By Gina Simmons, Ph.D.
Ben watched his wife from behind as she washed dishes. Feeling warm and sexual he swooped behind her and grabbed her around the waist. “Ahhhhh” she screamed whirling around with a pot in her soapy hands. “You scared me! You know I hate being grabbed from behind!” she shouted, throwing the pot in the sink and stomping off in a huff. Ben’s wife, Jan, had been sexually assaulted years before by a man who grabbed her from behind. What was meant as a loving act by her husband, became an assault flashback to Jan. The couple fought in my office. “We’ve been married for 15 years and you still don’t trust me,” Ben said. “We’ve been married for 15 years and you still don’t get that I HATE to be approached from behind!” Jan replied.
Sexual energy fuels the world. Sex sells cigarettes and sports cars, drives rock bands and television shows, ruins politicians and preachers, and, as Joni Mitchell sings, “sex kills.” Mix lust with alcohol and you get date rape, stranger rape, child abuse, bar fights, road rage and homicide. Sexual anger can stem from feelings of shame or humiliation. The everyday embarrassment of wanting someone who rejects you can trigger low levels of anger and resentment in most people. The shame and humiliation a person feels when a spouse cheats often leads to rage and violence. Some people were raised to feel ashamed of their sexual feelings. Sometimes this causes hostility toward those who arouse them. It works this way psychologically, “I’m not supposed to be attracted to you. You make me uncomfortable. You cause me anxiety. I hate you.” Psychologists call this reaction formation, an ego defense mechanism that allows us to avoid looking at parts of ourselves we don’t like.
Sometimes sexual frustration provokes hostile attacks. Both men and women express this anger in relationships. The hormone testosterone primes men to act aggressively when sexually aroused. When men are stripped of their status, testosterone levels play a role in anger arousal and behavioral aggression. Studies conducted by Brian Spitzberg, Ph.D. and others have shown that men and women are equally violent in intimate relationships. Men tend to do more physical damage than women, but the amount of rage and violence appears to be about the same.
Cultural factors can contribute to sexual anger. In the landmark Tarasoff case, U.C. Berkeley student, Tatiana Tarasoff, kissed another student, Prosenjit Poddar, from Bengal, India. Poddar had never kissed a girl before, so when Tatiana kissed him he believed they were in a serious relationship. Tatiana told him she wanted to date other men. This spun Prosenjit into a severe mental breakdown. He saw a psychiatrist and told the doctor he wanted to get a gun and kill Tatiana. The doctor released Mr. Poddar from therapy after a promise that he would stop stalking Tatiana. After Ms. Tarasoff returned from a trip to Brazil, Mr. Poddar stalked her and stabbed her to death. Tatiana’s parents sued the U.C. Regents claiming they had a duty to warn Tatiana that she was in danger. The supreme court ruled that mental health professionals have a duty to protect that supersedes the duty to preserve patient confidentiality. Both mental illness and clashing cultural norms played a role in this terrible act of violence.
Anger, fueled by sexual passion, can be cooled, contained, controlled and redirected. Sexual anger is the fuel for much creativity, innovation, athletic prowess and economic achievement. Here are a few proven ways to calm the angry beast:
- Avoid excessive alcohol consumption. No more than two regular sized drinks within any 24 hour period works best. If you’re an alcoholic don’t drink.
- Exercise regularly. Sexual anger directed toward aerobic exercise can make you physically fit and happier.
- Avoid pornography. Porn is associated with callous attitudes toward others that encourage hostile behavior and aggression.
- Create. Photography, art, music, writing, gardening and other creative outlets encourage personal growth and make the world a better place.
- Nurture relationships. If you have a partner, practice kindness, empathy, and generosity. Make love not war.
- Communicate non-violently. If you’re sexually frustrated, communicate with kindness.
We recommend a wonderful 46 page book by Marshall B. Rosenberg, called Getting Past the Pain Between Us. You can learn to put resentments behind you, repair your relationships, and increase your self esteem. Sexual anger can be a powerful force for good or evil. Choose wisely.