Saturday, September 17, 2011

Sexual Exploitation - Do You Know the Signs? (Part One, the Victims)

In my role as a sexual trauma therapist, I counsel men and women who are survivors of sexual abuse, molestation, assault, and exploitation. Their lives and their stories have taught me a lot about perpetrators.

For those who may wonder why I keep getting involved in trying to stop Marc Gafni's sexually exploitative "relationships" with students, this is part of the reason.

As much I have learned in the time I have worked with these men and women, I still do not fully understand the mechanisms in them that allows the perpetrator to select them as targets. But it seldom fails that if you put a male predator into a room with 100 women, he find the one or two women who he can prey upon. [Yes, I am using loaded language - it's appropriate to what is being discussed.]

I want to use some of the information I have found over the past few years to help others understand how and why Gafni behaves in this way, how and why he is able to target women, and how and why these women willingly entered in relationships with him.

This is part one, and here I focus on those who are victimized. In part two, I will look at the traits most common to predators. In both cases, I hope to offer a perspective informed by psychology and my belief that people are not inherently "bad" but, rather, act in ways we define as bad as a response to their wounding. This is not an attempt to deny responsibility (in predator or prey), but to offer explanations.

Part One: Beginning with the experience of the women

It's much easier for most of us to feel the suffering of the women in these situations (or men) than it is to find compassion for the predator/perpetrator. So let's begin with the easy piece - the experience of the women, including identifying when one is engaged in that type of dysfunction.

But we begin with a look at how widespread an issue this is and how it tends to play out in the broader sense in relationships involving power imbalances.

Here is the first big piece of the puzzle, courtesy of Joel Friedman and Marcia Mobilia Boumil, in Betrayal of trust: Sex and power in professional relationships.
It is about power and exploitation. It is about what happens when an unethical professional encounters a psychologically vulnerable patient, client, student, or other and decides to use her trust in him, primarily engendered by his power and position, to his own advantage—with little regard to the consequences for her. It is about the nature of these professionals who deceive themselves and those who rely on them, and the contexts which provide fertile ground for this deception to occur.
According to these authors, there are two basic ways that women (the book looks primarily at male predators, but also acknowledges that there are women doing this as well, although there is far less research on that variation) become "victims" of these predators (and I am not a fan of the word "victim," but it probably is the closest word to the actual situation for most of these women):
In the first, a victim is led to believe that this is an opportunity to share in an intimate relationship with a man whom, because of his power and position, she has come to respect, trust, and admire. Often he presents himself as a kind and caring professional, attentive to the needs of an unsuspecting female client, patient, or student and seeking to be helpful in whatever way his profession offers. At the same time, he is powerful and revered, a figure whose judgment one might otherwise never question. Often a victim becomes mesmerized by the thought that such an awesome person is interested, really interested, in her!

So what is wrong with that? In the great majority of cases, the intentions of the professional who approaches his clients, patients, students, and others in this manner are insincere. They are not based upon genuine interest in the individual; they are based upon the man's desire to use the relationship for his own sexual gratification: in short, to "exploit" her. And that's what's wrong. (p. 2)
The authors attribute awareness and intention here that I am not sure exists in some cases, but I will speak more on this in part two. And here is the other form this situation often takes:
In the second situation, the professional may or may not purport to have a genuine interest in his victim, but instead uses the professional relationship to coerce her, often subtly, to participate in a relationship with him. In these cases, the victim "consents" to the relationship, but her consent stems from fear that the professional services will be terminated if she does not acquiesce to his sexual desire. ....

In most cases the sexual relationship that results is short-lived; it lasts until the professional man gets what he wants from it or gets tired of it, and then it ends abruptly. The incidence of this form of professional misconduct is alarming, and the consequences to the victims are often tragic. (p. 2-3)
From the accounts of all of the women I have spoken with, Gafni tends to behave more in line with the first model - he seems to need the seduction - he seems to need the power that he gets with the seduction. Gafni even goes so far as to justify his behavior by saying that he is a teacher who has the development and discernment to hold a postconventional container in relationship with multiple women simultaneously. The evidence suggests otherwise.

