Harvey Weinstein, the Hollywood mogul, was recently disgraced by allegations of decades of sexual harassment of young female actors. This has created a torrent of responses in the media and begun a dialogue that has raised consciousness related to sexual conduct in the current culture. I want to focus on those aspects of this topic that may clarify the dynamics of sexual abuse.
Women were challenged to use the hash tag #MeToo if they had been a victim of sexual abuse. At the same time more and more actresses came forward to accuse Weinstein of sexual harassment or rape. Emma Thompson revealed that the practice of older powerful men taking advantage of young actresses in Hollywood is so common that, “I spent my twenties fending off old men who were shoving their tongues down my throat.”
My sister was expressing her outrage at the pervasiveness of sexual abuse when a woman at her table said, “Oh, don’t be naive, that is the way it is. Accept it.”
Should we though? There are both biological and societal aspects involved in a culture of sexual abuse.
BIOLOGY: Sex and the body
A baby reaches for love and warmth from parents and ideally that love and warmth is returned in a way that notices and respects both the needs and boundaries the child. In puberty we reach for romance or sexual contact, again taking into account both our needs and ideally, the needs and boundaries of the desired person. We are sexual beings who long to be touched and we want to reach toward what we find sexually arousing.
When the head, heart and pelvis are aligned in the body the person acts with integrity. Sexual violation is perpetrated when either the pelvis leads and the thinking brain recedes as in, “I can’t think - I just want this”, or some ego image about power and dominance overrules any sense of respecting the other party as in, “When you are rich, they let you”. What is missing is the heart. Unhealthy sexuality combines a distorted view of self and others, a pelvis acting out, and is not in tune with the better values (heart) of the person. This is how a patriarch can view everyone in his family as belonging to him and treats them as sex slaves or how a priest who believes in God can become a pedophile.
What about the body of a victim of early sexual abuse? Unwanted, early sexualization of a child can distort the natural sexual arousal system. When a loving relative is also a sex abuser, a child will feel betrayed at a basic level of trust and may also learn they must give sex to get love. Sexual abuse happens most commonly within families. If your survival depends on your sex abuser, it is very hard to escape, either physically or mentally. In fact if this is all you know you might conclude, “That is the way it is. Accept it.”
Here is how sex abuse trauma affects the nervous system. When young actresses have been sent by people they trust (like their agent) to meet with a producer and are ushered into his room by one of his assistants, they are expecting a professional interview and are hoping to get a coveted job. When the producer makes sexual advances, they may deflect and try to steer him toward staying professional. If he escalates and fighting or leaving do not work she begins to feel trapped and will go into a dissociative state and may submit in order to just survive. Forced contact by someone who is bigger, stronger, and wields power over her may give her no other option. As mammals when we cannot fight or flee, we freeze. It is a survival mechanism our smart bodies automatically go into as a last resort. This trauma stays in our body, can create lifelong fears, distortions and affect our trust and sexual functioning for the rest of our life. As a result of sexual trauma, you can become a perpetrator, defend a perpetrator, or believe from the stance of your original powerlessness that society can only exist within this, “rape culture.”
SOCIETY: Ideas for Improvement
Some are saying that the “#Me Too” hash tag focus on victims, along with the language, “victim of sexual violence” leaves out the need for focusing on needed change by the perpetrators. A colleague of mine suggested that all people who have had sexual contact without consent from the other should now stand up and say, “#Me Too”. This way the perpetrators step forward and take responsibility for their actions. By both sides stepping forward to be seen, the society is pressured to open it’s eyes, which have been hidden behind the veil of guilt, shame and tolerance of sexual abuse for too long.
I was saddened to read so many of these “#Me Too” responses, especially from four of my (ages 20-30 years old) nieces. It means we are failing in helping the next generation to be free from this sex abuse culture. I am sorry. I am sure I did not do a good enough job as a mother in this department either. But here is what I think could help.
Mothers need to tell their daughters that sexual feelings are normal and healthy but that those feelings, along with a need for love, can make you want to go too far and that even the gentlest boys will look for your lead and take sexual favors as far as you allow them. That the boundary needs to be set by you and if ignored by him, this is abuse and you need to get away. That (despite the physical prowess of Jessica Jones and Supergirl) in the real world, boys are stronger than girls. Sex is one way stronger prey on weaker in society. It is wrong but it is a reality. Be aware of safety in your environment, set boundaries and don’t let anyone use you sexually. Don’t engage sexually without consent. This applies whether you are lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, straight or transgender.
Fathers need to tell their sons that sex is natural and is pleasurable to feel but to respect a girl’s personal space and boundaries and that “No means No.” Consent is a voluntary “Yes”. Recognize that girls have the right to freedom over their own bodies. Take responsibility for your actions and make sure your sexual behavior fits your value system. Don't let anyone use you sexually. This applies no matter what your sexual orientation.
In keeping quiet, society enables perpetrators to continue their life of sexual assault and is complicit in the damage done to victims. In therapy, I have worked with victims of sexual abuse to reclaim their sexuality for themselves. How? They work through the trauma by expressing the rage, fear, grief and shame often held in their body. As a result they feel emboldened to toss off the mantel of victim and become in charge of their own sexuality.
Decades of silence have perpetuated intergenerational sexual abuse, creating both perpetrators and victims who are swimming in endless circles of shame, denial and further abuse. This has ramifications for the most intimate parts of all our lives - our right to safely, confidently and openly reach toward and respond to the warmth, contact and love we need. I believe it is time to swim against the tide and fight this pervasive culture of sexual abuse.