Sexual Harassment, Abuse, and Addiction: the differences, the overlap, and the treatment (part 1)

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Reports of celebrities, politicians, and newscasters being ousted because of sexual abuse and harassment charges continue to dominate the news. Good!

Conversations about the problem of unwanted sexual advances — and the abuse of power to exploit people sexually — are uncomfortable but really important. When the #metoo social media posts went viral it was a stark reminder of how widespread this problem is.

For a number of years I worked in the recovery field — specializing in sexual addiction — and I’ve had the occasion to deal with these issues a LOT. Hearing the stories in the news lately has brought up a lot of thoughts. Let me share some of them …

First off, let’s get clear about the terms

SEXUAL HARASSMENT — Webster’s dictionary defines sexual harassment as “uninvited and unwelcome verbal or physical behavior of a sexual nature especially by a person in authority toward a subordinate, such as an employee or student.” Guidelines of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) have formed the basis for most state laws prohibiting sexual harassment in the workplace. The guidelines state:

Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual harassment when:

  • submission to such conduct is made either explicitly or implicitly a term or condition of an individual’s employment,

  • submission to or rejection of such conduct by an individual is used as the basis for employment decisions affecting such individuals, or

  • such conduct has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual’s work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment.

SEXUAL ABUSE — Sexual abuse goes further than harassment in that it involves sexual contact (not just words) with someone unable to give consent (eg. a child, or someone with dementia) and thus involves some form of “forcible compulsion.” When force is immediate, of short duration, or infrequent, it is called sexual assault. The American Psychological Associate (APA) defines sex abuse as “unwanted sexual activity, with perpetrators using force, making threats or taking advantage of victims not able to give consent.”

RAPE — According to Wikipedia, “Rape is a type of sexual assault usually involving sexual intercourse or other forms of sexual penetration carried out against a person without that person’s consent. The act may be carried out by physical force, coercion, abuse of authority, or against a person who is incapable of giving valid consent. The term rape is sometimes used interchangeably with the term sexual assault.”

Why these distinctions are important

Distinctions matter because there is overlap between these problems, and these overlaps can be confusing. Sexual harassment is different than sexual abuse and sexual assault. Rape and sexual assault are sometimes used interchangeably, although the term “sexual assault” might best be used to describe unwanted sexual contact that does not involve penetration, reserving the term “rape” for unwanted sexual contact that does involve penetration.

It’s also important to clarify our terms because because there is some overlap with — and confusion about — how sexual assault and abuse relate to sex addiction.

Sex addiction and sexual assault 

Readers of this newsletter will likely be familiar with definitions of addiction, and sex addiction in particular. Many books about sexual addiction devote entire chapters to trying to define the term, but here’s a basic definition:

Sex addiction is a state characterized by compulsive participation or engagement in sexual activity despite negative consequences.

Friends, partners, and family of sex addicts sometimes worry about the range of behaviors that an addict might get into. They worry that their sex-addicted loved one might be or become an abuser, or assault someone. Many partners of sex addicts have asked variations of this question: “Now that I know my spouse is addicted to sex and/or porn … should I be worried about whether it’s safe for him to be alone with our kids?”

When we hear reports of sexual harassment in the workplace, we might wonder: Is the perpetrator in this story a sex addict? Is that why they do this? If so, does it mean that other people I know who are sex addicts could wind up getting in trouble like this too?

Breaking down the overlap between sex addiction and sexual harassment

Let’s be clear: not every sex addict engages in harassment, and not every perpetrator of sexual harassment is a sex addict. That said, there can be — and often are — overlaps. If someone is engaging in out of control sexual behavior, they will tend to objectify and sexualize the people around them, and they will tend to have poor boundaries about sexual behavior. They will flirt, leer, and make sexual jokes … because hypersexuality has become normalized for them. Their minds are filled with sexual thoughts, and they develop a comfort level talking and joking about sex that makes others uneasy.

