Robert Withers

Two trans people have had the misfortune to see Robert Withers, a psychotherapist, but he has set himself up as an “expert” in trans, to transphobes and anti-trans campaigners what Andrew Wakefield is to anti-vaxxers. If the quotes attributed to him on far-right hate-site Spiked are accurate, he has a remarkable lack of insight and self-knowledge for a psychotherapist. Perhaps the clinical supervision ordered by the UK Council for Psychotherapy discipline tribunal will help him work with his counter-transference onto trans people. After six months, the UKCP will assess a report by his supervisor and his own reflective piece summarising his learning from the supervision, and decide whether further sanction is necessary: not as a punishment, but to uphold proper standards of conduct and behaviour.

He has a lot to learn. Spiked quotes what the anti-vaxxers, sorry, anti-transers love: Withers’ equivalent of “vaccines cause autism”. Withers claims he could see a patient who identifies with the opposite gender, “work successfully on a patient’s mind, who is experiencing these feelings, and you reconcile him with his body and his past”. Amazing! With the experience of two patients, he claims to do what surely all psychiatrists and psychologists involved with trans people would want to do, if only it were possible. The reason they give hormones and surgery is that transition is the vaccine, as it were, which prevents gender dysphoria from being such a misery. However, Withers has never done this: his first trans patient had decided to revert, and Withers just went along with it, and his second trans patient made a complaint against him.

Withers says there is no such “thing as a male body with a female brain. But even saying that is considered transphobic”. He lacks self-knowledge. He is called transphobic because he is transphobic. It is true that there is no proof of a biological cause for “transgenderism”, but the proof trans people exist is trans people. The proof that transition is appropriate is the experience of tens or hundreds of thousands of trans people and the clinicians who have treated us.

Withers’ persecution complex comes out: he says if he managed to reconcile someone with their birth sex he could be struck off for conversion therapy. This is to misunderstand what conversion therapy is: it is an attempt to force a person to believe they are other than they are. Withers’ reading comprehension is clearly too low for a psychotherapist. He is scare-mongering about the Memorandum of Understanding of the NHS on conversion therapy, which states, “Some people may benefit from the challenge of psychotherapy and counselling to help them manage dysphoria and to clarify their sense of themselves. Clients make healthy choices when they understand themselves better.”

The anti-trans campaigners love Withers: he makes them feel vicariously persecuted. They want to feel, as with any conspiracy theory, that they are a small minority who alone know the truth.

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his income depends on his not understanding it.” Addressing the mental health issues of trans people, even possible causes for them saying they are trans, is permitted. A therapist who, from a closed mind, pretends there is some cause which, when understood, can make transgender ideation melt away, and devotes his time with his patient to finding evidence of such a cause, should be struck off.

Withers was so excited about his second trans patient that he did not ask her consent to refer to her case in his writings. She met with him and asked him to stop publishing about her, and he refused. He denied this before the discipline tribunal, but they found his evidence defensive, inconsistent, muddled and avoidant, transparently annoyed that her refusal of consent prevented him from publishing details. So they disbelieved him. This brave woman gave an account of her ordeal: “To have someone pour scorn over who you are”- in what was supposed to be therapy!- “is really destabilising”.

Having seen two patients, Withers is keen to share his “expertise”. For example, he gives “clinical commentary” on an account of therapy of a trans child. That page shows his article has zero citations- his peers see his value- but still he hawks his opinions about to the transphobes. In the paper he says that when working with his trans patient, the countertransference- the feelings evoked in him by the interaction- was “hatred”. I would not want to work with a psychotherapist who felt hatred in the sessions.

In that paper, Withers claims “Identifying as a ‘butch lesbian’ is not currently celebrated or socially affirmed.” There is a great deal of homophobia about, though there is more transphobia- The Times prints transphobia several times a week, homophobia more rarely. Not all trans children find affirming parents or schools, and if they can find others like themselves on line so can young lesbians. Despite all this, Withers suggests the patient might “drop his male identification” if he were affirmed as a lesbian.

Withers attempted to argue to the disciplinary panel that the code of conduct for psychotherapists is deficient, in that it should allow some interest in publication to override obligations of confidentiality, and attempted to call an expert witness to make that point. His witness was unable to turn up. The panel said that argument was not relevant. Withers’ arrogance before the panel, evident from their judgment, shows he would be a poor choice of psychotherapist. Perhaps like Wakefield he will end up making all his income from conspiracy theorists.

Here is the discipline tribunal decision: Robert Withers psychotherapist misconduct hearing.

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From Withers’ own words, a more serious case than mere breach of confidentiality might have been made in the discipline tribunal. Withers is quoted in Spiked as saying, of his trans client, “Half an hour after the session ended, [she] came back to my consulting room in a psychotic state. [She] had been out in the world and [she] thought people were going to attack [her]… For a moment, I caused [her] to doubt [her] identity, and [she] had a catastrophic collapse in [her] sense of who [she] was.” He indicates no remorse about this. By his own words, he had endangered his client, and she says he traumatised her. Withers is not a doctor, so is not qualified to diagnose, and the tribunal enumerated reasons to doubt his word, but by his own words he showed no understanding of his obligations to her. Is he truly fit to practise as a psychotherapist? Here are some links on harm that can be done by a bad psychotherapist: The Conversation, Psychology Today. As Psychscenehub says, “A therapist that prioritises his or her own needs (exploitative, narcissistic, voyeuristic) over the patient’s needs can do harm.”

3 thoughts on “Robert Withers

  1. It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his income depends on his not understanding it.” So true. This applies to those working in the field of neurodiversity as much as it does to those in the field of gender diversity.

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