Words matter. For therapists, words matter a lot. To find the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) promoting a trans activist perspective on current gender issues therefore comes as a shock. The BACP is hosting an event badged as ‘Queering the therapy space’, which may have a lot more in common with promoting Queer Theory than with developing therapeutic work with people identifying as transgender. One of the sessions goes further, however, and is being advertised by BACP with this description:

“Britain is currently facing a queer healthcare crisis comparable only to that of the AIDS
epidemic. The urgent state of trans healthcare requires a specific political response from cic (sic) people, and has required a commitment to a mutual aid organising model from the community itself. Understanding the specific role Terfism plays at the heart of British media, the rise of popularity in conversion therapy and the tactics of the far right create a uniquely hostile environment for trans people to access healthcare across the developed world” (BACP, 2022).

Defining Terms

Some therapists may not have kept up with the often conflicted debates about gender politics, and be wondering what terfism is and why it matters. The All Party Parliamentary Group on Hate Crime (APPGHC) puts it thus:

“…women who object to the inclusion of trans women as female are attacked both online and, in the street, with the term ‘trans exclusionary radical feminist’ (or TERF) being used as a term of abuse” (APPGHC, 2019: 25).  

So the term terf refers to women who are ‘trans exclusionary radical feminist’ in orientation, and terfism, presumably, to the ideas supporting this viewpoint. What the term on its own does not convey is the sheer level of vitriol with which the use of this phrase is associated. Hence women giving evidence to the APPGHC described their experience of being subjected to verbal attacks, physical assault, a bomb scare and threats of rape and of being killed. The evidence referred to “…harassment and threats by trans activists, including a bomb threat made against a meeting of the group A Woman’s Place in Hastings. They also referred to the assault of 60-year-old Maria McLachlan by [a] trans activist…” (2019: 25).

Language and incitement

Terf and terfism are, therefore, not neutral terms, but a vehicle for abuse aimed at women and at feminists in particular. Several women described their experience of being subjected to verbal and physical assault:

“Discussing our [women’s] sex-based rights and stating biological facts online has also become dangerous and our thoughts censored…Misogynist posters on twitter actively encourage violence against women, especially feminists who speak biological truths. For example, wearing a ‘punch a TERF’ t-shirt.”

These males and their supporters regularly claim that women and lesbians can have penises and any female/lesbians who disagree is a TERF…who deserves to be raped, die in a fire, etc…” (APPGHC, 2019: 26).

The use of the term terf seems to be closely linked to incitement to violence against women holding certain views about males identifying as transgender women. The latter, crucially, claim access to formerly women-only safe spaces, which are protected under the Equality Act 2010. Much of the verbal aggression takes place via social media. “Several of the submissions also included screenshots of social media posts (predominantly Twitter) that contained threats and encouragement of violence towards ‘TERFs’. It can easily be argued that this constitutes hate speech under the Criminal Justice Act 2003…” (APPGHC, 2019: 26).

Threats of violence

This may be the work of a small minority of trans activists, but it nevertheless presents a definite threat to the safety and well-being of women. Further evidence of the close relationship between use of the term and potential incitement to violence comes from the work of students in the Gender Studies MSc at the London School of Economics.

“If TERFs think trans* is an endemic threat to feminism, let us be the threat to feminism…

Picture this: I hold a knife to your throat and spit my transness into your ear. Does that turn you on? Are you scared? I sure fucking hope so.”

LSE GENDER STUDIES MSc STUDENT

The quote comes at the end of his paper entitled “Trans* Endemics: Embodying Viral and Monstrous Threat in Times of Pandemic”, presented at a conference (held in April 2021) for the course on Transnational Sexual Politics… The session was called “No Time, No TERFs, No Norms”.

The session description says:

Engaging with trans as a site of collective affinity, these student scholars take a stand for solidarity to say: No TERFs on our turf!

LSE GENDER STUDIES DEPARTMENT”

Or, in case the message is not clear enough:

“I am the butcher. Watch me take my knife to your throat.”  (Sex Matters, 2021).

Misogyny and vulnerability to terrorism recruitment

The posting of this supposedly academic content rightly raised a storm of criticism, and was quickly withdrawn from the course website by LSE, a tacit acknowledgement of its completely unacceptable nature. However, this violent rhetoric (even in its archived format) continues to be disturbing at any number of levels. Joan Smith identifies a clear link between verbal and physical aggression towards women, and vulnerability to recruitment into terrorist activity, notably in the case of Salman Abedi, who carried out the suicide bombing at the Manchester Arena in 2017. She argues that “…hatred of women and a history of domestic violence are key indicators of dehumanisation, a process of seeing other people as objects, which is a necessary step towards becoming a terrorist” (2020: 9). At the very least, expressing this kind of violent abuse of women within a UK university should qualify for investigation and referral under the Prevent programme for Higher Education under the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015. The Prevent programme bases risk assessment on three factors, i.e. engagement, intent and capability. Key indicative risk factors include “using insulting or derogatory names or labels for another group”, and “condoning or supporting violence or harm towards others” (HMG, 2015: 12).

