Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Attraction, Influence, Coercion, and Sex: A Call for Intentional Integrity

There have been three stories in the news in recent weeks that illustrate the power of influence to lead to abuse, and specifically, to abuse of a sexual nature.

In the first, a psychologist used his influence over his patients, and their trust in the therapeutic relationship, to coerce them into performing sex acts with him. In the second, a Naval officer countered charges of sexual assault against a subordinate by asserting the sex was consensual. Most recently, the Houston Chronicle amassed a record of more than 700 victims of sexual abuse—most of them minors—at the hands of ministers from the largest Evangelical denomination in the United States. All of these stories offer a strong reminder that where we have influence over another person, we must engage in extreme vigilance to ensure that influence does not become a corridor for exploitation.

As is most often the case, the predators in these tales were men. If we’re really, truly honest with ourselves, men, we can look at many of these stories and see shadows of the horrible acts we, in our baser natures, are capable of. True, some of these perpetrators are hardened predators, who intentionally and with malice seek out, groom, and exploit others for their own twisted pleasure. But most of them are men who simply allowed pride and lust and arrogance to selectively blind them to their obligation to care for and protect someone under their care, exchanging that duty for a self-serving narrative in which the vulnerability of trust placed in them was distorted into a darkened perception of sexual acquiescence. And if you cannot see your innate potential to follow a similar path, then you very likely are only a few short steps from a precipitous fall.

The goal of this essay is to offer, from one man to another, a way of thinking about how the influence we have over others intersects with forces like intimacy and attraction, with a goal toward practical steps for keeping ourselves from wandering into the same blind hubris which befell these men. We owe it to the individuals who are and will be under our care to learn this well, and to teach it to the boys and men with whom we have influence. Failure to make this an intentional aim of your leadership, ministry, or caregiving—especially if you are in a position of mentoring or training other leaders, ministers, or caregivers—is to perpetuate the same vacuous system that has allowed such abuse to flourish.

How did we get here?

A central problem in this issue (and it is also central to nearly all of the distortions of God-given sexuality we see in society) is that we generally lack the ability to discern between emotional intimacy and sexual intimacy. This is so fundamental that in my experience most men, particularly in western culture, don’t have a working definition of intimacy that is not inherently sexual.

In psychology, intimacy is defined as “a process of interaction in which social partners, as a result of sharing personal and private thoughts and feelings, come to feel understood, appreciated, and cared for by each other.” The word itself is derived from a Latin word for “innermost,” and evolved to mean making known or very familiar.

In any relationship in which one or more parties is sharing of their inner selves, intimacy can naturally arise. Psychotherapy training acknowledges this as a natural—if not inevitable—outgrowth of a therapeutic relationship, and psychotherapists are exhorted to handle this phenomenon with the greatest of care. Ministers are just as likely as psychotherapists to experience intimacy as a natural outgrowth of a professional relationship, and leaders in many settings may also find a closeness with those under their charge which can breed feelings of intimacy.

We have been created by God to connect with other human beings. We should not be surprised when this occurs. But we also must be clear-eyed as to what this means and what it does not mean. We must choose—in advance—to consciously interpret any feelings of intimacy that arise as the natural but fragile outgrowth of a trust relationship, and we must consciously set aside any interpretation of such feelings as any sort of sexual invitation.

Emotional connections between people are natural and God-given. But many of us have been so hardened by the pervasive feeding of our sexual lusts, either passively from the ubiquitousness of sexually stimulating media in our culture, or actively through the pursuit of lustful stimulation, that any sense of connection is prone to being interpreted as sexual. And evidence of reciprocation of that connection is prone to misinterpretation as a sexual invitation.

The most important preparation for this battle is to consciously and perpetually put sexual desire in its God-given container: marriage. I’ve written elsewhere of the power of a prayer of gratitude as a pathway for fleeing lust. If you are married, this may be a prayer of thanksgiving for your wife; if you are not married, it can be a prayer of thanksgiving for the institution of marriage, thankfulness that God has given you everything you need for life and godliness, and that when or if you need a wife he will provide one. You must also consciously acknowledge that any sexual thought for any woman you are not married to is adultery in its fullest, most damnable form. This is why Paul urges us not only to flee such thoughts, but to bludgeon them with full spiritual violence (Galatians 5:24). It is also worth highlighting that while the call to “flee youthful lust” (2 Timothy 2:22) is applicable for all followers of Christ for all time, its original context was in a letter from an older pastor mentoring a young pastor (2 Timothy 2:1-2).

