Illuminating the Darker Sides of Sex in the #MeToo Era
As a Certified Sex Addiction Therapist, watching the #Metoo movement roar into centre frame over the last eight months has been especially meaningful. Sexual trauma is at the forefront of the work I do, along with topics that we, as a culture, have become intensely focused on: the truth vs. a lie, empowerment vs. suffering, consent vs. the grey areas of consent.
It is important that we distinguish between four populations as we unpack and reorganize during this movement: the sex addict, sexual predator, sexual abuse survivor, and the betrayed partner. However, if we also fail to see how their undercurrents are woven together, we risk not addressing a significant part of what brought us here in the first place: a high degree of unprocessed interpersonal trauma. As the saying goes, hurt people hurt people.
Bessel Van Der Kolk, a leader in the field of trauma treatment, describes trauma as “an event that overwhelms the central nervous system that changes the way that you remember and react to things that remind you of it.” That is what I have witnessed in my work with these four groups.
I started my therapy career at The Meadows, the Arizona rehab centre that became famous for reportedly treating well-known patients including, most recently, Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey. I’ll never forget, while working there, hearing the whir of press helicopters circle above the building after media speculation that Tiger Woods might be inside.
In some cases, sexual predators hide behind the more redemptive label of sex addiction. Whether these men consider themselves predators or addicts—and my intention is not to diagnose them—the point is that for both groups, unaddressed trauma often fuels unwanted behaviour.
To understand how trauma plays out in a sex addict's life, we must first understand what sex addiction is. The grandfather of sex addiction, Dr. Patrick Carnes, defines it as “any sexually-related, compulsive behaviour which interferes with normal living and causes severe stress on family, friends, loved ones, and one’s work environment.” The therapeutic community has been divided on whether to accept it as an addiction at all.
At its core, sexual compulsivity is primarily an emotional intimacy disorder characterized by avoidance and attachment issues. Much like a drug addict needs cocaine, sex addicts become dependent on the ‘hit’ of sex for ‘survival’. Destructive behaviours commonly seen within sex addiction include, but are not limited to: chronic affairs, high-risk sex with multiple partners, and compulsively viewing pornography. While manipulation is embedded in the addict’s toolbox and morality may come into question, force is not typically involved.
For the addict, sex becomes the driving force to numb emotions, stress, and pain, which includes childhood trauma. According to the International Institute for Trauma and Addiction Professionals, 97% of sex addicts have experienced emotional abuse including neglect, 83% have suffered sexual abuse, and 71% have been physically abused.
For sexual perpetrators, coercion is prevalent. The Centre for Sexual Offender Management defines sex offenders as having sexual contact with others against their will or consent, inflicting pain or humiliation on others, participating in or watching acts of physical aggression or violence, and sex with minors. Sex offenders commit crimes including sexual assault, rape, and the use of power over another person for sexual gain. If consent is given indirectly, it is typically because the offender has leveraged dominance over their victim as we’ve seen in Hollywood.
There are many factors that can contribute to the making of a sex offender, including psychological issues, such as anti-social and narcissistic personality disorders, to name a few. While I haven’t worked with sexual predators extensively, a number of the ones I have worked with have experienced childhood sexual abuse, a reality confirmed by The National Centre for Victims of Crime: “40-80% of juvenile sex offenders have themselves been victims of sexual abuse.” It’s a remarkable statistic that shines light on the cyclical nature of unaddressed trauma.
According to a study published in USA Today, 94% of women in Hollywood say they have been sexually harassed or assaulted. These women are trauma survivors. I have seen firsthand the debilitating symptoms that arise from sexual violation. One of the most profound effects is the challenge to the victims’ perception of safety, both in the world around them, and within their bodies.
Similarly, for spouses or partners who have been betrayed by a sex addict, the discovery that one’s partner was deceitful is devastating and can have enduring effects. The sexual betrayal can be gut-wrenching, but can pale in comparison to the emotional fracture of discovering their partner’s double life. They must now contend with questions like: What is my truth? Was anything ever real? The battle centres around finding trust within the world, oneself, and potentially the partnership again.
What has struck me, in working with sexual abuse survivors and the partners of sex addicts, is the shared experience of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. These symptoms can include shock, anger, fear, hypersensitivity, decreased self-esteem, shame, suicidal thoughts, difficulty with intimacy and sex, social withdrawal, sleep disturbances, nightmares and flashbacks.
While we circle over this conversation, we need to continue to destigmatize psychological issues so we can distinguish between them. We need to hold people accountable without vilifying them, because shame is a barrier to rehabilitation. We also need to find a way to integrate our understanding of the full context of why people do the things they do, whether their actions result from systemic allowances, psychological illness, or childhood abuse.
We have the possibility for collective healing, a movement that could change generational patterns around the cycle of abuse and boundary violations. We are already seeing this happen through our voices, our stories, our awareness, our empathy. Even though we might be inclined to divide people into corners, from behind the office door, we are more similar than different.
This is a call to continue uncomfortable conversations, to see them as necessary in the evolution toward even more equality, respect and humanity. Isn’t that what the #Metoo movement is about? What if—in addition to empowering survivors and others who have been betrayed—we open the dialogue for those who have violated past the point of accountability and retribution, all the way to recovery and redemption.
WRITTEN BY SANDRA LAX & EDITED BY MIRIAM JOHNSON