Often, people’s fears about therapy revolve around the therapist or the development of a healthy, lasting relationship with a new therapist. It’s common to have some worry or confusion about choosing a male or female therapist, especially if the nature of the topics covered in therapy have anything to do with gender identity, sexuality, or sexual orientation.
Can I Ask for a Therapist of a Specific Sex or Gender?
You can absolutely ask for a therapist of a specific sex or gender. In fact, when calling most intake lines, you’ll be asked if you have a preference.
Finding a therapist is all about matching with someone you’ll feel comfortable pursuing treatment with, and for some patients, this means someone of specific gender identity. Some people may feel more at ease knowing they’re discussing a particular issue with someone they can more easily relate to. It’s important to note, however, that not every request can be met, and waiting for a therapist of a preferred gender could in some cases delay starting your sessions.
Why Might Someone Ask to See a Therapist of a Specific Gender?
There are many reasons someone may have gender preferences when it comes to choosing a therapist. First and foremost, they may simply feel more comfortable speaking about personal and intimate topics with someone who shares certain experiences. Sometimes it’s easier for a woman to talk to another woman, for example.
Past trauma or abuse may also make some people wary of speaking with a person of the same gender as the former or current abuser. A female survivor of domestic violence in a heterosexual relationship, for example, may not feel comfortable pursuing treatment with a male therapist. It could potentially be too stressful or triggering, which could undermine the goal of a successful therapy session.
In regard to therapy that deals with gender identity or LGBTQIA+ issues, a person may want to seek treatment with someone who has experienced similar gender questions or life moments as they have. They may seek a therapist who is also nonbinary or who has also transitioned.
While all therapists are trained to be sensitive to the diverse identities and needs of their patients, sometimes there are nonverbal cues they may not realize they’re making that could make their patients feel uneasy. Someone who has a similar or same lived experience as the patient may be extra sensitive to cues like this and would be more conscious of them, helping a patient feel more comfortable seeking treatment.
Similar identities may also help build trust between the therapist and patient much quicker than a relationship between two people of different identities. Seeing someone you immediately relate to on a level as baseline as gender can make the next steps of a confidential relationship a little easier.
Therapists Talk About Sex and Gender in Therapy
Beginning therapy and developing a relationship with your therapist is all about your comfort. Take the time to think about what you might prefer to look for in a therapist, and let these therapists shed some light on the decision-making process:
Lynn Somerstein, PhD, E-RYT: People have different comfort levels and may have preferences about working with certain kinds of therapists, such as male or female, straight or gay, older or not. Those preferences should be respected, if possible, because they help ease the social part of beginning therapy, which promotes a calmer relationship that can help you overcome the scariness of beginning a therapeutic relationship. What matters most of all when choosing a therapist is your gut feeling that the two of you click.
When I began seeing a therapist, I knew that I had to see a woman because I felt I would feel safer and better understood by a woman than a man. At least, that is what I thought at the time. I never regretted making this decision, but did feel that I needed to work with a male therapist too. Later in my training, I studied with a supervisor—a male therapist—who became my mentor.
People who have experienced sexual abuse often prefer to work with someone who is not the same gender as the predator; this is a wise choice to defuse the terror and mistrust that will probably come up in treatment. When therapy progresses and lasts, however, it can become clear that the sex, gender, sexual orientation, or age have less to do with successful therapy than we might think. A good therapist will reach out to the person in treatment and develop a mutual understanding and ability to be helpful. The skillfulness, training, and experience of the therapist are important. So, I would say that ultimately sex or gender are not so important, but it can take a while to reach that understanding, and if you have a preference for a certain kind of person, go with that inclination. And always listen to your gut feelings. Is this therapist the right person for you? How do you feel talking together?
Damon Constantinides, PhD, LCSW: I’m trained in both clinical social work and sexuality education, so I think and teach a lot about gender. What I’ve learned is that there are as many gender expressions as there are people. I have had clients choose to see me specifically because I’m a man. For them, my gender makes me easier to talk to, or less threatening; or perhaps they think I’ll understand what they’re saying better than a woman would. However, for other clients, my gender has not been a deciding factor in their choice to work with me.
There are many things to take into consideration when looking for a therapist who is a good fit; gender is only one part of that equation. Other factors such as ethnicity, experience, modality, specialties, or location might be more important. Many people have different levels of comfort with different genders. This can be because of past experience, personal belief systems, or communication style. Most importantly, you want to feel like your therapist understands you. For you, does gender play a role in communication and feeling understood? What are the key components you need to feel connected with another person? Is gender one of them?
Norma Lee, MA, MD, LMFT: One of the biggest determining factors if therapy will be successful is how well a person is able to connect with their therapist. A person needs to feel that their therapist is nonjudgmental, interested in what they have to say, and accepting of them exactly as they are. So, depending on the issue(s) that brings someone to therapy, the sex/gender of the therapist can make a significant difference. You may be aware of these issues, or you may not. For example, if someone was mistreated by their mother growing up, they may have difficulty trusting a woman, especially if she is of the age the person’s mother is. If a girl or woman has been sexually abused or assaulted, she would likely prefer a woman therapist, as most sexual abuse/assault incidents against women are committed by men.
The majority of therapists are women, and the majority of people in therapy are women. In general, women have more of a need to talk things out than men do. Men often don’t want to talk about a problem—they just want to fix it. This is not a judgment or a bad thing, but rather just a difference between the genders. Men who choose to become therapists typically do not have this mindset as they know people have usually tried to help solve their problems before coming to therapy and have been unsuccessful. Sometimes in couples therapy, a male and female therapist may work together so that each member of the couple can feel that someone truly sees their perspective.
There are several key questions you should ask yourself when looking for a therapist. If you’re choosing to seek a therapist of specific gender identity, it may be helpful to add one more question to the list: why is the therapist’s gender important to you?
It can be beneficial to see a therapist of opposite or differing gender identity from your own. For example, it may help to build a safe and trusting relationship with a male if you find you usually have a hard time doing so. Regardless of how you choose to proceed, be sure to check in with yourself and your needs frequently as you take steps to find a therapist.
- Blumenfield, M. (2011, May 31). Choosing a psychotherapist: Should gender matter? Retrieved from https://www.huffpost.com/entry/choosing-a-psychotherapist_n_868475
- Hackman, R. (2016, May 28). Your therapist is white. You’re not. Is this a problem? The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/science/2016/may/28/finding-good-therapist-gender-race-cultural-competency
© Copyright 2009 by By John Smith. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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