[caption id="attachment_4859" align="alignleft" width="150" caption="Jennifer Bingaman"]
It’s been four months since I started my counseling internship at a men’s residential drug treatment facility. When I started, I was nervous about talking to my clients, working with them, and developing rapport with them. I worried about knowing enough about certain drugs or lingo. I worried that maybe my skill set needed to be honed more. I had images of my clients scoffing at me because I was too naïve or I was not understanding them correctly. I worried my clients would make no progress with me as their counselor. These were the difficulties I envisioned.
None of those things have happened. I have had success with my clients. All of the client who have wanted to change something have begun to do so. I get positive feedback from my clients often about how much they enjoy working with me and they feel that I relate to them.
My biggest struggle, the one I didn’t see coming, was my gender.
I have had the most difficulty in this job because of my gender than in any other job. I have been asked to leave work to change my outfit because it was too suggestive for the clients. Every outfit my job has had an issue with has been one I wore at multiple professional jobs prior to this one, but I’ve smiled and said, “Sure, I will go change. I’m sorry, I didn’t wake up this morning and wonder if my clients would find my outfit sexual today,” and even as I write these words, I worry that I will be branded with the large “A” on my chest because maybe I am the one who is dressing too “sexy” and it’s my fault these men have found a mid-thigh length sweater and opaque leggings to be sexual. I have had multiple clients and colleagues remark upon my looks. I have had colleagues suggest that my success with my clients is in part to my appearance. I have been offended, embarrassed, and hurt as a result of these occurrences.
As a woman working with male drug users, I expected a little impropriety. I expected that a few clients might say something inappropriate. The scale to which this expectation was enlarged is extreme. I was seriously mistaken and quite possibly naïve. However, I don’t think this is the case. I was just looking at my job through a different lens.
When I wake up in the morning I take two things into consideration when I dress myself –comfort and fit. Can I wear it for 8 hours and does it look OK on my frame? If yes, I walk out the door. I don’t leave the house wondering if a man might find me sexually attractive during the day, I leave the house comfortable and ready to work.
It gets under my skin when I think of the probability of a man getting sent home from work because of his “sexually suggestive” outfit, even at a women’s residential drug treatment facility. I can’t imagine it, but maybe my imagination isn’t that great, because I couldn’t see this challenge over my body and my clothes coming. As a woman, I think maybe I’ve just become desensitized because I’m 24 and having men say sexual things about me is nothing new. I was over it by the time I graduated high school. If I fought every sexual comment any boy had ever made toward me in high school, I would have died trying. I certainly wouldn’t be writing this today because I know who I am and I am more than an outfit; I am a person, a woman with self-worth. Changing my outfit isn’t going to fix the deeper problem.
Most of these guys stopped growing when they started using; it’s a common saying in the addictions field. You can’t possibly grow as a person or as a man if every struggle causes you to turn to drugs instead of learning from the experience and maturing. So naturally, most of these guys are as mature now as they were in high school or middle school. In essence, I’m dealing with a bunch of pubescent adolescents. I thought I would be over that when I entered my master’s program, but I am not. So, I have to learn from this, and what I’ve learned is that life isn’t fair. I am a woman and men will say things about me that have nothing to do with who I am, my skills as a counselor, or what I contribute as a worker. I have to learn to be OK with that, because I don’t see any long-term solution to this problem. No amount of changing my clothes, ignoring comments, or other temporary fixes will change a deeply engrained problem with thinking and our culture.
I hope to do things that I hope might change the landscape over time. I hope to continue to be a woman who earns respect from those who do choose to know her as a person. I hope to integrate more feminist interventions into my group work with my clients. I hope to address the problem directly, rather than circumventing the real issue with outfit changes or muting inappropriate comments in the moment. I didn’t go into my internship with the desire to work on this issue with my clients, but just as I am a whole person, so are they. They are missing the nurture of understanding that you respect a woman as a human being and not as an object. They are missing the opportunity for real emotional and intellectual connections with women. I hope to change that. I hope to grow from this experience with them.
Jennifer Bingaman is a counselor-in-training and freelance writer. She blogs about her experiences as a client and a counselor with a few life musings thrown into the mix at The Pursuit of Sassiness