The Patriarchy Made Me Do It

by Dr. Sally Satel.

Articles & Essays

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 treatment."

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".