One of the core conditions as described by Carl Rogers is being non judgemental, usually described as unconditional positive regard. UPR means being willing to suspend your beliefs and values, not in an inauthentic way, but in a way which sees the world through the clients eyes.
How easy, or hard, we find this unconditional positive regard often depends on training, as much as any innate well of empathy and open-mindedness. Learning, for example, about the impact of domestic violence on victims can mean people no longer ask “Why didn’t she just leave?” The more we know about the experiences of others, the harder it is to other them, instead we are able to understand and appreciate their frame of reference.
Of all the groups who as a society we frequently “other” sex workers appear to come high on the list. Stigma and moral opprobrium combine to keep sex workers hidden from view. When someone is hidden it becomes easy to project our opinions, views, beliefs and prejudices onto them. As someone who works with marginalised and oppressed groups I have long been concerned with some of the negative assumptions I heard around me about sex work. As Frankie Mullin writes here, I also learnt that many sex workers had negative experiences of therapy. Unconditional positive regard appeared to be replaced with judgement and assumptions, in direct contradiction of the basics of building a therapeutic relationship.
Many therapists might wonder why this matters, assuming their chances of ever encountering a sex worker if they do not work in specific services is low. However as recent research shows the stereotype they may hold is not based on fact. A third of sex workers researched hold degrees, many work in the health and education sector. The Student Sex Work Project found that 5% of students had done, or had considered sex work during the course of their studies. Beyond the Gaze, the largest survey of sex work ever undertaken in the UK will report in January on its further findings.
For some sex workers the idea of sex work conveying an identity is a matter of pride whilst others object strenuously to the idea. I have no opinion either way, what concerns me is that because of something someone does they may be treated as lesser by the therapeutic profession and society in general. There is a parallel to kink here I believe. Some people enjoy being spanked, but avoid any identification as a kinkster or with the BDSM scene, where as others define their sexuality, and indeed their identity around kink. Whichever group you belong to you still deserve non judgemental and competent therapy which sees you as a person not a pathology.
As I read the list of the dead on Trans Day of Rememberance it was impossible not to notice how many were sex workers. On The International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers (IDEVASW) on Decemeber 17th many of those being remembered will be LGBTQ+ people. They may, or may not, have seen sex work as an oppression, an identity or a job, but they were doubly margenlised, by society, and often by those of us in the supposed helping professions. Which is not to say that only LGBTQ+ sex workers exist, but, that it feels that the existence of this group has been long ignored.
The way to counter the darkness of ignorance is with the light of knowledge. With this in mind I am incredibly excited to be involved with the Pink Therapy Conference for 2018 – Sex Works! It covers more than the conventional view of sex work, looking also at sexological body work, somatic sexology and sex coaching. As a profession we seem to have grown squeamish around the subject of sex, in many different ways, and I believe this conference is long overdue.
On the specific question of better outcomes for sex workers in the therapy room, challenging therapists to consider whether they really offer unconditional positive regard to all clients, whether they bring unconsidered prejudices into the room, and whether they are preventing people speaking openly about their experiences is I believe vital. I am also very excited to learn that Pink therapy will be offering three student bursaries to attend both days of the conference, one for a trans student, one for a BME student and one for a non London-based student.
I had the great fortune to attend an early Pink Therapy conference as a student. The opportunity to hear from people whose ideas went far beyond the conventional text books has shaped my own journey as a therapist. If you would be interested in applying for a bursary you can contact Dominic Davies, with a brief summary of how attending would help your development at firstname.lastname@example.org
There is a saying that we are not free until everyone is free. I am unsure that all therapists can always offer everyone the non judgemental unconditional positive regard we are meant to. However I do believe we can, indeed, must work actively to overcome any prejudices we might have, and the Sex Works! conference is a step towards that.