Originally published in The Women's
Freedom Network Newsletter
September/October, 1998, Vol. 5, Number 5.
O ur profession is dedicated to the art of the
examined life. Imagine, then, the folly _ and danger _ of a form
of psychotherapy that relieves the patient of having to bother
with introspection. It's called feminist therapy and psychiatrists
would do well to protect patients from it.
According to psychologist Laura Brown, a prominent "feminist
practitioner" and author of Subversive Dialogues: Theory
in Feminist Therapy, feminist psychotherapy is an "opportunity
to help patients see the relationship between their behavior and
the patriarchal society in which we are all embedded."
Sound familiar? It's an extension of the radical
feminist worldview that women are perpetual victims of a vast
male conspiracy. In Brown's scheme, society, not the patient,
is dysfunctional. And because a woman's circumstances and mental
state are presumed to reflect the position of women in society,
any symptoms of depression or anxiety are simply seen as the product
of a misogynistic society. Thus, a radical feminist therapist
would not suggest to a woman that she might contribute to her
current problems at home, at work or school, her relationships
or self-image. That would only "revictimize" her.
Feminist therapists also worry a lot about the
"power differential" in therapist-patient relationship.
To neutralize it the therapist actively discloses personal details
about herself _ an unheard of technique in traditional therapy
where boundaries between doctor and patient are maintained to
preserve objectivity _ and some have even struggled with whether
or not to accept payment for their services since doing so, they
fear, will enforce the notion of hierarchy. Finally, patients
are urged to join feminist political organizations to help subdue
the patriarchy. Writes Brown, "Feminist therapy must be an
intentional act of radical social change, directed at those social
arrangements in which oppressive imbalances of power hold sway.
"Introspection is out; activism is in. This
can't be therapeutic (though there's no doubt it might reinforce
some women's righteous indignation and therefore be perceived
by them as "empowering"). But a guided exploration of
the self _ the true task of psychotherapy _ is foreclosed when
all sources of discomfort are identified as "out there,"
imposed by a male-dominated society. Clinical psychologist Rachel
Perkins illuminates this paradox when she writes in the journal
Feminism and Psychology that "Understanding one's experience
as personal, private and psychological _ is considered dangerous
to the goals of feminism."
All this has been codified by the Feminist Therapy
Institute in San Francisco. Its literature says that "a feminist
therapist seeks multiple avenues for impacting change, including
_ advocacy within professional organizations, lobbying for legislative
action and other appropriate activities." Why are therapists'
political activities relevant to work with patients? Because,
as radical feminists remind us, the personal is political. That
means that psychic distress can invariably be traced to gender
and social inequities.
You'd think feminist therapy would collapse of
its own paranoid weight. Think again. Division 35 (Women's issues)
of the American Psychological Association (APA) considered applying
to the parent organization to secure official specialty status
for feminist therapy. According to Brown _ who made a spectacularly
unsuccessful bid for APA president last year _ graduate training
programs in clinical psychology offer specialty tracks in "feminist
practice" and university-run student health clinics hire
feminist therapists to counsel undergraduates. Even fledgling
clinical psychologists taking the licensing exam last spring were
expected to study feminist therapy. The board review preparatory
manual of the Association for Advanced Training in the Behavioral
Sciences devoted an entire section to it.
And then last summer, the International Research
Institute, chaired by actress Barbra Streisand and housed at Brandeis
University, named Phyllis Chesler _ arguably the mother of feminist
therapy _ to be its first scholar. A professor of psychology and
women's studies at the City University of New York, Chesler gained
visibility in 1972 with the publication of her book Women and
Madness. Here is an excerpt: "I believe that the biological
fact and significance of heterosexual rape and pregnancy were
the primary factors in the formation of the patriarchal family.
Also _ was man's need for proof of his genetic immortality _ so
great that he felt entitled to colonize a woman's body in order
to ensure that his children were created by his sperm."
Two social arenas in which feminist psychology
has had disastrous consequences are child abuse litigation (so-called
repressed memory cases) and domestic violence policy.
In August, the California Court of Appeals ordered
that the case against accused child molester Gary Ramona be dismissed.
His daughter Holly had charged him with child abuse even though
she had no evidence other than so-called recovered memories facilitated
by amytal-induced hypnotherapy. Laura Brown was one of the experts
who filed a declaration supporting the validity of repressed memories
with the court on behalf of Holly Ramona.
The idea of a patriarchy gone mad has long been
cited by radical feminists and more than a few mainstream observers
as the reason for domestic violence. "The patriarchy requires
violence or the subliminal threat of violence to maintain itself"
was Gloria Steinem's famous assertion. Accordingly, principles
of feminist therapy have found their way into the domestic violence
arena. In many states, men who are arrested for wife beating are
court-ordered to a form a rehabilitation called "pro-feminist
The most radical of these programs are clearly
grounds for malpractice. Men sit for weeks in a group where they
are lectured by untrained counselors _ often ex-battered women
themselves _ on the sins of the patriarchy. In Santa Clara County,
the content of the treatment sessions are mandated by California
law to include the following topics: "misogyny," "heterosexism"
and "connections and similarities between domestic violence
and racial oppression." Too busy indoctrinating the men,
the most radical of the therapists forego teaching anger management,
communication skills or how to identify triggers to their rage.
In addition, many reject couples treatment as an alternative because
that's seen as "blaming the victim." No matter that
many of the men and their wives want to repair their marriage
and ask for joint counseling. Women I interviewed for a recent
story on domestic violence freely admitted their role in inciting
conflict in the relationship and wanted to address this.
While it's tempting to conclude that perhaps
profeminist "therapy" is just what a violent man deserves,
the tragic fact is that truly victimized women are put in even
more danger when their husbands undergo a worthless treatment.
Since many of them do want to hold their families together, and
since they are trying to weigh the risks of staying with an abusive
mate, it does them an enormous disservice when a dangerous man
goes through a program that cannot fulfill its promise _ especially
since women are more likely to stay in a marriage, falsely secure,
if they believe their mate is getting help.
We are all interested in novel explanations for
behavior, especially those with therapeutic value, but the feminist
scenario is a paranoid refuge from reality and the practice it
has inspired is little more than political statement. Telling
women they are passive victims _ even when, especially when, they
say they feel victimized _ reinforces self-pity and deprives them
of the opportunity to see how they sabotage their freedom and
contentment. This is knowledge that could transform their lives.
Sally Satel, M.D. is a lecturer in psychiatry
at Yale University School of Medicine and co-author of the WFN
special report, "The Myth of Gender Bias in Medicine".