Fatal Attraction

A common defense for exploitative sexual relationships—even when the victim of abuse is a minor—is that the sex was consensual. Indeed, it is not uncommon for the abused to profess attraction for their abuser. But the presence of mutual attraction does not in any way lessen or excuse the fact of exploitation.

Our brains are hard-wired to be attracted to other people. Most often we sort that attraction into bins based on what is appropriate for that relationship. Because of our diminished ability to discern between emotional and sexual intimacy, if we perceive the other person to be in any way a viable sexual partner, we will experience the attraction as sexual. For this reason it is vital that we have the mental discipline to constrain the range of what we allow ourselves to entertain as viable sexual partners. Again, the biblical standard calls us to limit that to the person we are married to. In a commonly used marriage vow we promise to “forsake all others.” Forsake means to give up our rights to something. Men, we must consciously—and continuously—give up our perceived “right” to any sexual partner other than the one we are in covenant with before God.

It is also helpful to recognize the common ingredients of attraction. Though attraction comes with a lot of feels, it is ultimately just a chemical reaction in our brains to stimuli to which God designed us to respond. While this obviously plays a role in the attraction that leads to a covenant marriage, I believe the biblical record would more fundamentally identify the purpose of our God-given capacity for attraction to be to facilitate our obedience to the command to love our neighbors as ourselves (Leviticus 19:18).

Social psychologists have identified a number of potent, universal mechanisms of attraction. One of the strongest is beauty, or physical attractiveness. Another is proximity: simply being physically close to someone fosters a sense of attraction; repeated or prolonged proximity can intensify this. Another strong arbiter of attraction is similarity; we feel more connection with those we perceive as being like us in some way, such as belonging to the same group (any kind of grouping will do, from shared ethnic cultural heritage to liking the same sports team, and anything in between) and sharing similar values or beliefs.

Another insidious but potent attraction-enhancer is our affective state. When we are in a positive mood, we tend to like the people we encounter more. Similarly, when we are in a physiologically aroused state, we also rate people whom we otherwise find attractive as even more attractive. Elevated heart rate and/or elevated adrenaline, such as when working out or in a frightening situation, can increase our perceptions of attractiveness.

The bottom line is this: we are designed to connect with other people, and commonplace circumstances can directly and indirectly increase feelings of intimacy and attraction. Do not be surprised when such feelings occur, and absolutely do not be so arrogant as to believe something cosmic or mystical is drawing you into a sexual relationship. Stay grounded in the God-given “bin” for sexuality—your marriage—and consciously put any other feelings of attraction or intimacy at the foot of the cross, to be used solely in keeping with kingdom-building purposes (Matthew 6:33).

A Warning for Leaders

The vulnerability that is endemic to psychotherapeutic and pastoral care relationships is fairly plain to see. To this end, all credible training programs for these professions explicitly teach would-be practitioners to monitor and manage these dynamics. But the vulnerability in the leader-follower relationship is not so obvious, and we seldom teach leaders to guard against abusing it.

The article posted above, in which a military commander was charged with sexual abuse after what he asserts was a consensual sexual relationship, is a classic example. A leader will often develop a close relationship with a follower. Followers will often admire and have feelings of attraction for their leader. In some cases these feelings may be bundled with a sense of fear, which can lead a follower to submit to an unwanted sexual relationship due to even an implicit fear of reprisal; but that fear also can lead to actual attraction due to the role that emotional and physiological arousal can have in intensifying feelings of attraction. No matter how or why the attraction emerges, it is the leader’s responsibility to keep sex out of the relationship.

The potential for abuse is particularly high in leader-follower relationships in very hierarchical organizations. Perhaps no organization—especially not in western society—is more hierarchical than the military. Service members are operantly conditioned to defer to those in authority over them. True consent requires a high degree of equality in a relationship. For a leader in a hierarchical organization to entertain thoughts that a sexual relationship could be built consensually is patently absurd.

