About Our Epidemic of Sexual Aggression

The current revelations of an epidemic of sexually aggressive behaviors (SAB) against women, particularly by men in the media over many decades, has led to calls to address this highly prevalent “disease” in our culture.

Peggy Noonan, however, has boldly identified its spiritual origins in the Wall Street Journal

An aging Catholic priest suggested to a friend that all this was inevitable. “Contraception degenerates men,” he said, as does abortion. Once you separate sex from its seriousness, once you separate it from its life-changing, life-giving potential, men will come to see it as just another want, a desire like any other. Once they think that, then they’ll see sexual violations as less serious, less charged, less full of weight. They’ll be more able to rationalize. It’s only petty theft, a pack of chewing gum on the counter, and I took it. 

The crisis provides an opportunity to acknowledge the full extent of SAB and, especially, its enablement by the culture, families, and schools because of the failure to take seriously the dangers and harm of using persons as sexual objects.

This crisis is not limited to adult males. The troubling reality is that this epidemic is prevalent in adult females, as well as in singles and in adolescents of both sexes.

A recent clinical experience with an adolescent male demonstrates this reality. When he refused the request of a female high school classmate to have sex, she responded with the hostile, insulting comment that he must be homosexual. This was followed that night by a telephone call from her irate mother to his mother, claiming that he was harming her daughter’s self-esteem and her right to have good sexual relationships.

Another example: a college freshman told her mother that the only reason she refused to date anyone in the Catholic high school she attended was because the males expected sex on the first and all following dates.

Many Catholic parents and educators do not recognize or are in complete denial about the extent of SAB in young people, its support by the contraceptive mentality, and its enablement, particularly by females, who crave acceptance and affirmation.

Over the past forty years as a busy psychiatrist, on many days I have felt like an army medic on a battlefield littered with severely wounded adults, teens, and children who have been used as sexual objects by other adults or by their peers. Their symptoms are similar to those with posttraumatic stress disorders.

A number of psychological conflicts are present among those who engage in SAB – the leading problem being severe selfishness/narcissism. This personality disorder is widespread in our time and results in the belief that one has the right to use others as sexual objects.

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A leading academic psychologist on narcissism, Dr. Jean Twenge has examined this serious personality disorder in youth and has rightly entitled her book The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement because what we are seeing is definitely of epidemic proportions.

Many young people have absorbed this model through exposure to the same personality weakness in one or both parents – or were never taught by parents how to grow in virtues of generosity and self-control to overcome it.

Other important psychological origins of SAB include severe lack of confidence (most often, from rejection experiences in the father relationship and to a lesser degree with mothers); dominating and controlling compulsions; intense loneliness; strong anger that is misdirected sexually; abusive treatment by a spouse, parent, or peers; mistrust of one’s spouse and severe stress.

These factors regularly lead to compulsive pornography use and later SAB.

Such psychological conflicts can be addressed by a commitment to grow in forming and maintaining a healthy personality. This requires a decision to engage in the hard work of pursuing virtues such as respect for control issues, self-denial for selfishness, forgiveness for anger, trust for emotionally distant behaviors, hope and cheerful self-giving for loneliness, and faith for severe stress and anxiety.

The leading cultural factor in this epidemic is the media – particularly television shows and movies whose goals are celebrating sexual “freedom.” Hostility toward Judeo-Christian morality among politicians, educators, celebrities, and public figures is also a contributing factor to SAB.

St. John Paul II’s writing can be an important place to begin in countering SAB in the culture, especially his Letter to Women, which provides strong guidelines for appreciating how women should be valued and treated.

He also offers a crystal clear understanding God’s plan for sexuality in Familiaris Consortio (The Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World). He wrote there:

. . . husbands and wives should first of all recognize clearly the teaching of Humanae Vitae as indicating the norm for the exercise of their sexuality and they should endeavor to establish the conditions necessary for observing that norm. [34]

Less well-known, but also quite important is The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality, which was released by the Pontifical Council on the Family during the pontificate of St. John Paul II, and can point us towards the cultural purification process needed to reduce the epidemic of sexually aggressive behaviors.

This current sexual-abuse crisis presents an important moment for the Church to communicate more fully – and without fear – the Lord’s liberating truth about human sexuality by placing it, finally, on a lampstand where it can shed some light in a darkened age. It is time to bring to an end the decades of silence about this much-needed truth, beginning with responsible and conscientious parents who, further, can count on support and backup from Catholic educators, priests, and bishops.

**Image: Judith Beheading Holofernes by Caravaggio, 1599 [Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Rome]

Rick Fitzgibbons, M.D.

Rick Fitzgibbons, M.D.

Rick Fitzgibbons, M.D. is a psychiatrist in Conshohocken, PA who has treated youth and adults with gender dysphoria, and written on the topic. He is the co-author of Forgiveness Therapy: An Empirical Guide for Resolving Anger and Restoring Hope .

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