Why Sexual Aggression Is About Both Sex and Power

Both power and sex play a role in sexual aggression.

Posted Nov 30, 2017

In the wake of the recent flood of revelations and allegations regarding sexual misconduct by powerful men, a number of commentators have offered analyses about why it happens. One claim that has been repeated a number of times is that sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape (categorized here as acts of sexual aggression) are not about sex, but are instead about only power. Even professionals will sometimes make this claim.

A number of other commentators have challenged this formulation and explained why this is a fallacious claim and why sexual aggression, properly considered, is about both sex and power. One excellent analysis of why this is so was offered several years ago by Noam Shpancer on Psychology Today.

Let me add an additional way of looking at the issues that I think allows us to see more clearly why sexual aggression is about both sex and power. To do so, we need to distinguish between “content” and “process” in human relationships.

Differentiating Relationship Content from Process

One of the first things we teach our graduate students in professional psychology is the difference between content and process. In the therapy room, students are taught to pay as much attention to process as to content in their relationships with their clients.

The content involves the “what” in the relationship exchange. Money, doing the dishes and going to the movies are all examples of content. It is what people are engaged in exchanging.  

The process involves the “how” of the exchange; namely, how the self-other exchanges are structured. One good way to see the process dimension is by asking a question such as: Is the process more cooperative or is it more competitive?

The difference between content and process can be made clear by looking at the Influence Matrix. The red, green and blue lines are the “process dimensions”. They represent are the “hows” of self-other exchange. The blue line represents the power/status differential (dominance-submission). The red line represents the degree of shared interests (affiliation) relative to opposing interests (hostility). The green line represents the process of distance (autonomy and moving away) and closeness (dependency).

Gregg Henriques
Source: Gregg Henriques

In Acts of Sexual Aggression, Sex is the Content, and Power is the Process

Notice, there is no “sex”, or “money” or “going to the movies” on the Matrix. Why? Because the content in relationship exchanges is a different category, a different kind of thing, than the process, and the Matrix is a picture of the relational process dimensions.

By understanding this, we can see that sexual aggression involves both “content” (the sex part) and “process” (the power part). The perpetrator is trying to get a particular event (actual sexual contact or a close proxy) to happen. In cases of sexual aggression, he uses some aspect of his resources (his job, his money, his physical strength, stealth) to try to dominate a woman into some form of sexual behavior.

This usually gives rise to two distinct kinds of reactions by the victims. First, there is the reaction to the sexual violation. The woman has had her sexual space invaded in undesirable ways and that violation elicits disgust and revulsion. This is a “content” exchange that she does not want, and defensive revulsion is the usual reaction.

Second, there is the reaction to the power dynamic. Usually the man is in some form of higher power position. So, the woman will likely feel both anger/rage and shame, vulnerability, humiliation, guilt and powerlessness. This is because her control and her status have been violated, and her power diminished. This, of course, is why so many women stay silent. By definition, in high power situations, the man can use his power to silence her in the future if she threatens him.

The fact that there are often these two distinct reactions in women is a good way to show that there is both a sex and a power dimension to the act.

Recognizing the process/content distinction allows us to see why saying “it is not about the sex, but only about the power” is off the mark. It is like someone analyzing the behavior of thieves by proclaiming that, “It is not about what is stolen, it is only about the process of stealing.” Obviously, to understand the behavior of thieves, one needs to consider both what is stolen, in addition to how it was stolen.

Why Do So Many People Say it is Only about Power, Not Sex?

If it is obvious when you look at it that acts of sexual aggression are both about sex and power, then why do so many people, even professionals, often say that it is only about power and not about sex? I think this stems from three sources.

First, analyses of aggressive sexual advances in various settings show that power and intimidation is often an important motive. And some authors will point out that because so many of these events happen without sexual intercourse, then the motive must only be power. This is fallacious at many levels, but it should be acknowledged that sexual aggression is often engaged in as a power play. That, of course, is not being denied here. What is being challenged and refuted is the idea that this claim negates the fact that there is a sexual dimension to it.

Second, I think it stems from some feminist thinking that men are socialized to be powerful and dominant and to control women and that is an underlying reason for almost everything having to do with gender relations and inequities.

Third, I think that, from a woman’s perspective, it feels very much like it is about only power, in part because it feels like it cannot be about sex. This stems from how women tend think about sex and relationships relative to men. As a general rule, women are more relational when it comes to sex. That is, for many women to find an act sexually arousing requires a degree of intimacy, affiliation, safety and trust. The idea of wanting to have sex with someone who does not want to have sex in the first place is bizarre and alien to most women.

In contrast, men are more likely to be able to disconnect sex from intimacy. They do not need intimacy or affiliation to light the fire of basic sexual desire. So pursuing sex with someone who does not want to engage in such activities is not hard for many men to envision (and, unfortunately, a subset of men to actually act upon).   

Sometimes It Is Mostly About Power, Sometimes Mostly Sex

Finally, it is worth noting that people are complicated, situations are complicated and varied, and sex and power are both basic and strong motivators. And the two are often intertwined. The complicated relationship between sex and power is seen in the fact that Freud hypothesized that sex and aggression were the key forces in the human unconscious. In addition, we see the large numbers of individuals engaged in sado-masochistic role plays in their sexual fantasies. This shows how closely the two can be “tied up” with one another in the human psyche.

Because people are complicated and because both of these motives are basic and fundamental, it is not hard to imagine particular individuals and examples where the power motive was primary. In other cases, the sex will be primary. Thus, each individual case would need to be examined to determine what was the primary driver.

Regardless of these caveats, the basic take home point is that a common sense analysis rules the day: Acts of sexual aggression are almost always about some combination of sex and power.

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