What The Wild Things Are

Understandings of Self, Awareness, and Mental Health in an Ever-Changing World

Sex addiction, sexual abuse, and "men behaving badly"

We view all through the same lens, but should we?

Recently, as news of Arnold Schwartzenegger's extramarital affair (and out of wedlock child) and Dominique Strauss-Kahn's arrest for sexual assault hit the news together, there have been a spate of articles about the two of them - men in power behaving badly, men in power being psychopathic, etc. - and with that a re-visiting of the sexual behavior of Tiger Woods, John Edwards, and others.

 

While some of this discussion is educational and even important regarding sex addiction, extramarital affairs, sexual assault, power, and culture (and even heterosexual privilege), other aspects of the discussion seem bafflingly over-generalized and damaging.  Should all of these men be lumped together and painted with a broad brush?  And furthermore, should their behavior be attributed to power?

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From years of working with both individuals who have been convicted of sex offenses and individuals suffering from sex addiction, I can assure you that men in power are not the only men who have extramarital affairs or children out of wedlock - and it is not only men.  The current accepted estimate is that approximately half of all married men and women will have an affair at some point during their marriage.  In regards to sexual assault, estimates are that each year in the US there are over 200,000 victims of sexual assault.  Certainly some of this behavior is by men in power - and a position of power or wealth can give an individual more power to perpetrate, and perpetrate without getting caught or punished.  But much of it, obviously, was not - it is estimated that 2/3 of the victims were acquainted with their attacker.

 

Furthermore, there are thousands of men in powerful positions who behave with integrity and grace, and never abuse their positions of power.  To equate men in power with egregious sexual behavior is a gross disservice to these men, similar to dismissing all priests as child-molesters simply because of the behavior of some.  Certainly, discussing power in relationship with sexual behavior and dynamics is worthwhile and important, but it would behoove us to do it thoughtfully and with sensitivity, and to attempt to avoid stereotyping and perpetuating harmful myths.

 

To give an "armchair diagnosis" of any of these men is simply an irresponsible - and harmful - guess.  Often when people seek help for their sexual behavior (or are mandated to treatment for it) it is because it has wreaked havoc in their lives and they are in danger of losing those they love, or already have.  When asked why they engaged in these behaviors, they often don't have an answer.  The answer turns out to be a complex mixture of: personality, physiology, environment, childhood, psychology, drugs and/or alcohol, neurology, and circumstance.  Again, there is something important about discussing the influence of any and all of these factors in order to thoughtfully discuss issues of importance in our culture and society.

 

But to narrow down behavior to simply one of these factors is a disservice - not only to these men, or men in general, but to all of us.  It may be convenient and comfortable to create an "us versus them" scenario when regarding the behavior of others that we don't like or don't agree with or even find unacceptable.  But ultimately, prevention and change come from embracing the complexity, attempting to understand in a deeply thoughtful way, and even empathy.  Through understanding these men, as complex individuals, we grow to a deeper understanding of humanity and even of ourselves, and move to the possibility of prevention and change - as individuals, as a society, and as the world.

 

 

Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images

 

Samantha Smithstein, Psy.D., is a clinical and forensic psychologist and co-founder of the Pathways Institute for Impulse Control in San Francisco.

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