Patrick J. Carnes, Ph.D., CAS
Rage and anger have long been recognized as a component in sexual violence.
Much has been written about the profiles of those who impose their sexual
desires on others. Even more has been written about the cultural dynamics
between men and women of which such violence is but the tip of the iceberg.
As women have gained more political and economic power we also have an
emerging clarity about the abuse of women, children and men.
That clarity has resulted in a new accountability that extends into the most
powerful circles of our culture. CEOs of business, church leaders, military
officers, and even the nation’s most powerful political leaders have been held
accountable for abusing the less powerful. We are in the midst of an incredible
paradigm shift about the use of power and our responsibility to others. Many
say that protection of the vulnerable and sexual accountability may result in
the most significant change in the history of our species. I believe that it is true.
Yet, I also believe there is anger that has been sexualized that is not connected
to our larger social drama or at best, tangential to it. There are also forms of
victimization based on anger that have never been considered in the larger
Anger and rage have many faces in human sexual behavior that have
been obscured by their erotic content. We have tried to make sense out of
sexual behavior without its affective component. Advances in our,
understanding of trauma, addiction, neurochemistry
and courtship place a whole new perspective on the role of anger in sex.
New sexual freedoms, especially in cyberspace, provide painful clarity about
how destructive eroticized rage can be. Anger and sex can be fused in such a
way that it is self perpetuating, self
destructive, and once ignited, independent
of culture and even family. Clinicians who do not look for the role of eroticized
rage will miss the function or payoff of their patient’s behavior. The purpose of
this article is to provide clinicians with a basic discussion of the range of
sexual behaviors whose driving force is anger and what to watch for.
Consider the following:
Many websites dedicated to “voyeurism” frequently post nude pictures of
spouses, ex girlfriends, and ex
spouses submitted by men who report that
these women do not know about the posting. To post a nude picture for others
sexual gratification without that person’s knowledge or permission is angry and
vengeful. The reciprocal also occurs. Angry ex’s post nude pictures of
Eroticized Rage themselves to retaliate for being rejected. On the site, however, the comments
are about sex and not about the anger.
An airline pilot has a problem with compulsive affairs in an industry in which
this problem is all too common. He comes, however, from a very
devout and restrictive religious tradition and is tormented with shame and guilt. He is a
father of three and a deacon in his church. But he also has had sex with over
five hundred women in about fifteen years. In therapy he realizes that he has
anger for the church and anger for his wife.
The breakthrough came when he had a fight with his wife and immediately felt
an extreme desire to be sexual outside the marriage. His therapist helped him
to see that his inability to respond adequately to his wife triggered the sexual
acting out. He could get revenge without her knowing it and restore equality for
himself internally. The pilot learned how dysfunctional his inability to get angry
with his wife was, how his feelings about the church and its sexual teachings
supercharged his acting out, and how his compulsive behavior was fueled in
part by his sexualized rage.
A college educated woman worked as a stripper. She had a history of extensive
sexual and physical abuse by men in her family. She reported to her the
rapist the sexual gratification she would feel when men took out their wallets for
money to put on the stage or in her garter. In her view she had humiliated
them and saw them as despicable. She felt superior, powerful, and sexual.
Her therapist pointed out how this recycled the abuse experiences in her
family. She became powerful and rageful when sexual. This dynamic was not
restricted to her dancing. She had a history of being sexual with teachers, a
college professor, and her doctor. Sex was the great equalizer with the many
men with whom she had been sexual. Unfortunately it also left her with
suicidality, emptiness, sexual addiction, and a pernicious drug habit.
An accountant who had always lived by the rules discovered his wife had had a
series of affairs with black men. He felt very betrayed and angry but also
obsessed and aroused by what she had done. He reported that the hottest sex
they had ever had was when he was gathering details of her exploits. He then
discovered cybersex and went to the sites,
which featured black men with white women.
He went downhill fast. He was averaging thirty hours a week doing
cybersex and neglecting his job. He started to collect pornography of black and
white couples and became a regular customer for prostitutes. His asking his
wife for details became badgering and harassing.
