26 August 2014

A Very Warm Welcome - Counselling in Exeter

I am a professional, qualified, BACP registered counsellor practising in central Exeter, Devon. I work privately from premises on Gandy St, in the centre of town, with a wide spectrum of people with differing presenting issues. Warm and approachable, I have the utmost respect for my client's individuality and life circumstances. 

This site is where you can find out information about counselling, my personal approach and services offered, and some details about my background, by clicking on the information tabs above. This is also a blogsite which I use to make regular posts about my work and continuing professional development as a counsellor. Click here for my Articles.

I would be very happy to discuss your requirements should you be interested in coming along for counselling. Embarking on a course of counselling can be daunting and I aim to help you feel relaxed and confident that you make the choice that is right for you.

Please, whoever you decide to have counselling with,  whether individual or agency, ensure that they are a member of a professional body such as the BACP or UKCP. Without membership of a self-regulating professional body then clients have no recourse should they feel that they are being treated unethically. At the moment, there is nothing to stop people practising as counsellors without this protection for their clients. I researched and wrote about this topic on this post about the regulation of counselling and psychotherapy.

Check my BACP Registration entry here 

By Amanda Williamson, Counselling in Exeter


New Low cost Counselling Service for Exeter - starting soon

Low cost and ethical counselling for Exeter

From inception we have liaised with GPs, training institutions, therapists, supervisors the BACP and other stakeholders to ensure that clients and counsellors will be working in a supportive and safe environment. This counselling agency operates under the umbrella of an existing charity, Chapter 1 and will hold up to close scrutiny. 

All the counsellors working for the service; 
  • have DBS checks run specifically for the service
  • are members of the BACP
  • are fully insured
  • are either fully qualified or in the final year of training and been declared ready for practice by their training institution
  • are required to attend supervision with an external, qualified supervisor* 
  • are genuine volunteers 

The counselling service is in the process of applying for BACP organisational membership and will be working towards accredited organisational status.

The Little House/Chapter 1 Counselling Service is launching on 1st September. Appointments are being taken for an initial meeting which is free of charge. Costs of ongoing appointments will be between £10-£30 depending upon ability to pay which will be discussed at the first meeting.

Anybody interested can call the contact centre on 01392 491902

* at the moment counselling and psychotherapy are unregulated professions. Not all counselling agencies have procedures or policies for safeguarding. Some agencies do not ensure that their counsellors have DBS checks, professional body membership or insurance. We believe that is vital that trainee counsellors are clinically supervised by experienced and qualified supervisors for safest practice

New ethical and accountable low cost counselling provision for Exeter

by Amanda Williamson

I'm not just a counsellor in private practice

As well as running my private counselling practice I am involved in other endeavours. I do occasional respite work for a very lovely 18yr old young man with autism, I am campaigning for the regulation of this profession and I have also been volunteering a lot of my time towards helping start a new low cost counselling service as my way of contributing to the community.

The need for local, low cost counselling

There is a very real need, certainly in Exeter. There are people who would benefit greatly from counselling who may be referred to the NHS, maybe the Depression and Anxiety Service which can alleviate some depression and anxiety for some but for others is little more than a sticking plaster at best or maybe even a negative experience as they are just not suited to that mode of therapy (I have heard a few horror stories too but that can be said of any therapy). There is often a very long waiting list for NHS services and some clients may need to see somebody sooner than the NHS can allow.

Why is private counselling so expensive?

As a private practitioner I charge a price which is not only the going rate, but which reflects the expenses involved in setting up privately as a counsellor. I very much believe that people would be very surprised at what my hourly rate equates to as monthly income after expenses. I do offer some concessionary rates but even then, people may not be able to afford even my lowest rate.