Unrelatedly, Gafni's use of integral language in his teaching, which is a big part of his seduction, reminds me of something Robert Augustus Masters said on his Facebook page:
Employing integral terminology in one's communication is very different than communicating integrally.
That is exactly what it feels like each time I read or listen to Gafni - a lot of pretty, neat sounding words and a whole lot of nothing beneath - no real communication, only smoke and mirrors. But he is skillful in using those tricks to seduce women and men (he uses the same approaches to court the support of those with money and power).

But it never is so easy as it sounds. There is nothing illegal about Gafni's actions - unethical? yes; illegal? no. Still, the situation so often puts the student at such a disadvantage that most organizations have created an ethics code forbidding such relationships.
On one side of the equation are two adults who may desire a consensual sexual relationship with one another. The law views this as a fundamental right of privacy and is loath to interfere with people engaging in mutually agreeable conduct with one another (so long as it is neither illegal nor immoral). Indeed, the law strongly protects this constitutional provision that people have a right to freedom of association. Yet on the other side of the equation is the professions' recognition that their members, merely by virtue of their power and position, can exert undue influence over the individuals they serve. What appears to be a consensual relationship is so fraught with an inherent imbalance of power and opportunity for undue influence that it can cause patient, clients, and students seemingly voluntarily to consent to such relationships without knowing that they are actually being exploited. And when the relationship runs its course and the professional moves on to someone else, the effects on the exploited individual are often so devastating that the law and the professions themselves are finding it necessary to step in and take responsibility: in short, preventing unsuspecting individuals from becoming victims of this type of abuse. (p. 3-4)
Of all the professions implicated in these forms of abuse and exploitation, the mental health field has been the most proactive and has established the best boundaries for behavior by its practitioners. This is largely related to the fact that mental health professionals (of whatever form - psychologists, psychiatrists, counselors, social workers, and so on) are tasked with identifying and knowing the weaknesses and wounding of their clients, which makes clients easy prey for sexual predators.
The reason that sexual exploitation is so significant in mental health is well understood. The mental health professional is engaged to analyze, understand, and influence the patient's psychological and emotional state. The therapist's work requires that he act so as to elicit and sustain a deep sense of trust from his patient. If he is successful, this results in her willingness to expose to him psychological weaknesses and points of vulnerability.

This scenario sets up a clear and direct opportunity for the mental health professional, who is often dealing with emotionally needy patients, to use the information that he has gathered during the therapy to manipulate them through their vulnerabilities: if he believes that a victim is insecure, he can become the perfect father; if he believes that she has poor self-esteem, he can promote a better self-image. The feelings of intimacy and attraction, which have physical as well as emotional components, are encouraged to develop during the therapy. They are supposed to be used as part of the healing process. If, instead, they are used to establish a sexual relationship, whether or not the therapist has a malicious motive, the harm that can be caused is often devastating.(p. 4)
Some estimates place the abuse rate in the mental health field at about 10-12 % (p. 10).

The only other profession I can think of that involves the same trust and vulnerability as the mental health profession is the role of spiritual adviser, director, teacher, or guru - no other role outside of mental health requires trust and vulnerability to the same degree.

How it begins

There are always signs of impending dysfunction in these relationships, but too few women know the signs or are aware enough to act on them:
All too often victims of sexual exploitation report that they noticed early on in the professional relationship that something about the relationship did not seem right. Either the professional seemed distracted from the purpose of the relationship or he seemed to take an unusual interest in them without any real basis for doing so. Many victims ignore these early indications, either attributing their suspicions to their own hypersensitivity or perhaps even being flattered by the extra attention. But in many cases it is just these early indications, when recognized, that can prevent an abusive situation from developing.