When he was asked by his therapist if he had stalked his wife he said no, he
would never do that. The therapist rephrased the question and asked if he had
followed his wife. Absolutely, he responded. He actually had her under
surveillance all the time. The therapist helped the patient understand the role
of unresolved anger in his now sexually compulsive pattern. In therapy the wife
also admitted that even her selection of black men was about her anger.
The wife of a high profile figure went to a therapist because of her extreme
unhappiness and depression. She had been sexually acting out in many ways
for over a decade. She reported she even had oral sex with male strippers in
public. Her husband did not know this nor about her other activities. But the
fact he could learn of it was erotic to her. Her therapist observed that it may
have been erotic but it was also angry. Such a public display was designed to
humiliate and embarrass her successful partner. It was as if she was toying
with his humiliation while not quite doing it. And then she could obsess about
it. Her therapist explained that the “perverse” part of perversion is often
vengeful or defiant anger.
In each of these cases anger and eroticism have become intertwined or fused.
The mechanisms for that are easy to understand. We have to start with
understanding the arousal template.
The Arousal Template
Each of us has an arousal template. As we grow up we incorporate our life
experience and oursexual experience with what we are told or learn about sex
into a sexual belief system or map. What we learn about relationships and
family is also part of that. This template builds on preferences already
determined by our genetic code. Whether we like tall or short, blonds or
redheads it is determined by this mix of physiology and learning. It is the guide
we use to what is erotic.
John Money, the famous John Hopkins researcher, called this a “love map.” It
is actually more than just a map however since it determines decisions in its
own right and becomes a template for action. Much of that “decision tree”
Almost anything can become part of the arousal template. A rural child growing
up where there was no running water might have snuck up behind the
outhouse to peer in and watch female family members urinate. Curiosity and
arousal then become connected with urination. As an adult, urination becomes
a cue for arousal. Pornography of women urinating or spy cams in rest rooms
or prostitutes willing to give “golden showers”all become part of that original
scenario or story.
Similarly some men become fascinated as adolescents with girls who smoke. As
adults they seek restaurants or parks near high schools where they can watch
girls smoke, or cruise in their car areas where girls smoke. Or, if they really
want to take a short cut, they can seek out the many websites dedicated to
girls smoking. These are not necessarily nude pictures. It is the smoking itself
combined with the age of the women (young) that has become eroticized.
Similarly many cybersex addicts report that even picking up a keyboard or
listening to the sounds of a modem connecting becomes sexual.
As objects, situations, or scenarios become eroticized so do feelings. In many
basic psychology courses in college, students learn of experiments that showed
people were more attractive when the subject perceived fear or risk either to
themselves or that person. Fear and risk is a well documented neurochemical
escalator of the sexual experience. So is pain.
Many trauma victims of violent sexual abuse as children report that as adults
they are unable to be orgasmic unless a man is hurting them. I have had many
trauma clients tell me that they could not even masturbate unless they put
astringent or abrasive material in their vagina. They could not even stimulate
themselves without the pain.
Consider the very successful scientist who told of a violent childhood. He can
remember his father battering his mother so badly he could hear her body hit
the wall in the next room. He would masturbate to comfort himself in his
anxiety. He also had a problem wetting the bed and defecating in his nightclothes until he was six.
As an adult, he found fear erotic any kind of fear. He would seek high risk
sex compulsively. And his own feces and urine was highly arousing. To use the
clinical term “copraphilia” hardly captures the full picture of what happened to
this man. Behind what many would call perverse is a traumatized child.
In the same fashion anger becomes eroticized. First, anger occurs in situations
of high risk and fear. Anger adds intensity to the sexual experience and
becomes a neurochemical escalator as fear does. Secondly, anger is often core
to the scenarios, stories, and beliefs embedded in the arousal template.
Therefore, current sexual behavior can draw enormous energy from past
wounds and experience. Finally, anger becomes the sexual stimulus for some
people. In order to make sense of how anger stimulates, we have to break the
situations down into component types or profiles.