There is a whole argument about whether counsellors should work for free or not. Personally, I have got a lot out of personal therapy and do not begrudge a single penny of what I have shelled out. My first experience was 6 weeks with the NHS, free of course, about 18 years ago which was a great introduction to the benefits of counselling. I have had in excess of 100 hours of personal therapy since then which has been self-funded, even when I was a student and partner unemployed (when I did negotiate a discount). But as counsellors we have to engage (if we are working ethically and in accordance with a regulatory body's requirements) in ongoing training, supervision and be insured and pay membership fees and then there's rent...

But, what about people who want counselling but are living on benefits or very low income? What can they afford to pay? 

I have always believed that there is a great need for low-cost counselling agencies that can match volunteer counsellors who want to give something back and trainee counsellors who need to accumulate hours for their qualification, with people in the local community who cannot afford private even concessionary rates. I was part of an agency like that and as regular followers of my blog are likely aware, I resigned for ethical reasons as it transpired that there was deeply unethical practice going on. In fact, as a result of the scandal I know of at least 8 counsellors who left due to unethical practice as well as three office volunteers. The agency has had their membership of the BACP removed twice but due to the lack of regulation, can carry on regardless.

So there is a real need for low cost counselling but it is important for me to be part of something ethical.

A local charity needed help

I am thankful that I was introduced to the charity Chapter 1 who run a family contact and training centre, who were looking to start operating a counselling service. They have rooms free for part of the week, and counselling would sit nicely alongside their other services. So I became a member of the advisory committee to help build a new counselling service. Right from the very start we concentrated on forming a counselling agency built on more than just good intentions. The committee are very aware, not least of all myself, that therapy should be a safe space and safe means accountable. In an ideal world we would have no need for DBS checks, insurance and complaints procedures but we realise that a framework of protection is needed when working in the field of therapy. Sometimes things go wrong and there should be procedures and protocols so that everybody knows what to do if things do go wrong.

Low cost and ethical

From inception we have liaised with GPs, training institutions, therapists, supervisors the BACP and other stakeholders to ensure that clients and counsellors will be working in a supportive and safe environment. This agency operates under the umbrella of an existing charity and will hold up to close scrutiny.

All the counsellors working for the service;

  • are vetted by the training institutions 
  • have DBS checks run specifically for the service
  • are members of the BACP
  • are fully insured
  • are either fully qualified or in the final year of training and been declared ready for practice by their training institution
  • are required to attend supervision with an external, qualified supervisor 

The counselling service is in the process of applying for BACP organisational membership (a complex process) and will be working towards accredited organisational status.

The Little House/Chapter 1 Counselling Service is launching on 1st September. Appointments are being taken for an initial meeting which is free of charge. Costs of ongoing appointments will be between £10-£30 depending upon ability to pay which will be discussed at the first meeting.

Anybody interested can call the contact centre on 01392 491902

17 August 2014

Why we told our story to The Mail on Sunday

By Amanda Williamson and Tina Welch

Note that the title says 'told' rather than 'sold'. This is important as cynics may proffer that we did it to make money. We can assure you that it wasn't done for publicity either. Both of us are very wary of the impact that sharing our story may have on our personal and professional lives. Taking Phoenix Counselling to a professional conduct hearing has already cost us both heavily, in personal, professional and financial terms.

We want to make it absolutely clear that our motivation consists of two clear aims:

1) Due to the lack of regulation of counselling and psychotherapy, despite having 30 allegations of misconduct proved against them, the directors of Phoenix Counselling Services aka Palace Gate Counselling Service, John Clapham  and Lindsey Talbott, can carry on as therapists and supervisors of therapists unimpeded. Our BACP complaints were bolstered by statements from several women affected by what they believe to be inappropriate suggestions regarding nakedness by John Clapham, and legal threats by Talbott and Clapham if they speak out or support us. There were independent complaints from Clapham's other counselling agency, Taunton Counselling Service, of the same ilk (inappropriate suggestions around nakedness and touch). The staff there attempted to lodge a complaint with the BACP before they even heard about the trouble at Exeter, but were unable to as Clapham's Taunton branch did not have BACP membership. Clapham and Talbott have shown zero remorse or self-reflection for their actions. We genuinely fear that abusive practice can and will continue and by the example they have made of us, they have made it clear that if anyone were to complain they would threaten and harass them and make their lives hell. In any event, given that they are no longer members of any professional body any malpractice can now carry on with no recourse for clients and supervisees.

