Weinstein. Toback. Spacey. Besh, Halperin and Oreskes. Cosby. Tired yet? I am. Hoffman. Affleck. Piven. Ratner. Trump. I could go on. But I won’t. Because the list is as exhausting as it is exhaustive. Yet the list also highlights a mere fraction of the problems — numerous though they are — instead of the solution.
Over the course of the last few weeks, ever since the dam of sexual harassment allegations finally broke wide open, I have repeatedly heard the following question: “When will the wave of allegations stop?”
But as a marriage and family therapist for the last 25-plus years, I can tell you that this is the wrong question. We need to stop asking when the wave of allegations will stop, and instead, we need to ask how it all began. Otherwise we’ll keep getting what we’ve gotten: abuse, followed by pain, then the public outcry, perhaps punishment — and repeat. We’ve been here before, and we know this pattern endlessly repeats itself.
So again, let’s focus on the right question: How did this begin?
Truth is, people have been engaging in sexual misconduct forever. It used to be that we either didn’t care or that we couldn’t do anything about it. We’ve tried, in turns, preaching proper sexual conduct, shaming and scolding minor offenders or punishing those whose conduct was absolutely prohibited. Men, especially kings, were generally allowed to get away with pretty much everything, while women were particularly singled out for social stigma and the occasional stoning. Fortunately for us now, stonings are so last century, and scoldings have been scientifically proven to almost always cause even more of the behavior deserving of reprimand.
In the last century, we’ve added the filter of psychopathology. Cue the language of addiction, self-help groups and in-patient treatment. Masturbation was our original whipping boy, the sin of “self-pollution” taking the blame for all that followed. Now we moderns laugh at those quaint Victorians while we’re engaged in the same type of thinking in our blaming “porn addiction” or “sex addiction” for sexual misconduct.
But guess what? Those aren’t even a thing. That’s right, sex addiction is not a real diagnosis. Reference the DSM-5 or ICD 11 for reference, neither of which lists either “diagnosis.” So instead, if we really cared about victims and about fixing our mess, we’d focus instead on trying to understand why people do what they do.
Here’s where to start: accepting that we’re all sexual beings and that we all have sexual needs. From the disgusting pot-bellied, cigar-chomping narcissist trying to get the ingénue onto his casting couch, to the ingénue herself, to the baby born moments ago, we all need sexual safety, sexual nurturing and age-appropriate sexual information that’s contextualized by human relationships rather than a quasi-medical study of anatomy, venereal disease and unwanted pregnancy.
Whether in school or at home, we have to start taking the opportunity to talk to our kids about sexuality. Talking about sex doesn’t “cause” kids to become sexually active, while not talking to kids about sexuality practically guarantees that kids will become sexually active without helpful information. They need the kind of information that makes for a good, healthy, and satisfying sex life that is both sustainable and honorable.
The goal here is one that human society has neither discussed nor communicated to its young: the intelligent management of our sexuality. Instead of years of conversation, we coach our children in the practice of repression: “Don’t do it, and don’t talk about wanting to do it.”
The result is as predictable as it is painful: That which is repressed will still be expressed, just inappropriately.
Many of us work diligently to intelligently manage many aspects of our life — how to eat healthier, to work out within our limits, to manage our finances better, and to become professionally fulfilled. But we don’t do the same with sexuality. We ignore it, sweep it under the rug or hide it in a closet. Managing our sexuality intelligently is absolutely impossible when we can’t look at it or talk about it. And we need to talk about it. A lot.
What we don’t need is to be “in treatment.” It’s not as if our own bodies are a bottle of booze in the hand of an alcoholic. “Pretend recovery” keeps us from learning how to express our sexuality in all of its beautiful diversity within the context of healthy behaviors in sustainable, satisfying and happy relationships.
When we destigmatize talk of sexuality — when we truly talk about it with the young, instead of hiding it in our creepy cobwebbed basements — only then can we correct course as a society. But until then, we’re left reeling from the revelations.
McAdams. Hannah. McGowan. Burr. Dorn. Sciorra, Evans, Kerr and Nyong’o. Bored yet? I hope not. Holly. Beckinsale. Delevingne. Moore. These are just a few of the names of those who are coming forward and telling their tales of egregious sexual harassment. So what do we owe them? We owe them a serious attempt to right this wrong. And the only way to do that is to tackle the root of the problem — how it all began.
Only then can we predict patterns, project outcomes and establish policies that work. Only then can we begin to unravel the deep-seated thoughts and behaviors that have brought us to this defining moment in history. Only then can we begin an important conversation about the intelligent management of our human sexuality.
Who’s with me?
Author and Speaker Steven Ing (stevening.com) doesn’t believe in Leprechauns, the Tooth Fairy or in diagnoses of “sex addiction.” But he does believe in a novel approach to sexuality: Let’s learn how to proactively manage our sexuality. Intelligently. Tweet @StevenIngMFT or email him at askING@stevening.com with topics for future columns.
Need help? Visit RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Online Hotline or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website.