My first client of the day was in her mid-30s, beautifully dressed and highly educated. She had been married for ten years. With regularity, she explained— her face trembling, her body shaking— her husband forces her to shower with him, drenching her with what he describes as his "liquid gold," and soon after pulls her mouth open to drink his urine and eat his feces.
When I ask her why she stays, she tells me what I hear again and again: "He warns me he has the money and power, and the kids and I won't be able to make it without him."
One descriptive word for what my client endures is sadism, the derivation of pleasure as a result of inflicting pain and humiliation or watching it inflicted on others. Another is hell. Sadism, and its accompanying hell, is prevalent, in myriad forms, not only in the developing world but right here in our own. The recent revelations of sexual predations of Arnold Schwarzenegger and allegedly Dominique Strauss-Kahn make the headlines but are only the tip of the iceberg. Read on, please:
Fondled in an ambulance
My friend was in a horrid automobile accident, where she was removed from the demolished vehicle on a board, which she was tied to, and carried to an ambulance. Her husband was directed to the front seat of the ambulance, next to the driver. The three male attendants in the back of the ambulance told my friend that it would be necessary to cut her dress from her. She begged them not to, but couldn't move. They insisted— and, while doing so, she was fondled repeatedly.
"Stop it," she screamed as the ambulance sped, siren blasting.
Two of the men with her smiled and laughed, continuing the fondling, as they whispered to her: "Who will believe you!" The third man just looked away.
A client arranged for a massage in a reputable hotel setting. Though she would have preferred a female masseuse— and stated this request when she made her appointment— in the spa she was met by a male. Since he seemed very professional, she didn't object.
During her message, she drifted into a sound sleep, awakening to find the masseur stroking his genitals as he fondled her breasts. When my client rushed from the room to report this incident, she was told to prove what she was saying.
And this is my own example: I received a gift certificate for a massage in an upscale spa. When the young female masseuse entered my room, it was apparent that she was trying to hold back tears. When I asked what was upsetting her, she described her "rich, spoiled, nasty" previous client, who asked her following the massage who would be cleaning the room. She explained that each room was cleaned by the masseuse who used it. The door was closed for a long time, and when she finally could enter she saw that her client had masturbated, using the sheets he knew would be her responsibility to remove from the table.
College date rape
I work with college students with regularity. What follows is a common scenario:
A male student invites his date into his room or hers "to continue talking." Instead, she is raped. He denies the rape, calling the sex consensual. The story spreads across campus. While many on campus applaud the male student's prowess, the female student is further shamed and humiliated.
Though colleges counsel students that "No means no," it becomes a "He said, she said" scenario. In such cases, lawyers warn that a suit offers no guarantee of justice and instead may lead to further pain and humiliation.
Female students are referred to me when the ordeal,silence and isolation lead to depression, when she cannot concentrate on her work, is ashamed to leave her room, and can no longer think straight. She entertains thoughts of suicide; sometimes there is cutting.
"Could they be right?" these clients ask me again and again, their self-esteem having been shattered.
"No!" I assure them, "absolutely not!"
Lara Logan's ordeal
Recently the CBS reporter Lara Logan bravely defied a code of silence by describing her February ordeal in Cairo's Tahrir Square, when she believed she would die as hundreds of frenzied Egyptian men raped and violated her with hands and fists. I know of several less horrifying incidents in Middle Eastern countries where American tourists have experienced humiliation and taunting: A woman and her teenage daughters, all in dresses with long sleeves and hems and high necklines, ventured out of the tourist area and were cursed and spat upon by taxi drivers as they tried to return to their hotel.
A client traveling alone in her hotel room awoke to find a male employee viewing her through a flimsy curtain, masturbating. A friend in a crowded museum realized a man was thrusting against her, attempting to ejaculate, as his male companion watched and laughed.
Her female British guide told her, "This happens often, but I am trained to say it never does. I could lose my job for saying this. But now you know firsthand about the violations so many endure here, where men can do anything they want to women, and women have absolutely no one to hear them or help them."
Peace Corps attacks
Recently, it was reported that more than 1,000 Peace Corps volunteers reported sexual assaults over the past decade, including 221 rapes or attempted rapes. Such estimates, experts say, are conservative, because most such assaults go unreported. Peace Corps officials have often responded by blaming the women, saying in effect: "It's your word against his. He said you asked for sex by the way you looked and acted, and we believe him."
This reaction, some Peace Corps members say, is more traumatic than the violence itself. It's the same indignity perpetrated by those who say that women as attractive as Lara Logan entice male abuse and consequently shouldn't be given high-risk foreign assignments.
The exposed Peace Corps toleration of sexual abuse of women (the House Foreign Affairs Committee is finally convening a hearing to examine these crimes, which include death), as well as Logan's story, have offered much-needed visibility about the abuses women suffer in countries with a culture of limited education, sexual repression and domination of girls and women. Still, there remains enormous denial and ignorance about the extent to which such things happens here.
What to do?
Male attitudes can be changed, and instincts can be tempered, but only in families and societies determined to educate sons and daughters about respect. Sons who grow up in a home where parents respect each other and they feel no shame about their sexual awakening do not harm, ridicule and violate women. Healthy role models in every setting beyond family— social, academic and religious— are essential. Further, all societies aspiring to call themselves "civilized" must insist upon strong punishment against all forms of sexual abuse and violations.
Those who grow up in homes feeling safe and understood usually don't develop cruel impulses— or, if they do, they know how to restrain them. To stop denying that this problem exists and to face its horror openly is the essential first step. The recent "perfect storm of sexual horrors" is making this happen.
The reasons for sexual violations are complex, but one surely is: Violent, sadistic men behave the way they do because they can.♦
To read responses, click here and here.
To read a reply by Dan Rottenberg, click here.
To read a follow-up essay by SaraKay Smullens, click here.