Power and the Restoration of Self
In this profile sex is used to restore power in some way. In the case above
where the husband could not deal with conflict with his spouse, he restored his
sense of self by acting out in a way in which she had no control. It is as though
he keeps a secret account and he returns to parity when he adds the secret
account to the public account. His self talk is about deserving the sex because
he is so misunderstood, or she deserves what he does because her behavior is
so bad. Except she never finds out.
The possibility that she might find out makes the behavior’s value almost as
good as if he had done it front of her. We are also talking about an intimacy
disorder. The inability to be intimate is part of the problem. The above example
resulted in the sexually compulsive behavior of the sex addict. Addiction is
often the solution to an intimacy deficit.
Achieving parity in this way is one of the most common profiles of eroticized
Coincidentally, it is also one of the most common causes for affairs. In a
sense it parallels what object relations theorists have pointed to when aspects
of relationships or sex become objectified so that people can “complete”
themselves. The “object” becomes the piece that was missing. The result is to
end up equal to the other or more likely, superior.
Consider the story of Tammy. Her father was clearly a sex addict and
frequently did sexually inappropriate things in public, which embarrassed
Tammy as she grew up. He also did highly inappropriate things at home such
as walking around in the nude. He had many affairs and sexually abused
Tammy’s three sisters. Therein started the problem.
Tammy was like many siblings of abused children, asking herself why
he had not approached her. He did like to look at her body and often commented
about her sexual development. Tammy would deliberately take showers in her
father’s bathroom so he would have the opportunity to observe her even
though she had a bathroom for her own use.
Tammy grew into a statuesque, beautiful woman. When she was seventeen she
was caught shoplifting clothes. The shopkeeper pulled her into a back room
and told her she could keep the clothes if she would show him her breasts. She
did and he pleasured himself. She left with the clothes and a very unique
feeling. She felt he had betrayed his vulnerability. Sex had reversed the
situation. She was no longer the desperate teenager about to be turned into the
police by an authority. In her eyes, that power figure had become pathetic and
disgusting. Moreover, exhibiting her body was very sexually arousing and
satisfying to her. And she had the clothes.
This scenario was repeated over and over again in various forms. As a high
powered advertising executive she kept accounts where on several occasions
she was asked to have sex by a client. She would have relationships with men
who were often older, men who were powerful and unattractive, but she would
feel in control because of their sexual desperation. For a while she was engaged
to a man who was much older and weighed three hundred pounds. She
enjoyed sex with him. The best sex was after they broke up and he would leave
her money. Watching a man take money out of his wallet was very erotic for
her. She knew she had won at that point.
Tammy would drive down the freeway with her dress hiked up to expose her
genitals and her blouse open to expose her breasts. She would pull up next to
trucks and feel great pleasure when truckers would pull their air horn cords in
approval. When Tammy got into recovery for alcoholism, she was extremely
sexually active with men she met in AA meetings. The list goes on. Suffice to
say she was out of control and with time become suicidal.
In treatment, Tammy admitted that she had several standing arrangements
with the owners of prestigious clothing stores on fashionable Rodeo drive in
Hollywood. She could pick out the clothes she wanted if she would strip for
these merchants. They would pleasure themselves and she would walk away
feeling superior. This was a repetition of what had happened when she was a
teenager. Her therapist helped Tammy to understand that it also replicated her
taking showers in her father’s bathroom to get him to notice her.
Tammy admitted that the clothing store where she loved to do this was around
the corner from her father’s upscale apartment. Something about his proximity
made her sexually acting out more compelling. It was then that she confessed
to actually having sex with a man in her father’s bed on the night of one of his
Clinician’s will note that Tammy is classic. Her behavior replicates the way she
was abused as a child. Bessel van der Kolk and others have described this as
“repetition compulsion” or “addiction to the trauma.” This sexually compulsive
behavior provides a “rush” based on an arousal template she evolved in trying
to work through her own relationship with her father. Note further, however,
the completion of self and the cycle of her affect.
