As a sex therapist, what is happening with the actor Kevin Spacey is professionally interesting. His public downfall began with two men who revealed that Spacey had assaulted them as teenagers. Since then, more have come forward, including men who Spacey assaulted when they were adults. It’s increasingly clear that Spacey and many others in high positions have abused their power. Not surprisingly, in my years of practice, I have heard hundreds of such stories.
What happens in most public discourse on this topic is immediate expressions of moral outrage and self-righteousness, quickly labeling the older person as a pedophile…and the conversation stops dead. Many therapists know, however, that the picture is far more complicated. It cannot be dealt with such simple projections and judgments.
For instance, it is widely held in our culture that being gay and being a pedophile are identical. I can assure you, they are, in fact, very different. Calling child molestation of a boy by a man “homosexual,” or that of a girl by a man “heterosexual,” is to misunderstand pedophilia. No true pedophile is attracted to adults, so neither homosexuality nor heterosexuality applies.
Sexual abuse is never okay
Let me be clear. It is always wrong for any adult to sexually approach a teenager or a child, or pressure them into being sexual with them. Ever. It is sexual abuse, and can traumatize the adolescent or child and cause chaos in and out of his sex life for the rest of his years. Among other things, these encounters can cause the victim to become confused about what their true sexual orientation really is; hypersexuality, in which a person experiences loss of control over their sexual behaviors; sexual dysfunction, such as erectile disorders; and other issues involving attaching to a significant other.
It is also great to hear that the boys Spacey made advances said no, and confronted him. This is not always the case. I give them a lot of credit. If it feels wrong, say something, do something. Understandably not everyone can do that.
There is so much about stories like this that is controversial and difficult to understand. Yet it is important to have the conversation about the issues both the abuser and abused are dealing with, including sexual abuse, sex offending, and how long-term closetedness can lead to mental health and behavioral issues.
Are all instances of sexual abuse traumatic?
What may surprise most people, however, is that not all those who were sexual with an initiating adult consider it abuse or victimization. Let me give you some examples: Some years ago, a gay client told me how he first had sex with his best friend’s father … and loved it! In fact, he described the father as big and hairy, and how he had ever since been attracted to big, hairy men. No sense of victimization there. Since then, there have been countless gay men who told me that, as boys, they were warned to avoid the man, say, in the house down the block because he was a pedophile. Not knowing what it means to be a pedophile or the potential trauma that could result, they purposely sought out the man out to have their first sexual experiences because, as closeted gay pubescent teens they couldn’t turn to any of their peers. Remember, gay and bisexual boys are isolated and alone as children and teens until they have the courage to come out. Even then they are isolated amongst their heterosexual peers. As adults in my office, these men did not consider themselves victims, nor were they traumatized at the time of this sexual experience.
There also are men and women of all sexual orientations who have told me that, coming from neglectful families in which they weren’t loved and didn’t receive affection, having sex with an adult was the first time someone expressed what felt to them like love and nurturing. Even though they now know that developmentally this was not in their best interest, they still feel strongly that some good came out of these experiences.
As a therapist, I would try to convince them they were victimized and even traumatized, but they refused to accept that. They boldly told me to back off, and that while they could understand it fell under the category of abuse, for them it was not that. There is even research now showing that not all victims of abuse are traumatized. Even so, I still try to explore with my clients the negative influences that can occur in such cases, given that the perpetrator and the victim are developmentally in such a different place psychologically, sexually, emotionally, and most other ways.
Then there are the many stories I’ve heard from heterosexual clients who also described sex with an adult not as traumatizing abuse, but as their pleasurable first sexual experience: Young heterosexual women who were sought out by older men, young men who were sought out by older women, and every nuance in between.
Here is yet another factor I’ve previously written about: underage gay and bisexual boys going on Grindr claiming to be 18-year-old young adults (and looking so, as well), seeking sex with older men. They are looking for sexual contact because they are so isolated and lonely, and want to express themselves sexually like their heterosexual counterparts. I tell them they are putting these older men, who have no idea they are underage, at risk for being prosecuted as sex offenders.
Who then is the abuser, the boy or the naïve man?
This brings me back to Kevin Spacey. We know very little, really, about him, other than the fact that he has been a closeted gay man for many years, but his brother has written about growing up with their father, whom he calls a “Nazi child rapist” who sexually abused the two brothers for years. Correlation? Many believe that sexual abusers have themselves been sexually abused as children. This can be true, but certainly not always. Studies have shown some correlation, but not causation. Often, they display the tendencies for what has been called, “returning to the scene of the sexual crime,” reenacting their first sexual experiences with others, who are often the age at which they themselves were sexually abused.
What are the effects of long-term closetedness?
Something else that Spacey’s case brings to mind: for a gay man, being closeted for long periods of time before coming out can produce many negative consequences—depression, addiction, self-harm, out-of-control sexual behavior, and worse. I am not, by any stretch, condoning Spacey’s behavior, but we should recognize, at least, that closeted men are at higher risk of acting out in negative ways unless they get therapy. We need to understand more clearly why someone would make these kinds of choices. As Jack Morin, author of The Erotic Mind, so elegantly put it, “If you go to war with your sexuality you’re going to lose, and instead have more chaos in your life than what you started with.”
We may be living at a moment when a big cultural shift is taking place, almost a soul cleansing, with people finally confessing what they have hidden for years. What I hope would go hand in hand with this shift, is a long overdue public discussion—especially by therapists—about human sexuality, its nuances and myriad manifestations.
An adult conversation, if you will, with less of the kind of quick moralizing and pejorative terminology that neither increases understanding, nor diminishes our sense of compassion for those either afflicted by their own sexual troubles or those subjected to another’s behavior. In the complicated world of sex therapy, the concepts of abuse and victimization are not as easily defined as they are in the public’s mind.
Perhaps the best outcomes we can hope for from this recent exposure of dirty laundry are that sexual harassment and abuse will no longer be forced into the shadows by shame and fear, and that we can begin to discuss our sexuality with greater honesty and openness.