“Sexual abuse is not about sex, but about power.” This clarification repeated so frequently amid the recent storm of abuse allegations is true, but a half-truth. Sex is powerful. All sex, even sex that is entirely consensual, is about power. Sexual abuse occurs when a person attempts or perpetrates an unwanted sexual act on someone over whom they have a clear physical, social, emotional or psychological power advantage. The sexual abuser uses their power. They are morally and legally wrong and while sex drive can never excuse it, it is part of their motive for engaging in the illicit act.
I was sexually harassed as a college student. The professor who recruited me and supervised my master’s studies in human sexuality was a middle aged gay man who styled himself as the new Dr. Kinsey. Like Kinsey he believed that to be a qualified sexologist I needed to experience the gay side of my sexuality. Though I asserted my heterosexuality, turning down attempted seductions in his office and elsewhere on campus, he persisted. Not fearful, but tired of him turning up with a joint and an obvious hard-on at every campus party I attended, tired of his roaming hands, I left the program.
When it is mutual, sexual intercourse is a thrilling give-and-take of pleasure bound up in a dynamic give-and-take of power. Who’s on top? Who’s giving? Who’s receiving? The power to arouse. The power of pleasuring, of release. The otherworldly ecstasy of orgasm. A partner that does exactly what you want them to is using his/her knowledge of you, a pleasurable use of power. But, submitting to this power struggle requires a certain amount of trust. We are extremely vulnerable when having sex with another person, even when trust is abundant.
My sexology professor abused his power. The only way for me to counter was to leave. But, I recognize that his motivation, tough he cloaked it in the ‘study of human sexuality’, was his sex drive. He wanted me. Never offended by gay men who told me I was attractive, flattered that I met their high standards, I understood his interest. What angered me was that I could not tell him to ‘fuck off’ and still expect to have a working relationship that would lead to my masters degree. He was the head of the department.
Abuse is propelled by the very powerful human sex drive in an act that is unilateral rather than within an envelope of mutual trust.
Consider sexual fantasies. We all enjoy them; most of us enjoy them daily, even hourly. And we can generally agree that they are harmless. Even rape fantasies, unless acted upon, do not cause harm — though no one wants to think that someone they know engages in rape fantasies, or to consider that they might be the object of that fantasy. In fact most of us don’t want to know a thing about some else’s sexual fantasies except in an intimate context, lovers sharing secrets.
But all our sexual fantasies have one thing in common. We enjoy them because they are completely under our control to manipulate, to enjoy or even to reject them. We own them. When your sexual fantasy helps bring you to climax it is because you can give yourself over to it without any accountability, without anyone to challenge you. It’s all yours – the ultimate power.
But, let me be clear. When someone like Louis C.K. masturbates in front of a woman he is not merely acting out a harmless fantasy. Privately he might be fantasizing about sex with the woman sitting in front of him and if he kept that fantasy to himself, no harm. But the moment he demonstrated his fantasy by whipping out his penis it is no longer just a harmless fantasy. If he doesn’t have her consent (or as in C.K.’s case, if he wields enough power over her career, true consent is out of the question) he is forcing her to be part of a sexual act.
Usually we come to trust people by getting to know them over time. Trust becomes very specific. You might trust someone to watch your house when you’re on vacation but not trust them to drive you to the airport. You might trust a co-worker to be honest with you about work but not trust that same person with your kids. You might trust a friend to be your climbing partner but not trust them with your deepest, darkest secrets.
Since trust is so specialized and incomplete, how do we ever trust someone enough to engage in the extremely vulnerable act of sex. Alone. Naked. Wanting. That’s about as vulnerable as it gets. I think it’s rare that we do develop that level of trust. I think our sex drives are so powerful that we are often willing to risk the vulnerability it requires.
Our sex drive urges us on toward wild abandon. And for some, sex without a foundation of trust, sex with strangers, can enhance the innate thrill of sex. For them ‘wild abandon’ includes leaving caution behind. Such is the power of our sex drives. But, how do we fully engage the drive while staying within reach of the brakes?
A key function of our socialization, our upbringing, is that we internalize rules. Our self-esteem (or superego), coupled with our internal sense of self-preservation, is generally capable of reigning in the power of our sex drive when we see it headed out-of-bounds. ‘Out of bounds’, the limits defined by society as well as by each one of us individually, requires constant clarification and re-clarification. It requires knowledge, common language and ongoing discussion.
Unfortunately, our capacity for talking about sex has not matured to match the exponential expansion of the sexual stimuli in our everyday lives. Sitcoms encourage us to giggle at it, comedians shock us with it and the internet abounds in graphic depictions of it, but how often do we have honest, well-informed discussions about sex? Instead we lie about it.
We are titillated by it, fascinated by it and driven by it. We use it to sell cars, clothes, and vacations, to entertain and to sell entertainment, but we do not want to admit that a sexy woman in a revealing dress at an auto show speaks directly to our sex drives. ‘No, no, no – I’m not standing here staring so I can think about the hot sex I want to have with the woman standing next to car, I’m here to check out the latest BMW.’
It’s because we’re a sexually immature society that we cannot talk about our powerful sexual urges in the same context in which we can heatedly talk about sexual abuse. ‘Abuse is not about sex but about power.’ No, abuse is about power, about sex and about the power of sex.