Breaching safe spaces for women

One of the central issues for trans activists concerns restrictions on the right of men identifying as female to access safe spaces for women, such as women’s refuges for survivors of domestic violence. These safe spaces are protected in law by the Equality Act 2010. Many organisations appear to have prioritised the preferences of trans activists over the legal sex-based rights of women in this respect. This rapid overturning of women’s rights has important implications for therapists working with women as survivors of domestic violence, as the following account illustrates:

“A rape victim who thought she had found a safe all-female space to help her come to terms with the sexual violence she endured has told how she was left deeply troubled by the arrival of a biologically male transwoman with no obvious female attributes. The mother of two joined a survivors’ group seeking support over the rape and childhood abuse that had cast a traumatic shadow over her life. But she has told The Mail on Sunday how she felt the sanctuary and trust of the sessions were violated by the 6ft newcomer in masculine clothes.

Charity bosses insisted the trans woman had every right to be there as they allow people to define their gender for themselves, saying: ‘We do not police gender.’ But the mother, Sarah, said she was disturbed and panicked by the presence of someone with such a masculine appearance. She explained: ‘When I was sexually abused as a child, I was tricked into it by a man. Then I was raped as an adult by a man and felt tricked into it, so I don’t always trust men.’ She added she was left feeling even more uncomfortable after sharing her experience of sexual violence in front of the trans woman, who did not speak about any abuse she may have suffered” (Manning, 2021).

Female therapists seeking to defend the therapeutic frame from intrusion by others would, in all likelihood, be perceived as, labelled, and verbally abused as terfs in this context.

BACP and the Ethical Framework

So where does the BACP stand in promoting training which includes reference to terfism, with all its associated history and potential for incitement to violence? While the presenter does not appear to be a member of BACP, the content of the training seems to present a clear breach of the BACP Ethical Framework for the Counselling Professions (2018) in a number of respects. The breaches relate both to required personal qualities and to the necessary standard of good practice:

Personal moral qualities:

“Respect:

showing appropriate esteem for people and their understanding of themselves.”

“Good practice:

  • We will avoid any actions that bring our profession into disrepute.

56. Professional relationships will be conducted in a spirit of mutual respect”. (BACP, 2018).

BACP’s defence of the training seems to be based on its anticipated value in promoting greater understanding by therapists of the ‘lived experience’ of trans people. Such training is to be welcomed, but this content is explicitly not about the experience of trans people. It is based on the persistent trope of terfism within trans activist ideology, namely the violent rejection of those feminist views which seek to protect sex-based safe places, as defended in law by the Equality Act 2010. The terms terf and terfism undermine established boundaries for ethical therapy for vulnerable and traumatised female clients. This dehumanising language is closely linked to verbal and physical threats of aggression against women. It should have no place in BACP training, or indeed in any professional discourse. The use of these terms breaches the BACP’s own Ethical Framework and related professional standards, and is unworthy of its standing as a respected professional body.

As therapists, such words matter to us intensely, and rightly so.

References

All Party Parliamentary Group on Hate Crime (APPGHC) (2019) How do we build community cohesion when hate crime is on the rise? London: APPG. http://www.appghatecrime.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/APPG%20on%20Hate%20Crime%20Report%20Hate%20Crime%20and%20Community%20Cohesion.pdf

British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (2018) Ethical Framework for the Counselling Professions. Lutterworth: BACP. https://www.bacp.co.uk/events-and-resources/ethics-and-standards/ethical-framework-for-the-counselling-professions/

British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (2022). Queering the Therapy Space. https://www.co.uk/media/13943/programme.pdf

Her Majesty’s Goverment (2015) Channel Duty Guidance: Protecting vulnerable people from being drawn into terrorism: Statutory guidance for Channel panel members and partners of local panls. HMG: London. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/964567/6.6271_HO_HMG_Channel_Duty_Guidance_v14_Web.pdf

Manning, S. (2021) “Rape victim is forced to quit her therapy sessions”, Mail on Sunday, 27th November. https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-10249633/Rape-victim-forced-quit-therapy-sessions-feels-threatened-6ft-trans-woman.html?fbclid=IwAR0ZzenOgQURSkI_vP035XLSr1DRVfc7aqNVy-eSf2x1ZVu9L-Z-6kh_xfU

Sex Matters (2021) “Gender studies and sexualised threats”. 26th July. https://sex-matters.org/posts/updates/gender-studies-and-sexualised-threats/

Smith, J. (2020) Home Grown: How domestic violence turns men into terrorists. London: Quercus


By Peter Jenkins who is a UK-based counsellor, supervisor, trainer and researcher. He has been a member of both the BACP Professional Conduct Committee and the UKCP Ethics Committee. He has published a number of books on legal aspects of therapy, including Professional Practice in Counselling and Psychotherapy: Ethics and the Law (Sage, 2017). His Sage website provides access to a range of free resources on legal and ethical issues in counselling and psychotherapy, including video clips, and articles for download: https://us.sagepub.com/en-us/nam/author/peter-jenkins

This article provides background to the online petition to the BACP Board of Governors, ‘Time to engage’:

https://actionstorm.org/petitions/dialogue-with-bacp

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