can figure that out. It might mean just knowing you don’t have to do anything you want to, so you don’t have to get so worked up about this or worry about it. If you have had trauma you think might be part of this, it might mean getting some help and support in healing from that trauma. Maybe making peace will mean just recognizing that you don’t have to make any of these decisions now no matter what, and leaving room for yourself to figure out how you feel about any kind of sex with partners when you actually get there. Just put some energy into thinking about this in a more relaxed way and see where that takes you.

Same goes with your orientation: All you or anyone can do is feel it out as you go, seeing who you do feel emotional and sexual attraction to, more than who you don’t feel those things for. Whoever, individually or as a group, that turns out to be, you always get to voice your own preferences when it comes to any kind of sex you don’t want to have, and that always should be respected. Whoever it turns out you do feel sexually and emotionally attracted to, you only have to have whatever kinds of sex you feel good about, whether that’s with women, men, both, or anyone else.

Here are some links I think can give you some more help and some extra food for thought:

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.

Commentary Race

Have a Problem With Black-Only Spaces? Get Over It

Ruth Jeannoel

As the parade of police killings of Black people continues, Black people have a right to mourn together—and without white people.

This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.

Dear Non-Black People:

If you hear about a healing space being organized for Black folks only, don’t question or try to be part of that space.

Simply, DON’T.

After again witnessing the recorded killings of Black people by police, I am trying to show up for my family, my community, and victims such as Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. I am tired of injustice and ready for action.

But as a Black trans youth from the Miami, Florida-based S.O.U.L. Sisters Leadership Collective told me, “Before taking action, we must create space for healing.” With this comment, they led us in the right direction.

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Together, this trans young person, my fellow organizers, and I planned a Black-only community healing circle in Miami. We recognized a need for Black people to come together and care for each other. A collective space to heal is better than suffering and grieving alone.

As we began mobilizing people to attend the community circle, our efforts were met with confusion and resistance by white and Latinx people alike. Social media comments questioned why there needed to be a Black-only space and alleged that such an event was “not fair” and exclusionary.

We know the struggle against white supremacy is a multiracial movement and needs all people. So we planned and shared that there would be spaces for non-Black people of color and white people at the same time. We explained that this particular healing circle—and the fight against police violence—must be centered around Blackness.

But there was still blowback. One Facebook commenter wrote,

Segregation and racial separation is not acceptable. Disappointing.

That is straight bullshit.

To be clear, Black-only space is itself acceptable, and there’s a difference between Black people choosing to come together and white people systematically excluding others from their institutions and definitions of humanity.

But as I recognize that Black people can’t have room to mourn by ourselves without white tears, white shame, white guilt—and, yes, white supremacy—I am angry.

That is what racist laws have often tried to do: Control how Black people assemble. Enslaved people were often barred from gathering, unless it was with white consent or for church.

Even today, we see resistance when Black folks come together, for a variety of reasons. Earlier this year, in Nashville, Tennessee, Black Lives Matter activists were forced to move their meeting out of a library because it was a Black-only meeting. Last year, students at University of Missouri held a series of protests to demand an end to systemic racism and structural racism on their campus. The student group, Concerned Students 1950, called for their own Black-only-healing space, and they too received backlash from their white counterparts and the media.

At our healing circle in Miami, a couple of white people tried to be part of the Black-only space, which was held in another room. One of the white youths came late and asked why she had to be in a different room from Black attendees. I asked her this question: Do you feel like you are treated the same as your Black peers when they walk down the street?

When she answered no, I told her that difference made it important for Black people to connect without white people in the room. We talked about how to engage in political study that can shape how we view—and change—this world.

She understood. It was simple.

I have less compassion for adults who are doing social justice work and who do not understand. If you do not recognize your privilege as a non-Black person, then you need to reassess why you are in this movement.

Are you here to save the world? Do you feel guilty because of what your family may have done in the past or present? Are you marching to show that you are a “good” person?

If you are organizing to shift and shake up white supremacy but can’t understand your privilege under this construct, then this movement is not for you.

For the white folk and non-Black people of color who are sincerely fighting the anti-Blackness at the root of most police killings, get your people. Many of them are “progressive” allies with whom I’ve been in meetings, rallies, or protests. It is time for you to organize actions and events for yourselves to challenge each other on anti-Blackness and identify ways to fight against racial oppression, instead of asking to be in Black-only spaces.

Objecting to a Black-only space is about self-interest and determining who gets to participate. And it shows how little our allies understand that white supremacy gives European-descended people power, privilege, and profit—or that non-Black people of color often also benefit from white supremacy just because they aren’t Black in this anti-Black world.

Our critics were using racial privilege to access a space that was not for them or by them. In the way that white supremacy and capitalism are about individualism and racing to the top, they were putting their individual feelings, rights, and power above Black people’s rights to fellowship and talk about how racism has affected them.

We deserve Black-only community healing because this is our pain. We are the ones who are most frequently affected by police violence and killings. And we know there is a racial empathy gap, which means that white Americans, in particular, are less likely to feel our pain. And the last thing Black people need right now is to be in a room with people who can’t or won’t try to comprehend, who make our hurt into a spectacle, or who deny it with their defensiveness.

Our communal responses to that pain and healing are not about you. And non-Black people can’t determine the agenda for Black action—or who gets a seat at our table.

To Black folks reading this article, just know that we deserve to come together to cry, be angry, be confused, and be ready to fight without shame, pain, or apologies.

And, actually, we don’t need to explain this, any more than we need to explain that Black people are oppressed in this country.