Science | January 11, 2022 11:45 am

Should Therapists … Call Their Patients “Sluts”?

New guidance from the British Psychological Society advises psychologists to use their patients' preferred terms, including potentially offensive ones

Psychology therapy session. Female patient talking to mental health professional.
Hopefully no one is calling anyone else a slut in this photo.

Well, here’s a question I didn’t think I’d be asking myself today: Should therapists call their patients “sluts”? While the answer to this question may seem rather obvious (uh, no), it turns out this is in fact something psychologists are actively debating at the moment thanks to new guidance from the British Psychological Society (BPS), advising psychologists to use the “preferred language of gender, sexuality and relationship diverse people.”

That all sounds pretty harmless, and the guidance does encourage some legitimately sound practices, like using a patient’s preferred name and pronouns. What’s got psychology Twitter riled up, however, is BPS’s suggestion that psychologists also use potentially offensive terms with which their patients self-identify, such as “reclaimed terms” like “slut” or “dyke.”

Naturally, some critics of the new BPS guidance found this inappropriate. On Twitter, Australian psychotherapist Tania Marshall questioned how the use of demeaning terms could be “therapeutically beneficial,” suggesting it would perhaps be more helpful to explore a patient’s preferred use of a demeaning term, “rather than just affirming it.”

While the BPS responded to Marshall’s criticism by arguing that the word “slut” has been “reclaimed by feminist activists,” others questioned whether demeaning language could truly be “reclaimed,” and, even if it can, whether that language is ever appropriate in a professional setting.

“As a feminist psychologist, I would say that the term ‘slut’ has definitely not been ‘reclaimed,’” tweeted Dr. Jessica Taylor. “It is actively used to oppress, we have decades of psych research to show that, and psychologists should never ever ever ever refer to their clients as a ‘slut’ no matter what.”

As a woman who, personally, does not have a big problem with the word slut but would be extremely cautious of using it around other women (even in reference to myself) unless I were 100% clear on their own relationship to that term, I tend to think this kind of reclamation of defamatory terms is something that can only happen on an individual basis. While I certainly think women or members of any minority group are well within their right to reclaim terms historically used to defame or offend, I don’t necessarily think it’s appropriate for a professional to mirror those terms when addressing them.

Moreover, I can’t really imagine a situation in which a therapist would need to use that kind of language around their patients, even if those were terms with which a patient identified. It’s not like “slut” is anyone’s preferred pronoun; no one, to my knowledge, is walking into therapy like, “Hi, I’m Kayla, but you can call me a slut.” If someone wants to use words like that around their therapist, I don’t see any problem, but unless they directly ask to be called a slut (which would be pretty weird, right?) I don’t really know when or why a therapist would feel the need to echo that language.

Clearly I am no expert in psychology, but it seems to me that a pretty good rule of thumb for a psychologist would be to simply not call their patients sluts.