People see sexual misbehavior as binary: a person is either a good person (innocent) or a pervert (guilty).
It’s not that simple. Sexual misbehavior occurs on a continuum and within a context. It is caused by multiple, interacting factors. Causes include our society’s values and teachings, our brain’s biology, our personal experiences (especially in childhood), and the conscious and unconscious choices we make.
Sexual offenders vary in the type and intensity of their misbehavior just as alcoholics vary from an occasional episode to all day every day. Sexual misbehaviors include looking or staring at woman while thinking of deviant sex, masturbating privately or publicly to these deviant thoughts, inappropriate speech, unwanted touching, etc. It includes “seductive,” pushy behaviors, with or without alcohol; buying expensive meals and presents; or using intimidation, threats, violence, and more.
Our culture encourages boys to become strong, virile men. How many movies are there where the woman resists the man until he forcefully grabs her and kisses her? Then she melts in his arms and falls in love with him. Sleeping Beauty lays unconscious while Prince Charming takes advantage of her beauty and his desire. He kisses her without consent and then she wakes and falls in love with him. The message to boys is clear. When she says No or is unconscious, she still really wants it. Bad boys are hot.
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The brain centers for sexual arousal, pleasure, and aggression are close to each other in the hypothalamus, which emits hormones that govern thirst, hunger, sleep, mood — and sex drive. Dopamine is a powerful neurotransmitter involved in arousal (both sex and violence) and in feeling good. Men have sexually attacked women since before the time of the Bible. While there may be a brain chemistry component to sexual misbehavior, this neither fully explains nor excuses it.
Men sexually misbehave not so much for sex as for power, control, domination, and/or anger release. Sexual misbehavior is exciting and feels good. Men sexually misbehave because it feels good. With children, men also tend to misbehave for connection, acceptance, and to feel love.
In order to abuse someone, a person has to turn off empathy. Sex offenders narcissistically think only about their feelings. They do not think about how the other person will feel. They rationalize, justify, and deny. They often believe that their victim will want and like it.
Sexual misbehavior is learned. Studies show that more than 85 percent of sex offenders were sexually abused as children. They were abused by either “over control” (harshly treated) or “under control” (spoiled or ignored). They learn it is OK to be selfish, to abuse one’s power, and to act out sexually to feel better.
Men who want power are attracted to power professions. They become police, or leaders in church, politics, business, etc. Compounding this, many of these men are treated in a way that they think entitles them to grab whatever they want.
While all sex offenders are alike, no two are the same. There is a difference between men who behave as Al Franken has admitted and men who do what Harvey Weinstein and Roy Moore allegedly did. They all have the same mental/behavioral illness. However, there is a difference in the degree of their sicknesses and in their likelihood to continue to misbehave. It is like the difference between having a scratch on one’s finger and having a cut to the bone. Both are cuts, but the degree of injury and the likely consequences of the two are totally different.
Moore, Franken, Presidents Trump and Clinton all need to be individually evaluated. Their misbehaviors, honesty, personalities, history of anti-social behaviors, and use of power are not the same. Their treatment needs and prognosis are not the same.
Proper treatment requires therapists with specialized treatment skills. The best treatment is compelled long term group psychotherapy with similar men. The good news is that treatment of sexual misconduct when done by a competent specialist can be successful. While people are surprised to hear it, the data show that proper treatment “cure” rates can be 90% or better.
To make society safer, we need to better understand sexual misbehavior and to see how common it is. There is much complexity and variability in sexual offenders. Responding only with harsh punishment and banishment does not work well. We need to set punishment and treatment to fit each offender.
William Samek, Ph.D., is forensic and clinical psychologist director of the Florida Sexual Abuse Treatment Program, Inc., which serves both sexual victims and offenders.