The in-house journal of the British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy is Therapy Today. It is sent to every member of the organisation as well as being hosted online. The BACP have been quick to remind people that reading it counts as CPD, and so it seems safe to assume it promotes it’s beliefs, attitudes and outlook towards ethical practice.
It was therefore worrying and disappointing to see featured an ethical dilemma around viewing pornography which seemed to be written with no knowledge or understanding or either sexuality or good therapeutic and supervisory practices. It is difficult to create believable hypothetical scenarios, however, if it is done, it is important that they reflect not only best practice but the values and beliefs of the organisation.
The Dilemma (All people are imaginary)
Marna is a counsellor who rents a room from a larger counselling agency. Another room within the same building is rented by an older male therapist, Kevin, who she seems to see as a form of mentor (more of that anon). They are not in the traditional sense work colleagues, just two people who happen to rent from the same landlord. She recently went to ask her neighbour Kevin, if he wanted a coffee. As she picked up his coffee cup she noticed that there was an image of two people having sex on his computer.
Marna was so disturbed by the that she felt unable to communicate with Kevin, and indeed felt she had to take the issue to supervision. Marna’s reaction to pornography is so severe that she believes anyone viewing it may be a danger to children. I have summarised the presented dilemma you can read it here on page 20 of the February 2017 issue. (opens in PDF)
The BACP reaction
No doubt many of you will all ready be considering the possible ethical issues involved, I shall give my thoughts in a moment. First though, let us look at the BACP response, the supposed ethical and informed reaction.
The first concern of the BACP is that Kevin may pose a danger to others; clients, those working in the building or children. It is true that watching porn whilst in a work space does not meet the highest of standards, but in a private room with no clients present no danger is indicated. Nor, was this a communal workplace, a closer comparison might be shared rented rooms in a house. Apparently the BACP is suggesting that if one of your housemates watches porn in their own bedroom, they may be a danger to others.
Secondly, whilst the dilemma makes clear that the image was of two adults having sex (and he may have been watching The Last Tango in Paris for all we know) the article constantly talks of filmed child abuse. For no reason other that a strange knee jerk reaction that watching one form of pornography means you will want to watch or view depictions of child abuse the BACP seem to believe the two are linked.
Incredibly the BACP make the claim that “the research linking abuse to the viewing of pornography is ambiguous” yet offer no links to said research. They do direct people to an organisation who work with survivors and perpetrators of childhood sexual abuse however, clearly implying that those who view consensual adult sex are likely to also view filmed child abuse.
We need clarification if the new BACP policy is that viewing adult pornography leads to the abuse of children. Not least so a number of us can resign from the BACP.
The need for knowledge of the legality of pornography is raised. Now it is fair that not every person will have an in depth knowledge of all of the UK’s laws, but a basic legal grounding in what is and is not legal would seem to touch on the issue of competency. The mention of extreme pornography muddies the waters here. Recent law changes mean that a number of acts which it is legal to perform, such as watersports, fisting, some forms of bondage, are illegal to view. An organisation concerned with autonomy and agency might consider what message is sent to largely queer or female people who have had their sex acts of preference othered in this way.
The BACP then briefly talks about the tenancy arrangements, without seeming to understand that neither Marna or Kevin are not employees or workmates. Indeed this lack of basic understanding runs throughout the piece.
Lastly, presumably because whoever wrote the piece once saw the words “reflective practice” the BACP response says Marna should consider how she will feel working in a room next to Kevin. The tone is condemnatory, and the only reflection asked for is on issues such as safety, rather than her emotional responses to the situation.
The piece concludes with Kevin admitting he is having personal problems, and the porn was providing a distraction. He clearly has deep shame at failing to cope in other, perhaps healthier ways (although that is a judgement) and decides to take a break from work. Marna exhibits no empathy or understanding and the article finishes with an objectification of sex workers and condemnation of anyone who views porn.
What should have happened.
One of the first things we are taught, as embryonic counsellors is that any strong reaction must be examined. If we have an emotional response to something a client brings, we need to be able to reflect on it. If we are not sure what has prompted the response we take it to supervision, or to our own personal therapist. This is one of the ways in which clients are kept safe. It is vital, indeed it is the bedrock of good ethical practice.
It worries me a lot that in less than one full sentence the BACP dismiss the need for this kind of reflection. Marna has had a strong, some might say, irrational, reaction, to the knowledge that someone she knows was watching pornography.
My first question, if I were acting in a supervisory or therapeutic capacity with Marna would be was this reaction specific to Kevin? One does not have to be a Freudian to wonder if he had the role of a father figure in Marna’s life. Was this a moment of “walking in on Daddy?” This would explain the strange leap to fears of child abuse, and the inability to treat someone who reveals their distress with empathy and compassion.
This is of course speculation about a fictional scenario, but it is the type of challenging question one would expect to have posed if you disclosed that you were struggling with your emotions. This directly leads to perhaps the one of the most important questions which the BACP ignores.
Is Marna safe to work with clients? Watching pornography is common, it is done by all genders, and with the growth of the internet is often a worry for clients. Can she work with a male client who tells her he watches pornography without expressing her clear disgust. Can she work with a gender or sexuality diverse client who expresses how much pornography has helped them understand themselves? Can she work with a female client who has discovered a taste for BDSM from watching porn? These are questions that should have been asked, before anything else. Yes, we have a duty to ensure fellow professionals are working ethically, but first we have to ensure we are working ethically.
The disconnect around sex which is being encouraged in this article, the lack of personal reflection, and the leap to judgement all ignore the building blocks of counselling, the core conditions. Regardless of ones personal views on pornography to work with clients one needs to have examined your own prejudices, beliefs, and reactions. To not do so means that we are far more likely to act against the clients interests. If you take a look at those removed from the BACP register, it is telling how often this is around sexual and/or romantic boundaries. Counsellors and psychotherapists who have not examined their own attitudes towards sex, honestly, and with a recognition of unconscious and subconscious reactions are a greater danger than someone in distress who ill-advisedly watches porn on a break in a private room.
Which brings me to the lack of empathy Marna shows for someone who admits they are struggling. No doubt taking a break from work was the right decision here, but is this the attitude we want to encourage with professionals? Self absorbed, non reflective,judgemental and without compassion?
My last point is one which sadly does not surprise me but which needs to be raised. Despite so many fine words about being more inclusive of LGBTQ+ people, and different forms of relationships the entire piece assumes heterosexuality as a norm. Marna mentions that there are two people having sex, and in the mind of the writer of the piece, this automatically means a man and a woman. From this opening assumption, to the closing line where we have the unpleasant “use women like this” the idea that sex can be between anyone but a man and a women is missing.
An abridged version of this post will be sent as a letter of complaint to the BACP. Practitioners and clients deserve better, a professional organisation who does not shy away from sex and who demands we be the best we can be.