The first important step in recognizing activity that may lead to sexual abuse is being aware of those intuitive feelings that indicate an impending boundary violation. These are the early warning signs or "red flags" that signal that a bad situation may be brewing. In fact, intuition or instinct is one of the most effective tools for sensing what is going on in the early stages of sexual exploitation. For people who are in turmoil, confused, or frightened, or those who are inexperienced, trusting one's own instincts is a difficult task. In some cases it is this very inability to rely on oneself that has brought about the need for professional assistance. Maybe there's a crisis: the individual is emotionally distraught, lacks knowledge, or perhaps is just not confident about her own capacity to understand what is going on. Perhaps the possibility of being exploited by a professional is just so foreign a notion that it never even enters her mind. Indeed, it is those very people who are least able to call upon or trust their own instincts who become vulnerable to the judgments, opinions, influence, and coercion of people who try or pretend to help. Finally, sometimes it is a student who is frightened, inexperienced, immature, or perhaps overly ambitious who comes under the influence of an exploitative teacher. On the surface, he appears to be concerned, caring, knowledgeable, and a reputable authority who can be trusted. In short, sexual exploitation can occur under the most unassuming circumstances and anyone can become a victim. (Friedman & Boumil, p. 48-49)
The student, the client, the devotee is always in the position of trusting the professional. But he is driven by other needs than simply teaching or helping. In the language of the Voice Dialogue model, it is a matter of subpersonalities interacting, generally below the level of awareness (although some predators are certainly aware of their actions).

Hal and Sidra Stone talk about relationships as the manifestation of inner parts filling each other's needs. Here is a basic explanation of the human bonding patterns in male-female relationships:
This is their diagram, sort of:

     Mother . . . . .[the woman]. . . . Daughter
     Son . . . . . . . [the man] . . . . . . Father

Here is their explanation:

In this diagram we see the basic male-female bonding pattern. The mother side of the woman is bonded to the son side of the man (the M-S axis), and the father side of the man is bonded to the daughter side of the woman (the F-D axis). This diagram illustrates the basic bonding pattern that exists in all male and female relationships before the development of any kind of awareness. It is a normal and natural process. It cannot be eliminated, nor would eliminating it be desirable; these bonding patterns contain much life and vitality. They often provide warmth and nurturing. The problem is that without awareness they are very likely to turn negative. In addition, the two people miss what is possible in the interaction of two aware egos.
Once we get involved (attraction is enough involvement), the basic patterns gets layered very quickly and very complexly. In the exploitive bonding pattern, the child of the male needs something he never received as a child, and the child in the female is also wounded in some way.

In the male, there is some form of protector part that tries to keep the wounded child safe and has found ways to do so that are effective but are not healthy for other people in his life. For the predator, it is seduction and romance/sex that makes the child feel loved and desired, which is what he craves.

In the woman, the child part needs to be seen and appreciated, needs to be seduced and seen as attractive. She may look for this need to be filled in ways that are not healthy. She may also have a part that has learned that seduction is a way to meet her needs.

When these two get together, from the outside it looks like mutual seduction and consent. But neither person is really fully aware of what the shadow parts of their personality are doing, nor are they aware of the dysfunction inherent in the relationship they are building.

This is in large part why it feels unconscionable to me that Gafni be allowed to continue in his current role, especially taking private students. He is acting from childish needs and presenting a supposed "integral" explanation - it's an individual example of the classic pre/trans fallacy that Ken Wilber has been teaching about for two decades or so.

More importantly, since Gafni is teaching about his own version of "sacred sexuality," the temptation for teacher and student to act out the teachings is considerable. We already know that Gafni will do this and that he feels justified in doing so because of his self-professed spiritual development.  Likewise, we also know that he lacks discernment in picking women who are capable of "holding the container." Generally, these women would have nothing to do with a (pre?)conventional teacher such as himself, unless they also have some form of wounding.

But the women he targets DO have some wounding or vulnerability that he can sense, and goes to great lengths to feel the situation out before making his move. He feels he is above such conventional ethics codes that might prohibit his behavior. Yet they were designed specifically for people like him.

Are we really willing to believe that this man who has been involved in sex scandals his whole life as a spiritual man (thirty years or more now) is capable of having healthy relationships of any kind? After three divorces and the rumored imminent end to a relationship with the mother of his youngest child? Are we really to believe that he is going to check in with Ken Wilber and whoever else is supposed to monitor him when he wants to bed a student? Not likely.

