Lesbian Sexuality and Therapeutic Typecasting

Joni Crone

’Some people are born lesbian, some achieve lesbianism and some have lesbianism 
thrust upon them.’

Helen Eisenbach

This parody of lesbian sexuality in Helen Eisenbach’s lighthearted book
 Lesbianism Made Easy points up the classic questions related to lesbianism when 
it was historically (and perhaps hysterically) treated as a ‘deviant’, ‘ abnormal’ and 
’pathological’ form of sexuality. Questions such as: is lesbianism innate or 
acquired, hereditary, genetic or a political choice? Thankfully, in the late 20th 
century the views of therapists from all schools are now more enlightened and most 
of us belong to professional organisations which include an ethical code that treats 
lesbian clients and therapists as equals and lesbian rights as human rights.

As a lesbian feminist therapist who trained initially with Co-Counselling Ireland
 and in recent years with Newtown House Psychodrama Centre in Cork. I would
 like to make some observations and raise some questions which relate to lesbian
 sexuality and therapy.

Freud and Feminism

When I was actively involved in the women’s movement in Ireland in the seventies 
and eighties, legal and medical issues were high on the agenda. Free, legal, safe
 contraception, the founding of rape crisis centres and refuges, political lobbying for
 equal pay and equal treatment for women in the workplace were all important 
issues. Sexuality was discussed at conferences, workshops and seminars and
 caused much heated debate.

It was in this milieu that I first encountered Freud when he was constantly referred 
to as a misguided misogynist. I came to see him as the enemy, the patriarchal
 mastermind of psychoanalysis who viewed the world through male eyes, treated
 women as inferior creatures who suffered from ‘penis envy’ and basically blamed 
mothers for all the ills of humanity. My reading of radical feminist philosophers. 
Mary Daly among others, helped me to conclude that Freud had never understood 
what women wanted, that he had been on the right track, but had missed the point, 
namely, that women did not envy or desire the male organ but that they did want 
to possess the power wielded by men in society and to share that power on an equal

My studies in recent years, including feminist critiques of Freud by Nancy 
Chodorow among others, have made me realise that Freud cannot be dismissed so 
lightly. Chodorow in Feminism and Psychoanalytic Theory is concerned with a 
feminist theoretical framework which allows us to explore the dynamics of ‘gender,
 sexuality, sexual inequality and domination’ (Chodorow, 1989). Psychoanalytic
 feminism has provided her with a means of understanding the ‘multiplex web’
 which constitutes sexual inequality. She credits Freud with having given us
 ‘standards for human fulfillment in both the emotional and interpersonal spheres.’
 (Chodorow, 1989). In her own work she elucidates the complexities of the 
interrelationships between sex and gender, sex and power, sex and domination and
 sex and therapy. I now believe that while Freud has to be acknowledged for his 
meticulous recording of his observations, for his own self scrutiny and for 
originating a vast body of theory which is still highly influential, yet his writings 
on sexuality need much more critical analysis from lesbian and gay therapists.

It is Freudian concepts which are largely responsible for the lingering view of
 lesbian and gay sexuality as problematic, for the assumptions that gay people
 would not be gay if we had not had some problem in adolescence; or that we have
 all had weak fathers or dominant mothers; or we have all been sexually abused as 
children or we have all had some ‘bad experience’ somewhere along the line; or that 
all gay men are effeminate and all lesbian women are masculine. A recent example
 of this popular prejudice was a report in the Sunday Independent in January 1999
 about a young French tennis player, Amelie Mauresmo, described as ‘the first
 player on the women’s tour since Martina Navratilova to talk publicly about being 
lesbian’ only to have her opponent describe her as ‘half a man’ because of her strong 
muscular topspin backhand. If we look at lesbian women and gay men in an Irish
 context a perusal of recent publications such as The GLEN Survey on Poverty 
among Lesbians and Gay Men or Lesbian and Gay Visions of Ireland, Towards the
 21st Century will show that misconceptions, prejudice, discrimination, harassment 
and violence are still prevalent in Irish society despite the decriminalisation of 
homosexuality in Irish law.

