Forbidden Sexual Liaisons

Promoting a sexual stereotype

Probably all through history (and before) men have exploited women sexually. When early humans travelled around in extended families, the biggest, strongest male set all the rules–the rules being, “I get what I want.” Judging from some of the current practices of other primates, the alpha male dominated the other males, for a while, at least– and probably by strength alone, dominated the females. As in other species, the females had some say in selecting sexual partners, but probably not very much. Not when there was a considerable size difference between the sexes. (In other animals—think spiders—the size differential runs the other way.)

All this is supposition. I was not around during that time. Fossils dating from that time do not speak to the sexual practices of these primitive people. Later on, though, when men and women formed together in larger groups—in tribes, and then in kingdoms– the social structure that grew up did have rules. There were so many people a single male could not monopolize all the women. Morality was born. Women were recognized as belonging to other men and were not, therefore, subject to arbitrary demands. The concept of rape grew up. Even during this more egalitarian age, some men—like Solomon and Genghis Khan—reached such preeminent status, that they took more than their share of the females. Solomon was said to have had seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines. Speaking practically, I would not distinguish the wives from the concubines. They were a great number of women.

Genghis Khan, as part of his marauding, slept with his choice of the conquered women. Very, very many women. He and his descendants were so prolific that a significant fraction of the people living today in that area of the world are their descendants–approximately sixteen million people. That’s according to DNA studies. The whole family had a fondness for virgins; and his grandson, Kubilai Khan, used up an additional thirty virgins every year.

Still, by that time, most men had only a few wives. And a lot had only one. As the result of having to solicit cooperation from a single mate, other, more familiar, rules appeared. Women were said to have certain rights, merely because they were human beings. They were still regarded as subservient—even unto the present era by some in the United States and elsewhere. Still, these rights were, and are, taken seriously. Perhaps they sum to a single principle: Men should not, by virtue of being stronger or by being in a position of authority, attempt to seduce women sexually. This is called “exploitation.”

We know these rules; but I think they fall into a hierarchy, which I will describe here. The heading should be “Thou shalt not…”

  1. Of course, everyone decries forcible rape. It is a heinous crime; and in some jurisdictions, is punished with the death penalty. Just as reprehensible is forcible incest. There are good biological reasons for forbidding sex between close relatives, and rape in this context is especially awful.
  2. Pedophilia is a close second. It is important to say why explicitly. A child is not old enough to understand the implications of entering into a sexual act. She—or he– can be physically and psychologically damaged. The pedophile is treating his victim as an object, rather than as a human being who is likely to feel regret or pain or guilt, or, later on, fearfulness towards other men. A child, having a child’s mind, cannot consent to sex.
  3. Statutory rape involves consensual sexual intercourse with a person who may be sexually mature, but who is so young that, once again, it is presumed that person cannot understand fully the meaning of the sexual act and, therefore, cannot consent to it. Under the law, that person is still a child. Since it is difficult to determine exactly how mature that young person may be, the age of consent is set arbitrarily—and differently from place to place. Other considerations enter into whether or not the man involved will be prosecuted—namely, his age. The older he is, the more likely it is that he will be punished. If the older person is a woman, she is much less likely to be prosecuted, unless she is a teacher and charged, therefore, especially with the well-being of her students.
  4. There are some professions which, by their very nature, deal with especially vulnerable men and women—people who are unsure of themselves and have come for help. Psychotherapists and priests can only practice their professions when there is an explicit promise not to engage in sex with those under their charge. It is simply impossible for patients to speak of certain matters if they think there is any possibility of a sexual relationship developing with their therapist. Such contact is against the law in many states. I know less of what goes on between priest and parishioner, but I think the same is true in that relationship.

Yet these things do happen from time to time. When they become public, there is an outcry.

Having practiced psychiatry for a long time, some of these cases have come to my attention. At one extreme was a woman who made a suicide attempt following an affair with her psychiatrist who promised to marry her and did not. I happened to know that man. He was inclined to lie to women and exploit them whether or not they were patients.

More commonly, I have spoken to women who have had affairs with previous psychiatrists and speak of it with some regret, but not much bitterness—although for a number of reasons, they may not have been entirely frank with me. Others are angry. Some women sue their psychiatrists for inappropriate sexual advances, but, by coincidence, none of those whom I have met.

I must mention, though, that there are a number of psychiatrists who have married their patients. Those marriages do not seem to be characteristically happy or not. They resemble other marriages—at least from the perspective of an outsider.

I know of priests who have fallen in love with those with whom they were in professional contact. They left the order and in one case, at least, married that person.

  1. Some men are, by virtue of their work, in a position of influence over women. There is a consensus that these men should refrain, for that reason, from entering into sexual relationships with them. These include college professors having affairs with their students, employers having affairs with their employees, bosses having affairs with assistants, and so on. The implication is that these senior men are in a position to affect the careers of the women who answer to them. Therefore, they can pressure the women to consent to a relationship that they would not otherwise agree to. In some institutions, such behavior is grounds for the dismissal of the man.

Although the admonition against sexual relationships in this context is well-recognized, it is widely ignored.

Occasionally, in this time of more women reaching positions of power in business and in other endeavors, it is the woman who is in a position to exploit sexually a male employee—but not often; and in that situation, the male employee is often thought to be complicit.

  1. Finally, there are a host of situations in which women for various reasons are considered vulnerable and, therefore, off-limits to men dealing with them. It is considered improper for divorce lawyers to sleep with their clients and doctors with their patients. I know of many instances in which these rules have been flouted; and in no instance were there professional repercussions for such behavior.

I have some concerns with this list of “Thou shalt not…”  First of all, I do not like setting up ethical rules which are widely ignored. It leads to hypocrisy and cynicism. If certain rules can be ignored, why is it necessary to follow other rules? I am speaking especially of those admonitions listed above under paragraph numbers five and six. In some of these situations, I have had trouble figuring out who is exploiting whom. Is the college student who seeks an A by sleeping with her teacher exploiting him, or is he exploiting her?

I saw a teacher one time who told me how very upset he was when a student he had slept with the previous night ignored him the next day on campus. These relationships can cut both ways.

Secondly, I think it must be recognized that people have sex—and fall in love, sometimes—with people they meet, including in these various circumstances. Men who are in a position of power are attractive to some women, and I do not think their exploiting that fact is necessarily worse than taking advantage of being physically attractive, or rich, or whatever.

But most important, I object to the stereotype of the innocent woman being deceived. I do not mean to defend men who deceive or manipulate women in any context! But the stereotype of the helpless woman is not much different than the various depictions, some of which I describe above, by which women have always been demeaned and dismissed. It treats women as less than men. Surely, a student can resist the solicitation of her teacher if she chooses to. Patients do not have to fall in with their doctors’ plans for a tryst.

An undesirable—and often unnoticed– result of these rules is to make the woman into a child! Women—adult women—are perfectly capable of saying “no.”  They know these rules as well as the man. Standing up to men of power is not easy, but women do it all the time. If they are not regarded as having responsibility—equal responsibility—for these relationships, they are necessarily regarded as someone who is inherently less competent than a man. This is not a matter of redistributing the blame. Perhaps there is no one to blame.

I am always sympathetic to anyone who feels deceived and disappointed. But I do not like to think of such a person—automatically—as a victim. To be a victim is to be helpless and incompetent. It is bad  for a woman to think of herself that way.(c) Fredric Neuman 2013