Lately we have had prolific reports of women being murdered by their partners or exes, husbands battering and raping their wives, and inappropriate sexual conduct by people in authority.

What people may not realise is that these ugly realities have an underlying and predominant core motivation: abuse of power.

Certain personality types feel particularly compelled to control other people, and perpetrators of abuse are not always male. We are living in a world where narcissistic power is rampant and with that we see the rise of overbearing egos – embodying monstrous senses of entitlement usually fuelled by their own wounds which need attending to.

Violence against women comprises a wide range of acts – from verbal or sexual harassment, emotional or mental abuse, to physical or sexual abuse. At the far end of the spectrum is femicide.

A man’s feeling of entitlement over a woman can only be a dangerous thing, and yet such undercurrents seem to be commonplace in many relationships I see. We hear in common-parlance expressions on the lines of: “I deserve better”, “She owes me”, “She’s mine”.

The abusive man’s high entitlement leads him to have unfair and unreasonable expectations, so that the relationship revolves around his demands, and he takes control over his victim. Femicide is committed almost entirely by men who feel immeasurable levels of male entitlement – men who feel so entitled to control a woman just because they were intimately involved with her.

In an abusive relationship, the power-control dynamic is usually completely distorted, giving rise to one becoming a submissive victim and the other a dominant perpetrator. Controlling abusers use tactics to exert power and control over their victims. The tactics themselves are psychologically, financially, mentally and sometimes physically abusive.

The abuser generally attempts to maintain their position by exerting control in overt and underhanded manners: violence and rage, silent treatment, emotional abuse, threats, intimidation or psychological manipulation – such as emotional blackmail or instilling guilt.

Other less obvious methods include positive reinforcement, grooming, praise, flattery, offering of shelter and safety, signs of affection, and gifts.

The vulnerabilities of the victim are exploited, with those who are particularly vulnerable for various reasons being most often selected as targets.

In romantic relationships, the abuser often takes control by expecting rewards for his or her contribution – for example for being the financial provider, or for ‘putting a roof over their heads’. Foreach ounce they give, they want it back with interest.

Psychological research has taught us that it is common for victims to identify and bond with their abusers. It is frequently noted that a co-dependent relationship develops and a cycle of abuse ensues – sometimes unbeknown to the victim that they are being manipulated.

It is ludicrous to conclude that a sexual relationship between a helper and someone seeking help can ever be consensual

A cycle of fear and domination, followed by reward and reinforcement begins, creating powerful emotional bonds that are grounded in fear, intimidation and strong resistance to change. Their sense of reality becomes distorted as they enter dangerous territory of making excuses for the abuse, normalising it or minimising it.

It is also common-place for victims to rationalise the abuse by blaming themselves or by taking some responsibility. This is why it is so difficult to leave an abusive situation. This is why people cannot simply assume that the victim was “up for it” simply because they did not put a stop to it, or because they “went back for more”.

In my psychological practice, I have also worked with many adults who were victims of sexual abuse by people in authority; some cases their spiritual leaders. They often describe that the hardest thing about this experience – rather than the abuse itself – is in the betrayal of trust.

These trusted figures are approached as helping professionals, as people they can turn to in their time of need for solace and guidance to seeking help – not sex –which profoundly confused them, hurt them and frightened them.

Many years ago it was common practice for helping professionals such as psychologists and psychiatrists to engage in sexual relations with their clients, until it was discovered to be an inevitable exploitation of power on the part of the helper.

With the discovery of ‘transference’ we learnt that it is easy for amorous feelings to develop between a client and helper: as the client begins to feel cared for by the therapist, he or she may feel a strong emotional attachment to the therapist (or clergy member who represents the love of God as the case may be) in return – and for this reason it is even more destructive and violating for helpers to take advantage of this position.

Sexual grooming by a trusted clergy member, therapist, counsellor or doctor can disarm the victim’s usual defences, since it is usually done within the confines of a relationship of trust – which was initiated in the client’s seeking of help while vulnerable.

The power imbalance in the very nature of professional and helping relationships is what makes any form of sexual contact with the person seeking help wrong on so many levels.

This is why it is ludicrous to conclude that a sexual relationship between a helper and someone seeking help can ever be consensual. Consent to sexual relations is not possible due to the power differential.

Sexual violation by a therapist, doctor or clergy member is not about sex; it is an abuse of power, authority and trust inherent in the relationship, or as the case may be – an abuse of spiritual power by the religious leader.

Cher V. Laurenti Engerer is secretary general of the Malta Chamber of Psychologists.

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