Emotional Health · Sex & Sexuality

Why Do They Do It? Understanding and Preventing Sexual Abuse

Psychoanalyst Robert Stoller theorized that sexual fantasies, in particular, represent an attempt to heal a wound. So, for example, a person harboring feelings of powerlessness might imagine dominating women as a way to defend against these feelings. Weinstein, reputed to have been unpopular and unsuccessful with girls in school, is alleged to have repeatedly set up a scenario in which women were forced to look at him perform sex acts. In Stoller’s view, this might have been an unconscious attempt to overcome feelings of being weak and unattractive.

Childhood experiences can be key. One case I know of involved a man who used to masturbate to the images of fully clothed people in his family’s Sears catalogue. The reason? His parents were nudists, and thus he found the photos of people wearing clothes exotic and arousing.

When it comes to sexuality, there is a big difference between wishing and doing. Sexual fantasies are, by definition, just thoughts, and the imagination is given license in ways we wouldn’t take in real life. There is also a distinction between the “play-acting” that occurs between two consenting adults and the kind of thing the Weinsteins of the world do.  When people act out their sexual fantasies in a compulsive way, it is considered unhealthy.

Sexual hang-ups, which used to be called perversions, are now known as paraphilias. In the past, certain behaviors, like homosexuality, were considered perverse but are no longer seen that way. Today, paraphilias are behaviors that are extreme, distasteful, or abnormal.

Most common are:

  • pedophilia (sexual focus on children),
  • exhibitionism (exposure of genitals to strangers),
  • voyeurism (observing private activities of unaware victims)
  • frotteurism (touching, rubbing against a nonconsenting person)

Less common are:

  • fetishism (use of inanimate objects),
  • sexual masochism (being humiliated or forced to suffer)
  • sexual sadism (inflicting humiliation or suffering)
  •  transvestic disorder (sexually arousing cross-dressing)

Paraphilia is also diagnosed when a person can feel aroused only under specific conditions. The focus is often quite narrow and unchanging, and is often the only condition under which arousal is possible.  Again, playing a power game with a willing partner is different from doing so with an unwilling partner as a necessary component of arousal.

The stories coming out about Weinstein have enough sameness to indicate that this may be the case with him. And while there may be a lot of variation among the men who abuse women, they all have one thing in common: getting sexual gratification from an unwilling partner. That is not normal, no matter how common it is.

How do we keep this fight on the front pages, where it has resided so revealingly for the past several weeks? Many are worried that once this scandal blows over, it will be business as usual.

The Washington Post’s Monica Hesse and Dan Zack suggest, “Take the attempted rapist. Put him in jail. Take the gross flirter. Teach him how to read signals from women. Figure out how each offense should be categorized. Begin the emotionally laborious process of reeducating millions of males, even despite the valid criticism that women experiencing harassment don’t particularly want to also be in charge of educating harassers.”

We must teach our daughters, and sons, about the dangers of predators who are not only strangers, but those woo pretend to be friends, as well as people who are in positions of power and abuse that power. It is not enough to cloister our children or avoid industries with bad reputations, like acting and modeling. Just this week, a prestigious New York private school for girls, one that has traditionally had a very low percentage of male teachers and is known for its feminist values, released a letter detailing sexual abuse of students by four different teachers dating from the 1950s through the 1990s. The worst consequence to the teachers was non-renewal of their contracts.

When educating our daughters about sex, we have to include, along with the facts of life, at some point a talk about the fact that not everyone uses sex in a friendly way, even if they seem to be in a prestigious position. Girls and women especially must be taught that it is not normal, not right, and not just the price of admission. It must become, finally, automatic grounds for expulsion for men, who have gotten a pass on this for too long.



Stoller, Robert. Sexual Excitement. (1979).


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