Sanctuary for the Abused
Sunday, December 07, 2008
Sex Addiction: Scandal & Significance
Dr. Patrick Carnes was the expert witness for Paula Jones in her case against Bill Clinton. His pioneering work in sexual addiction has brought recovery to many and his new book, The Betrayal Bond, is already regarded as a classic on a victim’s attachment to an abuser. Here he writes about the real significance of power and powerlessness in the sexual scandals of 1998.
In our recent agony over President Clinton’s woes, many speculated about whether the President was a sex addict. The media asked their listeners, the pundits, and the experts. Some of the experts wrote "quick" books analyzing Bill Clinton. An industry is emerging on the study of past and current presidents, consuming much psycho-historical effort. Bill Clinton is the most analyzed sitting president in our history. Probably, that process will continue with any president, because the barriers are down about speculating over the personal inner workings of our nation’s leader. But are we asking the right questions?
Speculation started with the American Spectator story about a pattern of extramarital sexual behavior in Clinton’s life that was obsessive and out of control. But many dismissed it as a politically inspired media assassination. Jennifer Flowers’ appearance indicated to many that maybe some of it was true. Many dismissed Paula Jones as politically inspired.
Clinton said as much himself. The significance of Paula Jones was that she was an employee who accused Clinton, as governor, of sexual assault. Kathleen Willie also told her story of assault. Both women had their reality resoundingly denied by both the culture and apparently the courts. And there were rumors of others who would not come forward. Monica Lewinsky was also an employee. The truth of that relationship could not be denied, which caused everyone to wonder about the rest.
Those knowledgeable in addiction noticed the pattern. A confidant of the President shared with the public that Clinton had said he knew that he did not dare sexually act out as president but he did it anyway with Lewinsky. So now we have pursuing behavior, which the President knew could destroy him. This continuation, despite recognition of consequences, is one of the hallmarks of addictive illness. People familiar with family dynamics of addicts noted that the president was an adult child of an alcoholic and the brother of a drug addict. They noted how Hillary, in a classic codependent manner, elected to stand by her man despite his behavior. They saw the whole country in animosity and turmoil about what the President had done or not done — which is what families of addicts do. Codependency meetings are filled with people riven with conflict because they cannot separate lies from truth, which pits family members against one another. Most codependents have experienced knowing there is a problem, having someone close lie about their behavior, and still believing the lies. It creates a form of insanity. It appears that our national debate took on those characteristics.
In the midst of the turmoil we have lost sight of the true significance of the struggles of Bill Clinton. We are witnessing one of the watershed moments in human history. We are making defining decisions about sex and power, which will profoundly affect the future of our species. We will not appreciate the full impact of what is happening for perhaps decades or even a century. Our perceptions of leadership, addiction and sexual health will irrevocably be altered. To understand all of this and to have an important perspective on Clinton, we need to notice what is happening now.
The new paradigm
The leading non-commissioned army officer faced a court martial about his sexual behavior toward subordinates. The Pentagon spent $1.2 billion on sexual harassment issues in fiscal 1997.
The Catholic Church had to settle a $154 million award from a lawsuit involving the sexual behavior of priests in the Dallas diocese. More cases are in the queue. The Vatican removed a key Cardinal in Vienna because of pedophilia. Protestant, Jewish and Islamic groups have experienced financial losses and turmoil over the sexual behavior of church leaders.
Two female school teachers were sexually involved with seventh-grade boys. Both teachers were married, both had children, both said they were in love with the boy, both got pregnant by the boy, and both are in jail.
The last bastions of all-male training for military leadership are now coed, including Virginia Military Institute.
The Supreme Court clarified in a series of decisions about sex in the workplace the role of leadership. If anyone in power has sex with an employee, the organization is liable for that behavior. If the victims do not avail themselves of the organization’s procedures for redressing the grievance, there is no liability. Legally, these decisions are among the top five decisions made in this century.
The news goes on. In movies, television and books we see the themes of women in the workplace sharing power, of the rejection of sexual exploitation and opportunism, and the principle of holding women and men accountable for their sexual behavior when in a position of power.