We want our stories publicised as a matter of public protection.

2) We are both appalled that the profession continues to be unregulated. As therapists we are very aware of the vulnerable situation that clients are in when they are sharing their most personal aspects of themselves. The position of trust that counsellors and psychotherapists are in is something we, and we believe most other therapists, respect and cherish. Unfortunately there are therapists who abuse that position of trust and we have personal experience of how that can happen, where trust is gradually built up over a period of time.  Not everybody may fully understand the nuances of the therapeutic relationship and that is why the onus is on the government, who's job it is to help protect us,  rather than on members of the public themselves,  to have the professional knowledge to ensure that there is a system in place to ensure that abusive therapists who have been proven to act unethically are not allowed to continue.

We want our experiences to help the push for the regulation of what is currently a free for all to an actual profession.

The article can be found here.

If anybody is affected by the issues raised in the news article and wishes to seek help then suggested ports of call are:

The Clinic for Boundaries Studies
The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy
Catalyst Counselling

22 July 2014

Challenging Prejudices around Sex Work

by Amanda Williamson

I have been pondering on this blog post for several months now. I have opinions about sex work that some people might struggle with. I have found myself pussyfooting around the issue and worrying that my network won't be able to handle my thoughts and beliefs around sex work...

Could this be anything to do with my Catholic school upbringing? Might I, even though I believe I have forged my own moral compass by being curious and genuinely open to taboo issues, actually still be being influenced by others' attitudes towards sex, taught to me decades ago? When I started secondary school, a convent grammar school, I had to read two books before term started. The New World Bible and Girls Growing Up. I didn't read the bible before I started school (rebel). I couldn't wait to get stuck into Girls Growing Up though. I can't find any reference anywhere to this book online, not even an illustration. It was basically a book to explain the changes of puberty (I remember misreading "pubic" as "public" and making my parents laugh) and sex. The narrative focused on a married couple with kids who, once the kids went to bed, talked about their day and then expressed their love for each other with a very gentle sounding lovemaking, in bed of course, that involved the woman lying back and the man taking the initiative. The whole purpose being that they express their love so intensely that they can make a baby out of it to prove their love (or something like that).

I have come a long way since then, which was 31 years ago (yikes). I have more knowledge, maybe even wisdom, personal experience and been exposed to a whole spectrum of sexual behaviour through acquaintances and clients I have worked with, from asexual to monogamous, adulterous, polyamorous relationships, exchanging sex for money and coercive or forceful sex.

I'll say it now, the only time I feel that sex is wrong is if it is forceful or coercive. For the sake of clarity,  sex with children is always coercive in my opinion as well as sex with people who you are in a position of power over e.g. therapists' clients. Read more about this here: http://www.amandawilliamsoncounselling.co.uk/2013/05/sex-in-forbidden-zone-by-peter-rutter.html

Please also note that I am well aware of the issues with forced prostitution and trafficking which I believe are wrong. However, I also have the capacity to see that full service sex work (commonly referred to as prostitution, although sex workers dislike that term) does not necessarily involve force or coercion.

Whether somebody chooses to abstain from sex, or whether they choose a monogamous or polyamorous relationship is not a problem to me, provided nobody is being hurt in the process.

It goes to follow then, that full service sex work is not a problem to me, provided the sex worker and the client are both consenting adults. I would prefer that people did not engage in polyamorous relationships if they are having to lie about it to their partner. That is deception and I believe that almost all of the time this is ethically wrong. But I am aware that me thinking something is wrong does not mean that the rest of the world will agree it's wrong. Hopefully everybody (besides certain sociopaths) would agree that forceful or coercive sex is always wrong (excluding consensual BDSM practices, talking of which, research seems to indicate that BDSM practitioners may be psychologically healthier than non-practitioners).