Tammy was desperate for her father’s approval however she could get it. She
was angry about his treatment of her and despised how he behaved. Getting
his attention and feeling she was better than him by exposing him for what he
was, created the internal dynamic and payoff. When Tammy finally understood
all this she was able to arrest her compulsive cycles. She also realized that
while on the surface she looked like a victim used by men, there was a deeper
part that now was operative, wherein she was the predator. This part was fed
by her anger and hatred of men.
Sexualized anger can be used in an attempt to restore a sense of self. Usually
this involves some form of abuse and power. In studies of women and sex
addiction this power dynamic and the propping up of the self is frequently
noticed. Sex offender literature notes parallels for offenders who attempt to
compensate for self, replicate childhood abuse, and have rage for women that
comes out sexually. Throughout this discussion I am trying to set aside the
larger issues of oppression of women and children. I think they are the critical
issues of our time. Yet I wish to show the mechanisms separate from these
critical cultural issues. The point is that sexualized anger becomes a vehicle for
our patients to feel better about themselves by creating a new parity using sex.
Humiliation, Vengeance, and Retaliation
The reader will notice that the examples used so far involve some humiliation
or revenge. The attempt to restore the self driven by sexualized rage may
extend to diminishing someone.
This may mean diminishing the sexual partner, as with the merchants to whom Tammy felt superior or the stripper
feeling disgust for the men who tipped her. Remember that in both of these cases they felt superior and intensely sexual.
It may result in diminishing the marital partner as with the woman performing
public oral sex. Or, in Tammy’s case, it may be in humiliating the father or
getting to him somehow, as in despoiling his bed on his wedding night. Posting
a nude picture of your ex wife for all to see without her permission has a
sexual component and a vengeance component. Usually when sexualized rage
becomes vengeance the issues are deep and profound. Consider this next
When Louise was sixteen she became pregnant and gave up her son for adoption. Unknown to her, her son Sam was raised in a physically abusive home. He became a drug addict and went through several cycles of rehab.
When he was thirty three years old he conducted a search for his birth mother.
Louise was thrilled to have contact with her son. She was in a second marriage
of sixteen years and had raised two children. She had settled into a middle
class, orderly life and had a somewhat matronly appearance. She still had
many unresolved feelings about giving up her son for adoption.
Louise went to visit her son while he was in an extended care facility. In her
hotel room she massaged his shoulders which he said hurt. He and she shared
a drug Sam said was used by body builders to stimulate growth of muscle
tissue. The massage ended up in mother and son having sex. When Sam left
the extended care facility he asked Louise if he could come and live with Louise
and her husband while he found a job and got on his feet. He came and in a
month’s time turned the house into chaos. Part of the chaos was that Louise
and Sam continued to have sex. All of which came to a stop when Louise’s
husband found them in bed. Sam was evicted. Louise was suicidal and abusing
amphetamine. Boring middle class existence had evaporated.
In treatment Louise was stunned at how she had violated her own value system
and hurt her husband, whom she dearly loved. Worse was describing how sex
was with her son. She provided details: she had to take off all her clothes and
he remained mostly dressed, and it was more angry than passionate. Her
therapist and group helped her see that sex here was intended to degrade and
Sam’s anger at being abandoned was compounded by his physical abuse in the
home in which he was raised. Sex became a vehicle for his rage. Louise said
she actually knew that at the time, which added to her wonderment at having
continued to have sex with him. Her therapist then introduced the concept of
traumatic bonding and how Sam’s presence induced fear and drew power from
the guilt and sadness of an old wound. This opened the window for Louise to
begin to see what she was responsible for and what she was not.
What happened for Sam and Louise actually happens for many people. Anger
and pain at old betrayals and abuse can be carried sexually. In Sam’s case, he
blamed his mother for what happened to him, when Louise was actually taking
a responsible position to give him a better life. Sam’s perception was different
and was acted out sexually. He wanted to humiliate his mother. Having sex
with your mother brings up another dimension of sexualized rage: perversion.
Perversion Clinicians often think of perversion and the paraphilias as unique, rare, and
weird forms of sexual expression. In that sense the clinicians are much like the
general public. What helps to understand perversion is to put the perverse
back into it. One of the great researchers on perversion was Robert Stoller who
tells the story of his initial investigation into the pornography industry.