The most egregious example of the abuse of a hierarchical relationship comes not from the pages of the newspaper, but of the Bible. David, as king of Israel, raped one of his subjects. We usually talk about the relationship as “adulterous.” But the reality is that the relationship was inherently coercive, and coerced sex is, by definition, rape. Though there is always a power differential between a ruler and their subjects, this differential was extreme in David’s time and culture. The king of Israel was granted absolute authority over his subjects (1 Samuel 8:10-18) and to disobey an order from the king could result in immediate and legally justified execution (2 Samuel 1:14-16, 2 Samuel 4:12). It is in this context that Bathsheba was summoned to appear before the sovereign king of Israel. The Bible makes no record of a conversation of any kind, much less whether any consent were sought or given. Even if David asked her for permission to have sex with her, he held all of the advantage: he was the king, she was the subject; she was alone, he was accompanied by his entire cohort of guards, servants, aides, and attendants; she was in his palace, not in her own home. There is nothing about this scenario which places Bathsheba anywhere close to equal footing with David from which she could reasonably have been expected to negotiate whether or not to engage in a relationship that they both knew was in violation of God’s law (and presumably also of the civil law of the land). David’s authority was inherently coercive, so his sex with Bathsheba was abusive.

I have heard it proposed that perhaps Bathsheba contrived the entire affair, and that her bathing on her roof was an elaborate honeytrap to ensnare the king into a relationship while she was ovulating, with a plan to get pregnant and improve her station by bearing the king’s child. I don’t know enough about ancient Jewish household arrangements to know whether bathing outdoor on rooftops was a common or an absurd occurrence. I find this reading preposterous, but let’s play what if: suppose the whole saga did turn out to have been an elaborate manipulation by Bathsheba. What of David? Is this the kind of leader one would like to follow? A leader who allows a moment of lust to germinate into using his organization’s resources to arrange an illicit affair? Who then goes so far as to alter his organization’s mission and intentionally endanger his personnel to cover it up? For whom even ordering a murder is not a bridge too far?

The military implicitly recognizes that even purportedly consensual sexual relations between junior personnel and leaders in the chain of command can be detrimental to mission effectiveness, and therefore such relationships are punishable. In fact, an inappropriate relationship does not even have to be proven to be explicitly sexual to be considered a violation of Article 134 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Leaders are charged with maintaining professional boundaries with those they lead, and it is the more senior member who bears the bulk of the responsibility for violations of this standard.

In light of the statutory prohibitions against sexual and other inappropriate relationships, the intensely hierarchical nature of military organizations, and the fact that service members are explicitly conditioned to respect and defer to superior rank, it is my view that any sexual encounter between a military leader and a subordinate should always be regarded as coerced, even when there is explicit evidence of formal consent. Military leaders wield significant influence in the form of severe formal and informal power over those they lead (especially those leaders with command authority). Service members deserve leaders who are committed to good stewardship of that power, and to be able to trust beyond any doubt that their leaders will not use their significant influence to manipulate or exploit their followers for personal gain, especially with regard to sex.

Practical Application

Psychotherapists, ministers, and leaders (especially in hierarchical organizations such as the military) are in positions of significant trust and influence. There are certainly other roles and relationships which lend themselves to abuse, and these recommendations may be helpful in those settings. But for anyone who is a psychotherapist, minister, or leader, and for anyone who is training or mentoring men for those roles, the following are absolutely critical:
  • Recognize that by virtue of your role alone, before they meet or know anything else about you, those under your care will approach you with a degree of vulnerability and trust
  • Recognize that due to the nature of the relationship, those under your care will likely experience feelings of admiration, closeness, and liking; always assume that these are due to your role and the service you provide and behave accordingly
  • Acknowledge that these relationships also can engender stronger feelings of affection, intimacy, and attraction; recognize that these feelings can be misinterpreted (by you and/or those under your care) as sexual attraction
  • ALWAYS assume that any sexual attraction you feel for those under your care (or that you perceive from them) is out of place and contrary to the real purpose of the relationship
  • Commit yourself now and continuously to the conviction that those under your care will never, under any circumstances, be appropriate outlets for your sexual desires; even when the other party explicitly pursues a sexual or romantic relationship with you, your duty is to protect the sanctity of that relationship, both for that person and for the sake of all the others who depend on you
As a follower of Christ, commit yourself to crucifying every sinful desire, but expunge with extreme violence any sexual desire or other passion that would abuse the trust of vulnerability that those under your care have given you; they deserve nothing less.