Covert Cultural Sexual Abuse

What happens to children and teenagers when they hear people they idealize like Tim Hardaway say things like this? How can a gay or lesbian child not be psychologically harmed--if not traumatized--hearing important media figures and others in authority positions to them speak negatively about homosexuality.

I call this Covert Cultural Sexual Abuse (CCSA). Here is a sample of what I will be addressing in my upcoming Norton book for straight clinicians working with gays and lesbians:

In treating and helping gays and lesbian, we must understand how homophobic acts constitute covert cultural sexual abuse. I’ll argue that the claim that “being gay is nothing more than just a matter of sex” is covert cultural sexual abuse. It dehumanizes gays and lesbians to nothing more than sexual beings. And just as with sexual abuse survivors, the world can become overly sexualized for gay men and sexually repressed for lesbians. Over time, many of gay and lesbian children and teenagers grow to believe the homophobic assertion that gay equals sex, and thus become prime candidates for psychological problems.

Heterosexism is defined as the assumption that everyone is (or should be) heterosexual; the belief that homosexuality is subordinate and that heterosexuality is superior, or somehow more “mature.” In “Healing from Cultural Victimization: Recovery from Shame due to Heterosexism,” Joseph H. Niesen, Ph.D., details the painful effects of sexual/physical abuse—and heterosexism, which he defines as “a form of cultural victimization that oppresses gay/lesbian/bisexual persons.” He states that this stymies individual growth and development, just as [in] individuals who have been sexually/physically abused.”

Covert sexual abuse does not involve physical touch; it can involve flirtations and suggestive language, propositioning, household voyeurism/exhibitionism, sexualizing language and preoccupation with sexual development.

Like sexual harrassment on the job,gays and lesbians are the victims of indirect, covert seuxal abuse hearing things like:

  • The Catholic Pope saying homosexuality is evil
  • The President of the United States say that marriage for lesbians and gays is wrong and against family values
  • The US Military not allowing openly gay men and women to serve with heterosexual men stating that they worry gay men will be eroticzing them in the showers.

One definition of sexual abuse in general is when any person dominates and exploits another sexually—violating trust and the implicit promise of protection. Typically, someone who sees himself as “in control” uses his status to control, misuse, degrade, humiliate, or even hurt others—who, by inference, are always inferior.

Society's judging gay men and lesbians for our sex acts alone and even passing laws against same-sex attraction is covert cultural sexual abuse. A dominant perpetrator—uncle, stepfather, or half-bother who's familiar, trusted, and seemingly all-powerful—can easily lure a boy into a sexual relationship and force him to comply. Indeed, many studies confirm that in cases of rape, the basic motive is not sex, but power. The abuser's ideal target is a child who's still naive, lacking the “immune system” of emotional and intellectual experience that tells him when he's being violated—and when he should resist and say no!

Consider the gay boys and girls and adolescents lured by heterosexist society into a sexual compliance—forced to role-play at being heterosexual. This parallels the sexual abuse of children. In Now That I Am Out, What Do I Do? Brian McNaught writes that “most gay people have been enormously, if not consciously, traumatized by the social pressure they felt to identify and behave as [. . .] heterosexual, even though such pressure is not classified as sexual abuse by experts in the field. Imagine how today’s society would respond if heterosexual 13- to 19-year-olds were forced to date someone of the same sex. What would the reaction be if they were expected to hold hands, slow dance, hug, kiss and say, ‘I love you’ to someone to whom they were not—and could not—be sexually attracted? The public would be outraged! Adult supervisors would be sent to prison. Youthful “perpetrators” would be expelled from school. Years of therapy would be prescribed for the innocent victims of such abuse. Volumes would be written about the long-term effect of such abhorrent socialization (as today we lament the ill-conceived efforts to turn left-handed people into right-handed ones). Yet, that’s part of the everyday life of gay teenagers. And there’s no comparable public concern, much less outcry, about the traumatizing effects on their sexuality.”

Many of my gay male and lesbian clients express severe grief for what they were told, as children, about homosexuality at church or synagogue, in school, and in their families. Many report listening to ministers preach against homosexuality as an “abomination” and “evil.” Every day, gays and lesbians are daily bombarded by newspapers, TV, and religious zealots who believe homosexuality is an abomination. Imagine the trauma felt by gay boys or lesbian girls—lacking emotional and intellectual maturity, as all children do—when they see those they admire, in charge of their welfare, protesting against homosexuality; and realize that they're one of those very people these homophobic authority figures are talking about! This is covert sexual abuse, an assault aimed directly at one’s sexual orientation and sexuality.

Unfortunately, as a result of their covert cultural sexual abuse, lesbians and gays are especially vulnerable to psychological problems. Given this information, a therapist is better equipped to help lesbians and gays more effectively.

It also helps lesbians and gays learn that there’s nothing inherently wrong with them; the problem is what heterosexist society has inflicted on them. By recognizing this, they—like the survivors of sexual abuse— can shed the victimization and empower themselves.

For some comic relief after such a heavy concept go to watch this video clip of Star Trek's George Takei on Tim Hardaway

©2009 by Joe Kort

Related: Issues, Books

Psychotherapist Joe Kort, MA, MSW, has been in practice since 1985. He specializes in Gay Affirmative Psychotherapy as well as IMAGO Relationship Therapy, which is a specific program involving communication exercises designed for couples to enhance their relationship and for singles to learn relationship skills. He also specializes in sexual addiction, childhood sexual, physical and emotional abuse, depression and anxiety. He offers workshops for couples and singles. He runs a gay men's group therapy and a men's sexuality group therapy for straight, bi and gay men who are struggling with specific sexual issues. His therapy services are for gays and lesbians as well as heterosexuals. His articles and columns have appeared in The Detroit Free Press, Between the Lines Newspaper for Gays and Lesbians, The Detroit News, The Oakland Press, The Royal Oak Mirror, and other publications. Besides providing therapy for individuals and couples, he conducts a number of groups and workshops for gay men. Now an adjunct professor teaching Gay and Lesbian Studies at Wayne State University's School of Social Work, he is doing more writing and workshops on a national level. He is the author of 10 Smart Things Gay Men can do to Improve Their Lives and 10 Smart Things Gay Men Can Do to Find Real Love. or E-Mail

* Gaydar (gay'.dahr, n.): (1) The ability that lets gays and lesbians identify one other. (2) This column--where non-gay readers can improve their gaydar, learning more about gay men's psychology and social lives. Also, (3) a regular feature where gay readers can discover the many questions and hassles their straight counterparts--and themselves--must face!

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