Every pornography producer he interviewed said that if pornography were legal
and had wide spread approval, they would never have bothered to do it. In
other words, the kick in making sexually explicit movies was literally, taking
pleasure in the disapproval. Getting culture back for its control and
rigidity by putting sex in “its face.” This rebelliousness or defiance of convention is also
about anger. Individual sexual behavior is sometimes simply perverse. To perform oral sex
on male strippers publicly for the wife of a public official is perverse. To barter
sex for clothes around the corner from the residence of your controlling father
is perverse. To have sex with your mother is more than an act of defiance. To
have many affairs on your wife who lives with you in a restrictive, judgmental
religious community is to break the rules. This perversity also sends a message
about conventions, control, and relationships.
Notice, however, that perversity is often a private joke. The sexual acting out is
toying with the reality that the person you are angry with might find out. So in
that sense it is like the gambling obsession, “Will it happen this time?” And of
course all of this adds to the risk and intensity of the act. Perversion works
best if it is outrageous i.e. people end up outraged. The irony here is in the
efforts to conceal outrageous behavior. Perversion works because the behavior
is so “unusual” and the irony for clinicians is that is so common.
Anger can fuel sexual obsession. This occurs especially in cases of betrayal and
jealousy. In the situation described above where the man’s wife had affairs with
black men, he literally tortured himself with the preoccupation with her
behavior. This obsession was intensely sexual and overtly hostile. That it
evolved into stalking behavior is very common. In obsessive anger the rules get
suspended. The stalker is justified because they keep building the case against
the betraying person.
In sex addiction this stalking is justified for both addicts and coaddicts. The
coaddict becomes sexually obsessed as well and goes to the extremes of
breaking the spouse’s privacy e.g. hiring a private detective, going through
personal papers and diaries, reviewing bills and credit card statements, and
following the addict.
There is a website dedicated to helping people with this type of surveillance. A
woman who had discovered that her husband was using their computer for
cybersex brought the website to my attention. It started when she learned he
was having affairs via email and downloading pornography.
She was outraged.
She found a website designed for husbands who cheat on the web. She got lots
of ideas. So she used her computer at work to pose as another woman and
initiated a torrid chat room affair with her husband. She also installed a
surveillance system on their computer, which supplied a copy of everything he
did on the computer. So he was acting out and at times it was with her.
She was aware of all that he did. He had no idea this was going on. She learned
about the software on the website. With about three thousand visitors a week,
she joined participants to talk about “what their husbands have done now.”
Anger, perversity, getting even, finding revenge, and being obsessive
all the components of eroticized rage are there. The charade is complete in that she
continues to have sex with her husband as if nothing had changed.
Most clients are surprised to learn that there is an anger component to their
sexual behavior. There are several reasons they overlook the obvious. First,
they are aware of the sex but not the anger. Patients who are in compulsive
cycles or repetitive patterns are especially prone to this. Second, they have a
complex web of thought distortions and rationalizations that preclude any of
their own responsibility. Finally, they will need a therapist’s help to make
explicit the dynamics of the family or the legacy of abuse in the patient’s life.
Typically patients do not welcome these realizations at first. Over time they are
seen as break through events.
There are two interventions that are extremely helpful. First, I ask my patients
to make explicit their sexual arousal template. What experiences, scenarios,
objects, preferences, beliefs, and feelings go into arousal for the patient? Is
there an “ideal” fantasy, which can be made explicit? The therapist then assists
the client in examining arousal and where it comes from.
Another exercise that is extremely helpful in this process is the “trauma egg.” A
large elliptical circle is drawn on a piece of newsprint. The patient is instructed
to draw symbols or pictures of times when they felt hurt, misunderstood,
anxious or abandoned. They start at the bottom of the egg with their earliest
memories and fill the egg up to the current moment. It is one of the quickest
ways to get at deep seated patterns and saves much therapy time. (A complete
description of this process can be found in Dr. Carnes’ book The Betrayal Bond
that can be ordered from his website at www.sexhelp.com.)