If we can take a giant leap over our personal/cultural fixation with sex — that is not about the act of sex but the power of sex –- we might be capable of a discussion. A human — man-to-woman, man-to-man, woman-to-woman, adult-to-child, child-to-adult — discussion about our sex drives.
Most of us would be ashamed to have people around us know the sexual fantasies we’re engaged in, at work, at a dinner party, or while walking in the park. Sex drive is a primal urge that rivals hunger and thirst. But, while we feel free to admit that we’re ‘hungry as a horse’ to any friend or family member around us, we’re only capable of talking about ‘being horny’ to a very close friend and only while properly inebriated.
There was a time when we had begun that conversation, an intelligent conversation across all spectrums of society. In the mid 20th Century Kinsey gathered over 100,000 sexual histories, each interviewee providing details of their first sexual encounters, the number of partners they’d had, the sexual positions they preferred, whether they liked biting or spanking, were gay, straight or bi-sexual, how often and how they masturbated, etc. The Kinsey Report was most comprehensive scientific study of human sexuality in recorded history. We also had Masters and Johnson and Dr. Ruth. They all continued the social dialogue that pioneers like Havelock Ellis and Margaret Sanger had initiated, at great peril, fifty years earlier.
What happened? Whether fueled by new information about sex, or whether the very authors of that information were, like Kinsey, too intoxicated with their own sex drive, the sexual liberation they initiated devolved into Playboy, Cosmopolitan, Hustler, Penthouse, Cinemax and PornHub. The dialogue on human sexuality became splintered. On the one side, sexual entertainment distracted us. Ranging from endless media banter about the ‘hottest celebrities’ to sitcom innuendos to pornography, entertainment became sexualized. And, on the other, the serious side, politics and disease dominated the discussion. As much as we needed to legalize gay marriage and address the HIV/AIDS crisis, we now need to expand the original dialogue, to embrace and discuss the universal mystery and power of human sexuality.
Our sexual vocabulary is now dominated by titillating and purposely provocative terms rather than honest discussions about sex. We became so inured to it that a man could brag about ‘grabbin’ pussy’ and still get elected to President of the United States. It’s time to elevate the discussion beyond the locker room – a mature dialogue with grown-up language.
Back in the late 70’s when I was a sex educator for Planned Parenthood one my favorite warm-up exercises with some of the adults groups I worked with – nurses, teachers, police, school counselors, prison guards, etc. – was a game we titled, “What’s It Called’. Our goal was to discuss sexual vocabulary. We divided the room up into teams. The poster boards we provided were labeled at the top with three headings: ‘Medical’, ‘Colloquial (Everyday)’ and ‘Slang’. Each time we introduced a sexual term like ‘penis’ they were to come up with synonyms in each category. Guess which category generated the longest lists? People shouted out so many slang terms they’d run out of poster board. Penis was a wildly popular favorite. I recall a middle aged, grey-haired nurse gleefully yelling out, “pecker, cock, johnson, schlong, dillywacker,” and so on. This warm-up exercise never failed to liberate, letting us talk frankly about sex without worrying about the choice of words. The point was that we cannot discuss sex without a common language, nor can we have a calm rational discussion if we’re offended by the words themselves.
Where are we now? We still know more slang than medical terms and we are even further away from honest discussions about sex. The discussion has stalled.
Female empowerment, women’s liberation, has, to some degree, stalled as well. Forty years ago, the Equal Rights Amendment was three states away from becoming a fully ratified amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The infamous Phyllis Schlafly single-handedly convinced enough women, along with those few men who still needed convincing, that women were the weaker sex and, therefore, should not be subjected to equality. She reinforced the same male-dominated social order that has existed since the advent of human civilization.
One of the biggest hurdles in the feminist movement is that the discussion about sexuality has been sidelined from it. A good example is Gretchen Carlson’s recent TED Talk. She spoke candidly of the sexual harassment she experienced at FOX News. Speaking of her fear, humiliation and, ultimately, anger, she called for women’s empowerment, asking them to stand up for each other, not to be bystanders. Her appearance both amplified and distracted from her presentation. She wore a clinging off-the-shoulder black dress that looked great on her. It begged the question, ‘can well-dressed, sexy women be taken seriously?’
Being takes seriously should always be about the message, not the appearance of the messenger. Women should not have to apologize for expressing their own femininity – nor should any of us have to apologize for our appearance. But, here’s how it could have amplified her message. She might have said, ‘I like to dress well. I’m lucky enough to enjoy the latest fashions. And, I like to look good. I was Miss America after all. But my fashion choice is not to be taken as a sexual come-on. I should be able to dress with my own feminine sensibility and still be respected.’
Our discomfort in talking honestly about our sexuality extends to our lack of honesty about appearance. The way we present ourselves is tied deeply into our sexual sense of self. Because we don’t address it, both genders are confused. Women are surprised when their choice of outfits attracts unwanted attention. Men are still stupid enough to think that a tight dress is a general invitation to all men.
What I’m saying is that human sexuality impacts and informs every aspect of human interaction. It cannot be left out of the discussion about sexual harassment or any sexual offense. The power imbalance defines the offense but sex provides part of the context. My old college professor wanted sex. He committed no offense until he used his power to try and persuade me. Schools, work places, churches, political and social groups all need to push the discussion beyond rules of right or wrong, appropriate or inappropriate. A greater openness about our sexuality will make us all better, more sensitive human beings.