Let’s look to those who have foreshadowed what is happening. Riane Eisler’s classic book The Chalice and The Blade described cultures with sophisticated art, science, economics and government. These cultures were characterized by long periods of peace. Women and men had authority and means. They were characterized by interdependent and non-hierarchical forms of collaboration. Sexual assault and sexual exploitation were virtually non-existent.
In a patriarchal, competitive society, we have not been aware of the alternatives, and it has blinded us. For example, the early leaders of the Christian Church were women but most Christians do not know their names. Eisler underscored that the world is shrinking and can no longer sustain a competitive, exploitive ethic. Terrorism, violence, war, and biological or nuclear holocaust are the most obvious ways we can destroy ourselves. If we wish to change to a new way, it starts with how we treat each other sexually and how we raise our children.
The shift in our sexual relationships allows us to see power differently. We can move to a more systemic, interdependent way in which people take more responsibility for themselves and their impact on others. Family therapists and organizational development specialists have taught this for years. Not only will we collectively business, church, government & function differently, but we will approach children differently. When a culture perceives all children as needing to be nurtured and protected, it will transform the culture. Or in our case, the planet.
We are in effect moving to systemic and planetary thinking, which means collaboration, interdependency, and personal responsibility will replace authoritarian, restrictive or exploitive organizational strategies.
Leadership and power
The problem of power is that when you have it, you start to believe in it. In Thomas Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities, the central character is Sherman McCoy, an extremely successful Wall Street broker. His life is ruined when he rationalizes his sexual acting out and gets caught. He saw himself as a "Master of the Universe," a term he adopted for himself from his child’s toy.
Because of his power, he felt he was beyond the rules. He likened casual sex to dodging a snowflake in a blizzard. The impact of infidelity was no different from the impact of getting wet.
Such hubris is as old as the Greek heroes. History is filled with leaders whose power was matched with sexual excess, including popes (Alexander VI), kings (Henry VIII) and queens (Catherine the Great). This history also includes many presidents. John Kennedy faced much the same dilemma that Bill Clinton has. Kennedy’s affair with Judith Campbell linked him to the Mafia. The Mafia had a role in getting Kennedy elected and a role in attempts to assassinate Castro. Kennedy was also involved with Ellie Romish, who was connected to communist spy networks.
So Clinton is far from alone. In the early seventies, a team of researchers headed by Sam Janus studied the clients of high-end prostitutes. A disproportionate number were political leaders, including key legislators and judges. (most recent: ex-NY Governor Eliot Spitzer)
Eighty of these very exclusive call girls had a collected list of 7,645 clients, and 60 percent of them (4,587) exercised some form of political power.
Of those politicians, over two-thirds used prostitution in a "habitual" or "compulsive" fashion.Most of those individuals asked prostitutes to perform some form of sexual behavior or fulfill some fantasy based on power dynamics, such as sadomasochism. (ex: Senator David Vitter)
Janus wrote about the hubris of politicians around their sexual behavior:
The politician’s success in doing this produces a feeling of elated self-confidence that is responsible for his chief occupational hazard, to which we have given the name, "the illusion of invulnerability."
As he increases in power and strength in office, he begins to believe, if not that he is literally immortal, at least that he is God’s anointed, singled out to fulfill His destiny for mankind. From there it is only a short step to the conviction that he himself is the embodiment of that destiny; the men who make our laws all too readily come to believe that they are the law.
When a politician gets trapped in a sex scandal, the first question people ask is: How could such a worldly man have been so stupid? Couldn’t he have predicted that he would be caught? The answer is that he couldn’t, or didn’t, because he cannot believe that the omnipotent "me" can be condemned for his actions. The laws that apply to the common run of mortal have nothing to do with him. Therefore, his first impulse is to deny that he did anything at all and then if forced to confront the evidence against him, to assert that even if he did do it, he cannot be crushed. Wilbur Mills’ cry, "This won’t ruin me. Nothing can ruin me" just as he was about to be stripped of his Congressional powers and bundled off to an institution, was a leitmotif that rang through the cycle of sex scandals, an initial outraged denial of wrongdoing, and succeeded by abject confession after reality had at last broken through the complex structure of psychic defenses.
