Sexy but Psycho

How abused women and girls are made to believe they’re delusional

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The thing about being called delusional is that once you have been labelled with that word, everything you say or do can be perceived as part of your delusions.

Several decades ago, social scientists and professors launched a controversial experiment to explore how subjective psychiatry really is. They sent volunteer students to doctors and told them all to say that they were hearing voices. Many of them were admitted to asylums and psychiatric facilities. As part of the undercover research, the students were instructed to be admitted, observe the culture and environment for a while, and then report to the doctors that they were there under false pretences as part of a social experiment, and that they actually worked for a top professor who was critical of psychiatry.

As you can imagine, that didn’t go to plan.

Instead they were diagnosed with delusions. No matter how much they explained that they had faked hearing the voices to get into the ward as part of an experiment, the doctors and nurses didn’t believe them. Instead, every conversation they had with the students was taken as the crazy ramblings of a delusional psychiatric patient who thought they were a student of a top professor.

So how do you get out of a situation like that? No matter how much you tell the truth, you’re just seen as madder and madder. The more you explain, the more delusional you are.

It’s one of my favourite experiments of all time. One guy didn’t get out for weeks, because he was deemed so mentally ill and delusional. The university lawyers had to step in to prove he was telling the truth.

It quickly and savagely proved that psychiatry and mental health was subjective. There were no tests to prove any of those students were delusional. There were no tests to prove any mental health issues at all. All they had said was that they heard voices – and that was enough to detain them and medicate them. While the whole time, they were students on a mission to expose the flimsy “science” behind the psychiatric traditions back in the 1960s.

Hilarious, eh?

But what if I told you that this was still happening? Today? To thousands of women and girls?

Would you believe me (or am I delusional?)

What if I told you that women and girls are being subjected to domestic abuse, rape, sexual assault, human trafficking, and oppression – and then being told they are mentally ill? What if I told you that they were being routinely sedated, restrained, sectioned and marginalised for seeking help after rape and abuse?

“Psychiatry is just the patriarchy with a prescription pad and a pen” is the first line of my new book Sexy But Psycho: How Patriarchy Uses Women’s Trauma Against Them.

If I could destroy psychiatry tomorrow and build something humane in its place, I would do it gladly.

Many people wonder how a chartered psychologist could possibly end up so opposed to the “mental health” movement, psychiatry, and psychology. Sometimes, even I feel like a walking contradiction.

But I have been working with women and girls subjected to sexual and domestic abuse for twelve years, and I am 100% certain that none of them were ever mentally ill. Despite the fact that almost all of them had been diagnosed with depressive disorders, anxiety disorders, personality disorders, bipolar disorders, attachment disorders – and quite frankly, any other disorder that could be slapped on them for convenience – I don’t believe any of them were “disordered” at all.

Most of them were on dangerous dosages of lithium, sedatives, anti-convulsants, SSRIs, and painkillers – when they were simply trying to understand what had been done to them.

After several years in the criminal justice system managing cases of sexual and domestic violence, I moved to work in a rape centre in a small town. I trained, managed, and supervised 30 volunteer therapists and together, we provided a helpline and face to face counselling to thousands of women and girls. Every time I discussed cases with my team, they would tell me that the woman or girl (as young as eleven years old) had been diagnosed with the same thing. Borderline personality disorder.

After several months and hundreds of cases, I had grown suspicious. How could hundreds of very different women and girls in a small town all have the same personality disorder just weeks after disclosing that they had been raped or sexually abused? Was it a mistake? Was I overreacting?

One day, I went into our filing system and looked at the cases. No matter whether she was a thirteen-year-old girl sexually abused by her dad, or a 65-year-old woman who was raped by her husband for decades, a pattern quickly emerged.

The women and girls seeking support for their trauma were referred to mental health services, received a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder, and were then medicated and/or eventually sectioned. For some women, they had been told they had brain chemical imbalances that could never be proven. Some women were told it was genetic. Some were told that personality disorders were hereditary. Some were told that there was no cure, that they were “treatment resistant”, and they would be mentally ill for the rest of their lives.

“There’s nothing they can do for me. Just got to keep taking the pills,” one woman said to me.

Another said, “I’ve been on these tablets for years but they don’t make me feel any better. I keep trying to tell them about the time I was raped when I was seventeen, but no one will listen to me. Every time I try to come off them, they just give me more.”

Whenever I met women or girls who had been sectioned, they would tell me that every woman they met on their ward had been raped or beaten by men.

None of it made sense. I remember being filled with rage. Why were we telling women and girls that their completely normal responses to male violence were actually part of a mental disorder?

Their sadness, rage, fear, exhaustion, trauma, confusion, hatred and hopelessness were all normal. Every woman and girl we had ever supported had some combination of emotions, sensations, behaviours, and coping mechanisms that were common and natural. Not a single one of those reactions was a “disorder”. It didn’t matter if a woman had been traumatised for two months or twenty years, her trauma was valid and rational.

According to research, females are more likely to be diagnosed with psychiatric disorders than males

I spent the next seven years or so becoming increasingly angry about the way women and girls were being numbed, sedated, and medicated as if they had a disease. I researched. I read books. I asked questions. I went to talks and debates. I listened to women. I challenged decisions.

At first, I thought it was just the trash diagnosis of “borderline personality disorder” that was being used to oppress and marginalise women and girls – but I soon noticed that it was any psychiatric diagnosis professionals could make stick. OCD, bipolar, attachment disorder, ADHD, PTSD.

According to research in this area, you are more likely to be diagnosed with every single known psychiatric disorder if you are female. For some, you are seven to ten times more likely to be diagnosed if you are female than male. Further, you are much more likely to be given three or more psychiatric diagnoses simultaneously if you are female.

I started to question everything I thought I knew about mental health, psychiatry, and even my own discipline, psychology. They were riddled with misogyny. It was gross.

I worked on large CSE grooming gang cases in which teenage girls who had been abducted, trafficked, bought and sold by men for paid rape had later been diagnosed with personality disorders and medicated so heavily that they couldn’t finish secondary school.

I met girls who had been abused by their parents, placed hundreds of miles away and were terrified of their new foster families – but were prescribed adult dosages of sedatives and antidepressants to make them easier to manage.

These are not one-offs, or extreme cases written here to prove a point. I have thousands of examples from my relatively short career (I’m 31 years old as I write this). How can this be? How can all these women and girls be mentally ill?

Why would we do this to them?

Why would we diagnose them with disorders they didn’t have, give them drugs they didn’t need, and then watch as they struggled to live their lives with a label that meant people could treat them as if they were dangerous?

Why would we encourage a woman to self-diagnose and go to a doctor, when the label would then be used against her in court, by social care, by the police, by the hospital, by her family and her friends?

It baffled me.

And then one day a few years ago, it all clicked into place.

This wasn’t by accident, it was by design. 

It isn’t a broken system. It is a finely-tuned, perfected system.

It isn’t a system that has lost its way. It’s a system that has always known how to control and discredit women. And it’s been incredibly successful.

But I won’t stand by and watch as thousands more women and girls are convinced that they are mentally ill, too.

Psychiatry doesn’t need some tweaks or some support, it needs dismantling. It
needs decimating.

And then, we will build something

Dr Jessica Taylor is a chartered psychologist, feminist speaker, author and researcher with a PhD from University of Birmingham in Forensic Psychology. In 2019, she was awarded a Fellowship of Royal Society of Arts for her contribution to feminism and psychology. She is the founder and director of VictimFocus and best selling author of “Why Women are Blamed for Everything” and author of new book “Sexy but Psycho: How Patriarchy uses Women’s Trauma Against Them”

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