In the wake of the #MeToo movement, I wrote a post last year about the spate of men I was seeing in my practice who worried about being perpetrators of sexual assault. It struck a chord and prompted many emails to me from men across Europe, where treatment for OCD is limited, saying they’ve been tormented by similar thoughts.
As the piece resonated with so many people, I decided to revise the original for the Anxiety and Depression Association of America website.
You can read it here.
OCD is like an opportunistic pathogen, invading hosts with weakened immune systems. So it’s not surprising to see it thrive and spread when daily news reports stoke uncertainty and fear in those who are vulnerable.
The recent spate of revelations about sexual misconduct among the rich and famous, along with controversial reports in the last few years of a campus rape crisis, have brought a new demographic into my practice: young men in their twenties who worry about committing or having committed a sexual transgression.
Some of these men have been accused—and all exonerated—of inappropriate touching, nonconsensual or consensual but inappropriate sex with colleagues, students, or classmates; others live in fear of having a casual sexual encounter from their past surface and become fodder for an accusation.
OCD is having a field day.
As reporter Emily Yoffe chillingly details in a series of articles in The Atlantic , Obama-era federal directives governing the handling of sexual-assault allegations have prompted universities to craft vague and overarching definitions of sexual assault designed to protect the (mostly) female victims while stripping the accused of their right to due process. The Kafkaesque scenarios Yoffe describes—such as a third party accusation in which a friend reported her roommate’s boyfriend as an abuser and the alleged victim, refuting the claim, was told she was in denial– create the perfect medium for OCD to flourish.
Let me be perfectly clear. I am in no way minimizing the trauma experienced by assault victims. I believe charges of rape on college campuses should be taken very seriously. They should be investigated thoroughly and, if the evidence points to a crime, prosecuted in a court of law. And I am not excusing the predatory behavior of the Harvey Weinsteins who have abused their power to intimidate and sexually exploit women.
But the men with OCD I see in my practice are not predators or rapists. In fact, most share two thinking patterns common in people with OCD: an excessive sense of responsibility and a highly developed sense of morality. They worry about causing harm and about being bad people even though, in the paradoxical way of OCD, they’re actually good people with a strong—perhaps even excessively rigid—moral compass.
So, no, I don’t secretly question if they might have done what they’ve been accused of or fear being accused of, just as I know with a reasonable degree of certainty that the people with OCD who confess to me their fears of being pedophiles are not a danger to children.
As with all OCD worries, however, facts and probability do little to assuage anxiety. So the challenge is to acknowledge the possibility of a dreaded occurrence—such as a false accusation–while not letting fear get in the way of living.
While it’s hard to push back, I can recommend a few guidelines to follow if you’re consumed by worries of being unjustly accused of sexual assault.
Shakespeare said, “Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows.” Resist the temptation to lie down with OCD.
OCD is a shape-shifter. Its content often changes, especially with primarily internal obsessions and compulsions (involving thoughts about harm, sexual orientation, and relationships). For many with the disorder, addressing the ever changing obtrusive thoughts is like playing Whack-a-Mole.
The internet is full of articles about “hOCD,”(OCD about sexual orientation), “rOCD,” (OCD about the “rightness” of a relationship) and “Pure O” (obsessions in the absence of compulsions) OCD. Although these designations can be appealing if you’re trying to make sense of distressing thoughts, I find this alphabet-soup approach to OCD problematic for several reasons.
Addressing the form OCD takes is important only in designing a treatment plan for ERP (Exposure/Response Prevention). To keep the OCD from becoming a pattern in which one obsession dissipates only to have another pop up, focus on accepting uncertainty.
Here’s how to begin the process of response-prevention:
1) Refrain from checking and analyzing.
2)Acknowledge that OCD is causing you to doubt yourself and that no amount of research will help you arrive at an answer you’ll believe.
3)Don’t try to categorize your OCD.
4)Give up trying to figure out if your fears are justified.
5)Stop seeking advice from internet forums.
Taking these steps will start you on the path to recovery and keep the moles from lying in wait to ambush you.
This blog is intended solely for the purpose of entertainment and education. All remarks are meant as general information and should not be taken as personal diagnostic or therapeutic advice. If you choose to comment on a post, please do not include any information that could identify you as a patient or potential patient. Also, please refrain from making any testimonials about me or my practice, as my professional code of ethics does not permit me to publish such statements. Comments that I deem inappropriate for this forum will not be published.