Remember that anger does not have to be pleasurable to be erotic. We had a
patient who was sexually abused by an older brother starting at the age of
nine. As an adult she was sexually aversive or sexually “anorexic.” When she
would drink alcohol she was incredibly promiscuous but would derive no
The conquest was the goal. Anger and sex were combined but not with pleasure.
The following are issues that should be on a clinician’s checklist when dealing
with eroticized anger:
those addicted to compulsive sex frequently are unaware of the underlying feelings, especially anger. If the clinician sees a repetitive pattern, and the client is doing what they know is self destructive and they cannot stop,
sexual addiction assessment would be appropriate.
sexual compulsion may occur in the presence of other addictions. When this happens it may be a “package” as in the above example when sexual promiscuity occurred when drinking. Multiple addictions and the underlying feelings will need to be understood by the client as an interlockingset of circumstances.
anger is one of the inevitable critical reactions to having been betrayed. Therapists often have to help clients separate legitimate anger from eroticized rage, which is debilitating to them.
traumatic bonding occurs in situations where deep feelings intensify attachment. The result is that people will attach more deeply to people who are destructive to them. Think of the movie War of the Roses.
patients are actually quite startled to realize their surveillance
behavior is stalking. To use that word introduces a helpful dissonance into
their obsessional world. They do not like to see themselves as stalkers.
Courtship and Intimacy Disorders:
many patients have anger and frustration because they never learned basic relationship skills including how to initiate a relationship, resolve conflict, or make themselves vulnerable. Therapy is often remediating what the client missed.
In all of these clinical issues, therapists must keep in mind that the Internet is changing everything. For those who wish to be perverse and secretive it is an ideal arena. An entire issue of Sexual Addiction and Compulsion, the Journal of Treatment and Prevention was dedicated to the problem of cybersex. Here are some facts, which emerged in that issue:
About six percent of Internet users are having trouble with sex on the internet
A profile of very severe problems exists for one percent of users which virtually cripples their ability to function
Forty per cent of these extreme cases are women
Most pornography is downloaded from nine to five
One hundred thousand websites are dedicated to selling sex in some way
exist (not counting chat rooms, email or other forms of sexual contact on the
Two hundred sexual related websites are added every day
Sex on the internet constitutes the third largest economic sector on the web
(software and computers being first and second)
The greatest technological innovations on the web were developed by the sex
industry (video streaming, for example)
Throughout this article I have used examples involving sex on the web. For the
clinician it creates a new area of intervention. Since the computer is part of the
problem and the computer may be a necessary part of the client business life,
the therapist will have to contract with the client as to agreed upon computer use boundaries. These contracts will be similar to those used for patients with eating disorders or sex addiction.
Patients need sex, food and (in a technological age) a computer.
Patients agree to what they will not do, what they will avoid, and what they are working
towards. In other words, just as a patient would have a food plan, or a sex
plan, there would be a plan about computer use and sex. This will also require
some extended discussions with your client about what goes into healthy
sexuality on the net or off. Which brings us back to understanding when anger
Once the concept of eroticized rage is understood, therapists will see that it is
much more wide spread than previously thought. Family therapists will see the
couple caught in endless cycles of fighting followed by sex. People who work
with prison populations will note what prisoner’s wives already know: release
means angry sex. Addiction specialists will become aware that the disinhibiting
qualities of drugs and alcohol will release sexualized anger that does not occur
in a sober person. If therapists notice the traits of eroticized anger restoration
of personal parity, revenge, perversion, and obsession they can be of extraordinary help to their clients.
In the larger drama around the abuse of power and sexual parity, eroticized rage brings a clarifying perspective. We see that the angry use of sex can be done by either sex and that victimization is not gender dependent. The problem
is the abuse of power. What eroticized rage also clarifies is that independent of the power issues is the abuse of intimacy, which is also independent of gender.
Power and intimacy expose our most vulnerable parts and we have to take care. We have given the abuse of power much attention in recent years. I think that we have not attended to intimacy as well. Otherwise mental health would
be more of a priority in this culture. In some ways it falls to the professional counselor to help point the way
for our clients and for all of us.