Why sex work is okay

I actually think that full service sex workers provide a very much needed service, particularly so for disabled people or those with mental health issues that might make finding a partner (whether that be for a full relationship or just for sex) incredibly difficult. What many people don't seem to appreciate is that sexual needs are pretty much universal. We are (most of us) wired to want sexual release. Many of us want both an intimate emotional connection and a physically intimate connection. Even a monogamously wired person may not be able to have both those needs met in one relationship.

As for people without any disability or mental health issues, if they aren't hurting anybody, why is it a problem for them to pay to have sex with a sex worker? Why is it somehow preferable for them to go to a bar or club, buy drinks for a potential sexual partner, or treat them to dinner, with the purpose of wanting to have intercourse at the end of it?

I suspect that sex work is tarnished with old attitudes that are perpetuated. I hold my hands up, I have probably passed judgment on sex workers in the past due to ignorance, insecurity and societal and religious expectations.

No Agenda

I would like to be clear here that I have no personal agenda. I am not a sex worker and it wouldn't work for me personally. I have a comfortable spot on the sexuality spectrum that would make it difficult for me to have sex with somebody I did not know. That doesn't mean I am somehow morally right. It's just what is right for me. Some people get a lot of enjoyment and a buzz from sex with a stranger. Each to their own. I appreciate why gambling is so addictive but my brain isn't wired to get a thrill from gambling either.

Acceptance of individuality

Wherever it is I am on the spectrum of sexuality, I appreciate others' positions (as long as they aren't being forceful or coercive with sex). If you are interested in gaining a better appreciation of why sex work is important take at look at this website: http://www.tlc-trust.org.uk/services/index.php

A Therapeutic Contract

I might be taking a risk here by saying it, but full service sex work can be compared (and contrasted) with counselling and psychotherapy. A client is paying for a service that involves a certain amount of intimacy. For some clients, being emotionally intimate may be more excruciating than being sexually intimate and therefore forming a relationship with a therapist may feel fundamentally more risky or scary than paying for sex. There are therapists that traverse the two issues although the UK law on sex surrogacy is ambiguous. Sex therapists deal explicitly with issues of sex and I suspect have a more open mind about sex work than the average person.

Where sex work meets therapy

I have for several months been in contact with a sex worker who is also a trainee therapist via Twitter. We met via a mutual contact Phil Dore as this lady, Jemima, has a mutual interest in the regulation of therapy to help protect clients from rogue therapists who abuse the position of trust they hold. My dialogue with Jemima has helped me understand more about the abuse that sex workers face and the assumptions that many people, including therapists, make about sex workers. There was an article written very recently in the BACP publication Therapy Today on women exiting sex work which, whilst an important issue I was pleased to see being discussed, did have a flavour of assumption that all women in sex work would choose to exit if they could. Whist reading it I thought of Jemima and Tweeted her to ask her what she thought of it. Jemima was so upset she told me that she had cried. She quite rightly pointed out that the BACP Ethical Framework promotes client autonomy and that this attitude is clearly at odds with that. She has written a response to Therapy Today. Jemima mentioned the article in this blog post on the criminalisation of the clients of sex workers in Canada.

Click here for the Crown Prosecution Service's legal guidance to prostitution in the UK.

I have invited Jemima to be interviewed for this blog post as I believe that she is in the perfect position to lend a voice to this issue. I believe that it is important to realise that there are people who choose sex work and not assume that they are all downtrodden, abused or in need of rescuing. If we automatically take that stance that makes us, the judge, assume a position of power which says more about us and our egos and insecurities and/or ignorance than it does the sex worker.

Q Please can I have a brief description of what you do in terms of how you choose to define yourself professionally? 