Lesbian Sexuality and Therapy

In the absence of research about the number of lesbian women in Ireland who seek
 therapy or the issues which concern them, I would like to make some observations
 from my own experience. As a founding member of several lesbian organisations,
 as a community arts trainer who has worked all over Ireland and as a therapist in
 recent years I have become acquainted with several thousand lesbian women living 
in Ireland over the past twenty years. I have never met a lesbian woman who
 sought counselling to change her sexual identity or because she had any doubts in 
that regard. The vast majority of lesbian women who seek therapy do so because 
of issues related to homophobia, specifically concerns about the consequences of
 ‘coming out’ at work or within the family, especially to parents. The stresses 
involved include fear of rejection or of being bullied or stigmatised, fear of
 violence or of losing one’s job or of being ostracised. In my own life, the 
consequences of ‘coming out’ publicly have included verbal abuse, harassment,
 assault, discrimination and ostracism so, in my view, the fears I have mentioned 
above are well founded.

Lesbian couples in long term relationships who seek therapy tend, in my 
experience, to present some of the same issues that concern any two people in a
 long term relationship: sexual incompatibilities, the lessening of sexual desire over 
time, a sense of betrayal by one partner, and different understandings of
 commitment. Since lesbian couples do not enjoy the same legal protections as
 married women, economic inequalities can also cause considerable distress.
 Among older couples, the breakup of a longterm partnership, illness or in the case
 of death when the surviving partner is not respected or even acknowledged by 
family members, all this can cause extreme distress.

Questions for Therapists

In an effort to improve the effectiveness of therapists dealing with issues of lesbian
 sexuality generally I would like to suggest some questions which I think all of us
 as therapists need to address.

1. Have you ever doubted your own sexual identity? What fears or fantasies does
 this evoke in you?

2. How would you react if your daughter, sister or mother told you she was lesbian?

3. How would your own values, political views, or ethical concerns influence how 
you would treat a client whom you discover to be lesbian, heterosexual, bisexual 
or celibate?

4. If you felt it would be preferable to refer a lesbian client to a lesbian support 
group or therapist, is this information readily available to you? Have you got it on 

5. How would you respond to a young lesbian woman who is not in a long term
 partnership and wants to become a mother by means of a donor and who has come 
into therapy because of strong objections from her siblings and parents?

Changing Roles, Creative Solutions

If we scanned the last hundred years through the lens of sexuality I think we would 
find a pre-Freudian, Victorian picture of rigid roles for women as mothers, wives
 and homely passive creatures and more varied but equally rigid roles for men as
 fathers, husbands, providers, protectors and leaders in the public sphere. Then we
 would see how these roles have shifted over the course of the twentieth century to
 give us a wider range of roles for women and men, a range of sexual identities and
 new relational constellations which place much greater demands on our psyches.
 The nature of sexual identity is still an open question. Moral issues, abortion, a
 woman’s right to choose, parenthood, custody, child abuse, sexually transmitted 
diseases, safe sex practices, the range of issues which clients can present in therapy
 is to say the least, very challenging. But it is my belief that a humanistic and 
integrative approach which respects our clients as self-defining and self-actualising 
can help us find creative solutions to the most taxing problems in therapy And
 finally a reminder:

‘Fortunately, psychoanalysis is not the only way to resolve inner conflicts
. Life itself still remains a very effective therapist.’

Karen Horney


Eoin Collins and Ide O’Carroll, 1995. The GLEN Survey on Poverty among 
Lesbians and Gay Men. Dublin. Combat Poverty Agency.

Chodorow, Nancy. 1989. Feminism and Psychoanalytic Theory, Oxford. Polity

Crone, Joni, 1988. Lesbian Feminism in Ireland. Women’s Studies International
 Forum, vol. 11, no. 4, pp. 345.

Eisenbach, Helen. 1998. Lesbianism Made Easy, London. Virago Press.

Freud, Sigmund. 1905. Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, Vienna, Standard 

Freud, Sigmund, 1917. Mourning and Melancholia, Vienna, Standard Ed.

Ide O’Carroll and Eoin Collins 1995. (eds.) Lesbian and Gay Visions of Ireland,
 Towards the 21st Century, London. Cassells.

LOT, Lesbians Organising Together, 1997. Lesbian information and resource pack,
 Dublin. LOT, LEA/NOW, Combat Poverty Agency.

Joni Crone is a psycho-drama psychotherapist, writer and trainer. She runs a 
weekly psychodrama group in Dublin and works as training co-ordinator with
 WEST, Women’s Education for Transformation, a North-South Peace and 
Reconciliation Project.