Those words are clearly prophetic of the year 1998. More than just creating a "Master of the Universe," political power can be the refuge of narcissism, socio-pathy, and addictive denial. The narcissist does not realize the impact he has on others, and the sociopath does not care. Addicts do care but are so driven by their compulsions, their caring only adds to their despair. The more power that exists, the more difficult it is to intervene on these conditions. Politicians are skilled at reading people and focusing on their needs. They have the resources and can control the information. Further, they know how to build credibility. Therefore, if a problem with addiction or mental health does exist, reality can be staved off by those in power.
Addiction and mental health
There are those who argue that power implicitly means sex. It is a variation of the "boys will be boys" theme in which we say that "politicians will natually be sexual more than other people." This is perhaps best captured by Henry Kissinger’s oft-quoted comment, "Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac." Research seems to confirm that vulnerability and perceived power create higher arousal levels in men. There is substantial research to show that risk and fear escalate sexual arousal for both sexes. In fact, it was McClelland’s studies at Harvard of powerful business leaders that made him one of the pioneers of addictions studies in the seventies. He determined from observing CEOs at the levers of power that they could become simply addicted to the stress of the job. They could not bear to be away from the chaos and the challenge. Sexual intrigue combined with the high arousal states of leadership are a compelling combination.
When Clinton’s relationship with Lewinsky came into question, all of us in the field of sex addiction felt the pressure of the media vortex surrounding the President. Clinicians and researchers in the field were barraged with media requests. In one afternoon, my office alone held requests from 44 metropolitan newspapers, including those in New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C., as well as all the major TV networks. It was similar for everyone else in the field. Board members and clinical members on the National Council for Sex Addiction and Compulsivity Web site received a media assault of frantic requests for interviews and a request that we give a diagnosis of sex addiction to the former President.
Each of us patiently explained the ethical and legal problems of a media diagnosis. The National Council on Sex Addiction and Compulsivity quickly posted an NCSA/C position paper on its Web site about inappropriate responses to the press. Such statements were also made by other professional organizations, including the American Psychiatric Association. Most reporters knew that professionals would respond that way. Some, however, confided that they saw a problem. I had several conversations in which a reporter indicated that prior to this moment, sex addiction seemed like a fad or fringe craziness. But now it was clear that someone with an incredible amount to lose in exercising indiscriminate sexual behavior, proceeded to act out anyway. Somehow the illness was now more credible and real.
I do not know if Bill Clinton is a sex addict. If he is not, I hope we all learn a lesson about false accusation. If he is a sex addict, I hope he can get the benefit of good help. And I hope that the story becomes public. It would be a lesson about mental illness not disqualifying even a President from doing a good job (although there are those who make a case for untreated mental illness in earlier Presidents affecting public policy). Recovery from sex addiction is a story of great hope and courage, and such a public story could do much good.
So far, the media attention has broadened public awareness of sex addiction and its consequences. The profile of a sex addict especially a sex addict in power has become part of that awareness:
- the behavior can be exploitive;
- the behavior is often high-risk or dangerous;
- the behavior often has a power component;
- the addict knows that the behavior is self-destructive but does it anyway;
- the behavior typically requires deception and lies, which often trip the addict up;
- the behavior carries consequences;
- the addict has a long-term pattern of out-of-control behavior;
- the addict becomes more involved in the behavior than intended because of the loss of control;
- the addict spends an inordinate amount of time pursuing the behavior;
- the addict is preoccupied with the behavior;
- the addict makes efforts to stop and fails;
- the behavior of the addict escalates;
- the behavior interferes with the addict’s ability to do other tasks or functions;
- the addict experiences extreme distress or anxiety when stopping the behavior.
Public awareness has opened the door for help to many. Sex addiction is the last of the addictions to be understood. It is the missing piece that has prevented addiction medicine from looking at the whole problem. A leading factor in recidivism has been the failure to treat all the addictions. For not only do addictions coexist in the same person, they interact. I believe there will come a time when we will understand addictive and compulsive behaviors as an often complex system of excesses and deprivations that are best treated as a "package." That will be an extraordinary paradigm shift, but it will allow us to be dramatically more successful. I believe sex addiction is key because until we acknowledge that such a core process can be part of the package, we will not see the large sum of the whole.