Betrayal bonds and trauma bonds

Patrick Carnes has written a lot about sex addiction and the women who get involved with and stay involved with these men (and again, the majority of offenders are men, although women seem to be working hard to catch up). The same material applies to men who exploit their positions of power in relationships.

In fact, most men who are exploitive also engage in other forms of dysfunctional sexuality - porn addiction is the most common comorbid behavior.

Carnes tends to refer to the relational bonding between a predator and prey as trauma bonds or as betrayal bonds (The Betrayal Bond: Breaking Free of Exploitive Relationships). These are some of the qualifiers for the trauma bond, or betrayal bond.
With denial and repression in place, all the trauma solutions are available in the service of the trauma bond. Reactivity, arousal, blocking, splitting, abstinence, shame and trauma repetition can be accomplished in the context of the relationship. 
  • Reactivity comes with constant chaos, involvement and betrayal. There is always something to induce the cycles of old to activate the victim, victimizer and rescuer scenarios. 
  • Arousal surges in the relationship with high risk, intensity and sometimes violent sex. Anger, fear and anxiety create a neurochemical cascade that makes sane relationships boring. 
  • Blocking occurs when there is the honeymoon or “I have pushed you too far” phase. Seductive and pleasing efforts to “make up for it” are calming and provide temporary relief. 
  • Splitting happens when the victim dissociates from the chaos or from obsessing about the partner. Internal dialogues with your partner would be an example. 
  • Abstinence manifests in many ways, including the obvious: staying in the relationship without needs being met, or worse, living in deprivation because the chaos prevents you from taking care of yourself, so martyrdom seems functional. 
  • Shame appears in the form of despair about yourself, in feeling defective because the victim has absorbed the shame of the perpetrator (carried shame), and in believing in your unworthiness. 
  • Repetition cycles the “working model” of how relationships should work over and over again. Each recycle repeats the victimization of the past. 
In short, you have an addictive relationship that results in compulsive involvement and compulsive relationship patterns. For Tom, being with Barbara put in place all the paths that people use addictively. (Carnes, 2010, Kindle Locations 2011-2029).
In an article simply titled Trauma Bonds, Carnes identifies the signs to look for in identifying the presence of a trauma bond:
Exploitive relationships create trauma bonds. These occur when a victim bonds with someone who is destructive to them. Similarly, adult survivors of abusive and dysfunctional families struggle with bonds that are rooted in their own trauma experiences. To be loyal to that which does not work - or worse, to a person who is toxic, exploitive, or destructive to the client, is a form of insanity.

A number of signs exist for the presence of a betrayal bond:

1. When everyone around the client is having negative reactions so strong the client is covering up, defending, or explaining a relationship.
2. When there is a constant pattern of non-performance and the client continues to expect them to follow through anyway.
3. When there are repetitive, destructive fights that are no win for anybody.
4. When others are horrified by something that has happened to the client and the client isn’t.
5. When the client obsesses about showing someone that they are wrong about the abuse, their relationship, or their treatment of the client.
6. When the client feels loyal to someone even though the client harbors secrets that are damaging to others.
7. When the client moves closer to someone who is destructive with the desire of converting them to a non-abuser.
8. When someone’s talents, charisma, or contributions causes the client to overlook destructive, exploitive, or degrading acts.
9. When the client cannot detach from someone even though the client does not trust, like or care for the person.
10. When the client misses a relationship even to the point of nostalgia and longing that was so awful it almost destroyed the client.
11. When extraordinary demands are placed on the client to measure up as a way to cover up exploitation of the client.
12. When the client keeps secret someone’s destructive behavior because of all of the good they have done or the importance of their position or career.
13. When the history of their relationship is about contracts or promises that have been broken, which the client are asked to overlook.

They all involve exploitation of trust or power or both. They all can result in a bond with a person who is dangerous and exploitive. Signs of betrayal bonding include misplaced loyalty, inability to detach, and self-destructive denial. Professional therapists can be so focused on their client’s woundedness, they will overlook the trauma bonds that may remain. 
There are also a variety of self-tests or inventories one can take to identify whether one is involved in an abusive and/or exploitive relationship. Here is one from Carnes, presented by Insideout Living, Inc.:
Traumatic Bonding Self Test 

By Patrick Carnes, Ph.D.

