Emotional Health · Sex & Sexuality

Why Do They Do It? Understanding and Preventing Sexual Abuse

The sexual-abuse allegations against former studio boss Harvey Weinstein have unleashed a torrent of stories from women victims. Many have found these revelations triggering. Memories that they prefer to keep at bay have flooded them; even some women whose distressful memories have been triggered before, as they were after Donald Trump’s Access Hollywood tape became public, have said to me that the Weinstein accusers’ stories have opened up a new level of pain.

Perhaps the power this story is in the fact that it combines so many elements of what women face every day. The allegations against Weinstein (all of which he has denied) paint him as the kind of boss who pressures women he has power over to put out or else; the teacher or mentor who takes advantage of his position to dominate and intimidate; the doctor who promises to help you while he helps himself to what he wants.

While Weinstein’s behavior is psychologically aberrant, in social terms it is closer to the norm. Almost everyone, it seems, has had experience with or knowledge of such a person. The New York Times writes,

“In the wake of Harvey Weinstein’s sudden and overdue expulsion from Hollywood for his serial predation, hundreds of long-silent women are calling out powerful, influential men at a remarkable clip and accusing them of sexual misconduct: Roy Price, the head of Amazon Studios; the film director James Toback; the literary critic Leon Wieseltier; the restaurateur and celebrity chef John Besh; and the political commentator Mark Halperin, to name just a few.”

What’s going on here? The culture of male dominance, the patriarchy, the old boys’ club, can help explain why men have felt so free to behave this way, and why so many have been compliant or silent about it, but what motivates this abuse in the first place?

It isn’t about sex, it’s power. Weinstein can label himself a “sex addict,” ask for mercy and understanding, and go for treatment, but he is copping a plea. As writer James Hamblin  puts it, “These are rather problems of power and status that manifest as a violent disregard for others—a failure to acknowledge the autonomy of women or a problem accepting it and a compulsion to revoke it by force. So it feels especially jarring to hear that same person professing a lack of agency in these acts.”

The American Psychiatric Association has yet to formally recognize “sex addiction” as an official diagnosis. While more and more behaviors are being recognized as having addictive qualities, one of the primary definitions involves a physical dependency leading to withdrawal symptoms if stopped. The excuse that “I can’t help myself” isn’t as persuasive as it is in the case of a drug addict who has dangerous physical reactions if he weans himself too quickly off the drug.

Furthermore, these bad actors, many of them, didn’t seem to want to stop. Weinstein had a whole coterie of people helping him lure his victims into his offices and hotel rooms. Toback’s alleged victims, likewise, are reported to be more than 200 so far. And one gets the sense that these men’s main regret is that they have been caught at last.

If this is not “normal” sexuality, what is it? Why does a man get excitement from harming or overpowering women in a non-consensual situation? It is believed that our sexual selves are formed very early, and that primary things like gender identity and object choice (which sex one is attracted to) may even be innate. Sometimes called “love maps,” the idiosyncratic constellation of features that each individual finds especially attractive is unique.

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