I am an independent, indoor, full service sex worker, independent means I do not work for an agency or brothel. Indoor contrasts with outdoor, or street workers, the most common image that comes to mind when people think of sex workers. Sex work covers a variety of jobs, from porn to phone sex. Full service means I will have sex with my clients, under a variety of pre-negotiated (i.e. I insist on condoms) and time limited conditions. People might know the words escort or call girl to describe what I do, though both are problematic for different reasons.

Q How long have you been a sex worker for? 

Around 6 years, which in sex work terms is quite long, there is a joke that sex work years are the same as dog years.

Q What are the best and worst bits about being a sex worker? 

Best bits; working for myself, the boost it has given to my self esteem and confidence, the money, the independence, travelling and meeting new people. The community that other sex workers provide, sometimes the sex. The many older gentleman for whom I provide the only human contact. With clients of any age seeing someone leave happy and relaxed, and being responsible for that is a wonderful experience. Many clients talk to me about their lives and problems, in some ways the kind of trust that the therapeutic alliance is meant to work towards over a series of sessions is achieved far more rapidly. I become someone they share problems and intimate secrets with. It has also allowed me to explore a feminine side to myself I had previously,  for a variety of reasons been unable to express.

Worst; The fear of assault and rape, being raped, not being able to be open about my work, the fear of outing, the fear that stigma may impact on those I care about, unreliable working hours-like many self employed people I spend a lot of time waiting for the phone to ring. A tricky subject much discussed among sws but little understood outside the job is having sex when you are not particularly wanting it. This is not the same as non consensual sex, it is assumed it must be the worst part of the job, but it isn't. It is no different really to anyone else going into work when they don't really fancy it.

Q Can you tell me a little about your psychotherapy training? 

I have to be slightly circumspect here, but I am training to be a person centred therapist on a BACP approved course at an accredited learning provider. (Though the more I learn the more an integrationist approach seems the best).

Q What are the best and worst bits about being a therapist? 

Well I am still in training, and one of the worst things about this is not being able to express my knowledge or experiences. For example when the tutor was discussing the importance of being able to leave clients behind for self care there was so much I could have contributed. To be a successful sex worker, in terms of personal health and self care, you have to be able to leave the clients behind in a very similar manner. In terms of clients who don't show there was also a lot I could have shared, but was unable to. Again when lone working came up there was a wealth of experience I could not share. On another level there is a level of congruence and authenticity denied to me in things like skills practice, since there are whole aspects of my life I have to censor due to stigma.
The self development has been amazing though, I feel I am so much more self aware than I was a year ago, I have grown so much. It has been incredible getting good feedback, and realising I can do this. With those clients I have seen as they open up and trust me I feel incredibly honoured to be allowed into their lives.

Q What do you think of current legislation regarding sex work – what would you change and why? 

Current legislation is a mess. Sex work is legal in the UK, if you work alone and indoors. However those with an ideological objection to sex work as well as those with a religious one have tried to criminalise almost every aspect of life surrounding sex work. Street soliciting is illegal, which criminalised the most vulnerable sex workers, often trans, WoC, substance users and migrants. Working with another person is illegal, technically a brothel (thank you Labour) this means if we wish to share a work space for security and companionship we can both be arrested as the other persons pimp. Sex work is dangerous and isolating as it is and this particular law makes it more so.
Our partners are also criminalised, arrested as our pimps regardless of evidence. then there is the assumptions and stigma, sex workers are evicted, have their children taken off them, loose custody cases, purely because of their job.
We need decriminalisation on the New Zealand model. This moves the regulation of sex work from the criminal to the civil sphere, treats it as any other job, with some particular exceptions around the claiming of benefits http://www.bigsusies.com/new_zealand_140316.pdf

Q What do you think about the current legislation regarding counselling and psychotherapy? Again; what would you change and why?