Most who work with sex addicts notice that those who hold powerful positions recognize they have trouble and desperately wish to stop. They also know how severe the impact is on their ability to perform. The Catch-22 is that they also believe their power will enable them to quit. When they are unable to succeed, they despair. And one quick cure for despair is to act out.The great systems thinker Gregory Bateson defined addiction as prayer gone awry. In order to have a sense of human limitation, you have to have a sense of a power greater than you are. If you do not have a spiritual life, addiction can become that greater power. Addicts who believe in their own power are caught in that spiral of despair and trust only themselves to get out of it.
A further problem exists in victims of power abuse that prevents accountability.
When victims experience betrayal by a trusted person, the trauma that results often deepens the bond with the perpetrator. They often move emotionally closer to their abuser even though it means more harm.We call this traumatic bonding and it is a primary factor in domestic abuse, abusive cults, sexual assault, hostage situations, and child abuse. Traumatic bonding means that the victim helps and offers support to someone who has hurt them.
One would hope that the spouses of powerful people would supply accountability. But we have the problem of codependency a family systems concept, that recognizes that the partner becomes a co-participant in the behavior of the addict. Enabling and denial are examples of codependent behavior that covers for the addict.
Recent studies of two types of powerful professionals physicians and clergy bring a profound picture of hope while underlining coming changes. For clergy, sexual scandals have been a nightmare and crisis in almost every religious tradition. The profile that has emerged is of ministers and priests who work extremely high-stress jobs and have sexual access to people because of the high trust that they are given. If they admit they have a problem they risk serious consequences. As a result, they feel they have to be better than most people and admit no flaw. By the time they are in serious trouble it is too late. If they receive help, they may well avoid the disasters that churches are finding themselves liable for. This resistance to asking for help is part of many denominational cultures and is a far cry from the notion of which the wounded healer theologians speak. Similarly, state medical boards have been forced to develop pioneering programs in addictive illnesses, and sexual problems are at the top of the list. Like ministers, doctors are trusted and have sexual access. They are also used to being in charge and seem to thrive on high stress. So the incidence of all addictions is extremely high.
The good news is that we are learning that treatment works. A number of studies show that doctors and clergy in recovery actually make better doctors and ministers. They are more available, more empathic, and more balanced in their lives. Most can be restored to productive professional lives.
Which brings us to our political leaders. We have come a long way from the days when Missouri Senator Thomas Eagleton lost his bid for the presidency because he was treated for depression. Can we accept a leader who needs treatment, or can we vote for a leader who has had treatment? This issue has incredible significance for the mental health professional because if it becomes normal for even our leaders to be able to have access for mental health services, it will be acceptable for everyone. Our leaders would be "humanized," and we would have a different culture.
Changing roles in the workplace
Most couples are dual career couples who spend most of their time apart from one another. They also often work closely with people who are not their partners.
The sexual implications are as follows: if you do not feel particularly emotionally connected to your partner, you may actually share more and feel closer to the person with whom you work 50 hours a week. Sexuality follows intimacy. The result is that at least one partner in many couples has an affair. We now have the very real problem of how we deal with sexuality in the workplace.
Margaret Meade forecasted years ago that this would be the transforming crisis of our time. She said we need to invent new "taboos" for people working together. In the current language of therapy and sexual exploitation we use the term boundaries, but it amounts to the same.
It is a Buddhist maxim that if you are going to say no, you must know what yes is. As we articulate new sexual boundaries we will implicitly be operating out of some model of what sexual health is. Most of our professional efforts have been focused on helping people for whom sex is a problem, and we have yet to define a clear statement that most of us understand as sexual health. It is clear that sexual health should not be exploitive or judgmental or negative. Rather, the foundation of healthy sexuality starts with acceptance, abundance, and exploration.
In many ways the problems of Clinton have been a gift to the culture by forcing us to start talking about the sexual issues of our time: sexual exploitation, sex addiction, changing roles in the workplace, and our relationship life.
Clinton has been sorely tested, but the consolation in all that we went through with him is that by sharing his struggle, we all learn.
Dr. Carnes is the Clinical Director for Sexual Disorder Services at the Meadows, 1655 North Tegner St., Wickenburg, AZ 85390