The following are a series of statements which describe traumatic bonding in which a person bonds on the basis of betrayal. The result is what we call a "betrayal bond". Check each "Yes" response as appropriate.

1) Do you obsess about people who have hurt you even through they are long gone?

2) Do you continue to seek contact with people whom you know will cause you further pain?

3) Do you go "overboard" to help people who have been destructive to you?

4) Do you continue to be a "team" member when obviously things are becoming destructive?

5) Do you continue attempts to get people to like you who are clearly using you?

6) Do you trust people again and again who are proven to be unreliable?

7) Are you unable to retreat from unhealthy relationships?

8) Do you try to be understood by those who clearly do not care?

9) Do you choose to stay in conflict with others when it would cost you nothing to walk away?

10) Do you persist in trying to convince people that there is a problem and they are not willing to listen?

11) Are you loyal to people who have betrayed you?

12) Do you attract untrustworthy people?

13) Have you kept damaging secrets about exploitation or abuse?

14) Do you continue contact with an abuser who acknowledges no responsibility?

15) Do you find yourself covering up, defending, or explaining a relationship?

16) When there is a constant pattern of non-performance in a relationship, do you continue to expect them to follow through anyway?

17) Do you have repetitive, destructive fights that are no win for anybody?

18) Do you find that others are horrified by something that has happened to you and you are not?

19) Do you obsess about showing someone that they are wrong about you, your relationship, or their treatment of you?

20) Do you feel stuck because you know what the other is doing is destructive, but you believe you cannot do anything about it?

21) Do you feel loyal to someone even though you harbor secrets that are damaging to others?

22) Do you move closer to someone you know is destructive to you even though you do not trust, like or care for the person?

23) Does someone's talents, charisma, or contributions cause you to overlook destructive, exploitive, or degrading acts?

24) Do you find you cannot detach from someone even though you do not trust, like or care for the person?

25) Do you find yourself missing a relationship, even to the point of nostalgia and longing, that was so awful it almost destroyed you?

26) Are extraordinary demands placed on you to measure up as a way to cover up exploitation?

27) Do you keep secret someone's destructive behavior because of all of the good they have done or the importance of their position or career?

28) Does your relationship have contacts or promises that have been broken which you are asked to overlook?

29) Are you attracted to "dangerous" people?

30) Do you stay in a relationship longer than you should?
If you can answer yes to several of these questions, you may want to reconsider the relationship you are in and begin to talk to someone who understands what may be happening to you.

Finally, a little more from Carnes on trauma bonds and disrupting trauma bonds:

1. trauma cycles are repeated
2. the victim believes in his or her uniqueness
3. the victim mistakes intensity for intimacy
4. the trauma endures over time
5. there are increasing amounts of fear
6. the fear-induced neurochemical reactions occur earlier in life and affect the organic development of the brain
7. the trauma is preceded by earlier victimization
8. the victim is surrounded by reactivity and extreme responses
9. the betrayal of power relationships is greater
10. the betrayal of trusted relationships is greater


1. healthy bonds are available
2. a group or community can debrief or re-role the victim
3. the victim can identify
   (a) cycles of abuse
   (b) roles of victim, victimizer, and rescuer
4. the victim learns
   (a) how to psychologically distance from intensity
   (b) boundary-setting strategies
5. metaphors (images) exist for the victim to use in the moment
6. the victim can reframe interactions of trauma
7. the victim understands the role of carried shame
8. the victim accepts trauma bond’s systematic nature (avoiding blame)

~ Adapted from Patrick J. Carnes
These bonds can be disrupted - and the best way to do so is to break the silence - seek support and counseling - or just simply walk away.

Most predators will shame you and blame you and make it all your fault - don't listen. That is how he tries to control the situation.

Sometimes, the predator will erupt into a narcissistic rage, fully convinced that it is his right to be sexual with whomever he desires, and direct that rage at you for violating his "trust." He will remain convinced that he has done nothing wrong and is being betrayed by the woman/women involved.

But this is his wounding - and it is from his wounding that these behaviors develop. More on that in the next installment.

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