I think it would be a good idea! Again it seems that when it comes to sex, people think there are a whole different set of assumptions and norms which must be upheld, norms based on purity culture and the dominance of capitalist patriarchy. People who sell sexual services are controlled, stigmatised, treated as outcasts, people who sell therapeutic services are allowed free reign regardless of the harm they may have done. In sex work terms we talk about harm reduction, therapy needs to place harm reduction front and centre, and there must be mandatory registration and regulation.
This may seem contradictory when I oppose mandatory regulation (or legalisation) of sex work, however it is about understanding power dynamics and who has the power in a relationship. In sex work the worker needs protection, best offered by decriminalisation, in therapy it is the client who needs it, best offered by regulation.

Q Do you experience any misunderstanding or discrimination over the sex work aspect of your lifestyle and if so from whom? 

Daily, society at large is whorephobic and makes huge assumptions about sex workers, as you already mentioned in the discussion of the therapy today piece. However I am very careful about who knows I am a sex worker, and so unless I am campaigning online I can avoid this, although i do not always exercise as much self care as I should. It is hard though when classmates or tutors discuss “prostitution” or trafficking, and make statements that show they have prejudices based on lack of knowledge and I feel unable to challenge them due to fear of outing myself. I know as much about trafficking a many academics, yet have to sit their in silence, seething. I imagine it is similar to how LGBT people feel when they are read as straight and surrounded by homophobic or transphobes.

Q Do you encounter any misunderstanding regarding your therapeutic work? 

Not so far

Q Anything else you want to say?

You mention the fact that some sex workers work with disabled people as part of your changing thoughts around sex work. This is problematic for me and many other sex workers for a number of reasons. Whilst on an individual level it is rewarding to work with people with disabilities, many of whom are denied access to sexual pleasure by the disablism of society and assumptions about people with disabilities being sexless this has nothing to do with the fight for sex workers rights and against stigma.

Many people are unable to have the sex life they desire, for any number of reasons, they may have poor social skills, be physically unattractive, shy, obese, and so on. Whilst these are not structural in nature as disability is (I take a social view of disability, in that it is society which causes some people to be less abled than others) to argue that sex work is somehow acceptable because it provides a sexual opportunity for those who would otherwise not be able to have those opportunities surely should include those without disabilities but with other disadvantages?

People with disabilities should have their right to sexual pleasure respected, and enabled if possible (assuming they are not asexual) On a side note there also should not be assumptions they are heterosexual, or have no interest in subjects such as BDSM. Enabling in this context may or may not involve helping to arrange meetings with sex workers if this is what the disabled person wants. We are fortunate in the UK as many OTs and case precedent means personal allowances can be spent on a sex worker, and carers are expected to respect the disabled person's right to privacy and desire for sex. Although further training is needed and there are still many issues around families who deny their adult children's sexuality and also for those with learning difficulties.

However as important as these issues are the rights of sex workers do not rely on the "worthiness" of our clients. A therapeutic analogy- imagine if the string them up brigade decided that counselling paedophiles should be criminalised, on the grounds they did not "deserve" to be helped? Quite rightly therapists would object, and would highlight how whilst not every therapist wants or is able to work with sex offenders it would be wrong to punish those who did. The rights of the therapist as a worker are not dependent on the worthiness of those they work with.

One last thing, many sex workers are disabled, it is a job that can work well when flexibility is a key requirement. It is so common in the discussion around sex workers rights to focus on the clients, rather than the workers, when discussing sex work and disability it would be good if for a change people's first thought was of disabled sex workers, not disabled clients.

Thank you Jemima for some very thought provoking, educative and interesting answers.

You can follow Jemima on Twitter and her blog http://sometimesitsjustacigar.wordpress.com

NB This post as updated on 25th June 2014. The link to a sex surrogacy agency has been removed because it was brought to my attention that the agency I linked to was unregulated having had their COSRT membership removed. 

Ebuzzing - Top Blogs - Health