On top of that, when an addict gets into their patterns of arousal and acting out, they lose their perspective and judgment. This is true of all addictions … they put us into a kind of mental fog. This is why people in AA jokingly refer to alcohol as “stupid soup.” It makes people stupid. They go into a kind of trance. When people are in trance, it doesn’t mean that they talk with mono-syllables and walk like zombies. Trance simply means that our consciousness shrinks. The field of our awareness shrinks, and we are attentive to only a small amount of things, and tune out everything else.

One of the stories in the Big Book of SAA is about a man who was driving on a sunny summer day, and encountered a woman who gave him what he considered to be a flirtatious look at a stop light. They continued driving down the road, making eyes at each other, and he got the sense that she was sending him signals that she wanted to take things further. He started following her, assuming that she wanted to pull over somewhere so they could take the flirting to the next level. She finally pulled to a stop, and he was about to get out of his car to talk to her, but she jumped out of her car and ran into the building. He looked up and for the first time realized that she had stopped in front of a police station!

He thought she was flirting with him and wanted to “go further” … but in truth, she was afraid of him. She was driving around with him following her, looking at him in ways that he interpreted as flirting and having desire … when in fact she was terrified. She was not looking for a place to get out of the car and talk to him, she was looking for a place to get away from him.

I have subsequently learned the identity of the man in this story. Here’s the crazy part: this man is highly intelligent, and makes his living by studying human behavior and picking up subtle social cues! All that intelligence went out the window when he was in the fog of his addictive thinking. His addiction blinded him to the obvious distress of the woman he was following.

This story is so common it’s almost cliche: the details vary, but it gets played out countless times every day. One person is blinded by their sexual compulsivity — they are in the fog of lust — and in that trance they are not picking up the cues of disinterest, fear, and whatever kind of signals of non-consent are being broadcast.

Here’s the bottom line:
sex addicts are at significant risk
of engaging in sexual harassment
when they are in active addiction

I know this might seem obvious, but it’s helpful to understand how and why it happens: It’s because, when they are in active addiction, addicts lose their judgment, perspective, and awareness. It’s as if a screen comes down in front of them, filtering their interactions with a layer of fantasy and erotic possibility. This doesn’t happen all the time for the addict … it happens when they are “in pattern.” When they get sucked into the vortex of craving and illusion that sexual compulsion creates.

Does this mean that all sex addicts become harassers, and that all harassers are sex addicts? Of course not. For most sex addicts, good judgment prevails in situations that could turn into harassment. And it’s also true that for many sex addicts, their arousal pattern does not match the relationship or interaction. For example, someone whose addiction is focused on pornography and masturbation may not be drawn into their addictive pattern by a person-to-person interaction.

But keep in mind: sexual harassment is not always about sex

Sexual harassment is often fueled by factors unrelated to sexual desire. It’s not always about addiction … and it’s not always about sex.

Harassment is often about power, dominance, and misogyny. Power and privilege tend to make anybody oblivious to the needs and cues of others.

Recent research has shown that being in positions of power has the ability to alter the structure of the brain. In a recent article in The Atlantic with the intriguing title “Power Causes Brain Damage,” Jerry Useem dissects the frustrating problem of people in positions of power and privilege who seem oblivious to the concerns of those around them. He references Sukhvinder Obhi, a neuroscientist at McMaster University, in Ontario, whose research has led him to conclude that “power, in fact, impairs a specific neural process, ‘mirroring,’ that may be a cornerstone of empathy.”

People in positions of power can lose their ability to “read the room” … they become convinced of their own importance and desirability, and tune out the data coming to them that contradicts that thought. I’ve seen it happen, and I’m sure you have too. The person who thinks they are a lot more interesting than they really are. Well, there are also people who think they are more desirable than they really are.

This article is part of a series: in the next edition of this newsletter, I’ll talk about the relationship between sexual abuse and sexual addiction.

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