My boyfriend was a sexual control freak

He is making amends, but I'm not sure I can forget his past.


Cary Tennis
July 28, 2005 11:35PM (UTC)

Dear Cary,

Three years ago I met a wonderful man in his early 30s. I was always disappointed when dating men who kept little black books or lists of women they had slept with. This guy was different. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that he was relatively sexually inexperienced (e.g., he had trouble unhooking my bra). However, the longer we dated the more information I found out about his past. To make it short, my new guy was a date rapist for seven years before we met. His victims were mostly older, unattractive women whom he met in clubs and bars. They were weaker and liked the attention of a younger man. He would manipulate them by telling them lies and by staying sober while buying them drinks. He also had a one-year "relationship" with one woman who was six years older and going through a divorce. She was never interested in sex, but he would pressure her and cause her to feel guilty in order to get what he wanted. At times when he was not able to convince her, he would tell her that she could just lie still while he had his way. According to him, she had obvious mental problems.

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He told me that the reason he appeared so sexually inexperienced is because he had never really had sex with anyone except me. He says that the reason he manipulated those women was not for sex, but for control, and he felt the highest level of control by being able to perform the most intimate acts. Physical pleasure was never a factor for him, and he was often confused as to why others would say that sex felt physically good. For him, the feeling of being in control was the best part.

When I put it all together from his stories he did not attempt to deny it. Since admitting to having been a rapist, he has been actively trying to change his attitude toward women and sex. He is a volunteer at a rape crisis center and he came clean about his past to the directors of the organization. They sent him to a psychiatrist to make sure he was fit to be a volunteer and now they support and encourage him. He says that the only reason he was capable of changing anything was because he fell in love with me.

My problem is me. I know that love can change people. I know that he is a different man now. I know that he would do anything to stay with me. I know that I'm not one of his victims. But I still can't seem to get over his terrible past. Sometimes I start asking him questions just to prove to myself how wrong and bad it was and how different it is now. Why am I trying to prove things that I already know when I'm thinking rationally? At other times I think that I should just look for someone else who does not have a criminal past. Wouldn't that make it easier for me?

I love him. I want to stay with him. How can I get over his past?

Help, Stuck in the Past

Dear Stuck,

Before we talk about your boyfriend's past, we should talk about the extraordinary power of the words you use to characterize that past. You call your boyfriend a former date rapist with a criminal history. You have the right to characterize the situation as you see it. So I let your words stand. But I think we should acknowledge that those words will not be understood the same way by all readers.

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Some will agree that the coercive methods you describe do constitute rape, plain and simple. Others will note that none of his victims, over a seven-year period, ever lodged a criminal charge against him; they will ask how he can be considered a criminal if he has never been charged with a crime, much less convicted. Readers will also note that except in one instance of mild force (as you have conveyed to me privately), no violence was ever used. Nor did he, as many date rapists have been known to do, covertly administer any drugs (again, as you conveyed to me privately). His victims chose to drink in his company, while he chose to remain sober. As one person with whom I shared your letter commented, "He seems to have stopped short of forcing women to have sex with him, which is what I think of as rape. Instead he manipulated them into having sex with him, which is different."

Without turning this column into a disquisition on language, those seem to be important points.

For much of my life, the word "rape" has been used in the press mainly in cases of flagrant, violent assault on women by strangers. We did not talk about husbands raping their wives. We did not call it rape when athletes or college students coerced women into having sex with them on dates. We did not talk about a whole range of unspoken, tacit coercion of women in everyday life. So I see today's open and abundant use of the word "rape" as, in part, a corrective to a history of secrecy and suppression in which rape flourished unacknowledged. If, to counter that history of silence, some women use the word to tell a personal and emotional truth rather than one currently prosecutable in a court of law, I do not see much wrong with that. And it may be that many of these acts will eventually be prosecutable.

Nevertheless, for the moment, if we cannot all agree about the meaning of a word, its usefulness decreases. So we will agree that when you say "rape" you mean the lying and manipulation your boyfriend engaged in, and when you say his "criminal past" you mean the inexcusable way he objectified and victimized women to gratify his own obscure desires -- acts that may be or ought to be crimes, but crimes for which he was never charged.

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Not to belabor this further, but I have one more point: To get the full story, we must tell both what was done and what it felt like. Words not only tell what is, but how it feels. In that sense, rape is the perfect word for what he did. To express one's outrage, one needs a word that says, "This is what you did, you criminal! By deception and manipulation you robbed a fellow human being of free choice in the most intimate of acts! You reduced her to the status of a prisoner or a slave, you degraded her, you violated her humanity!"

But also, in understanding the fact of what we have done, it is important to describe it in cool precision, to say, I told her I was an airline pilot and had once killed a man; I told her I had played guitar for David Bowie's band; I told her I had a bank in Reno that would cash my check when we landed.

Together, these two ways of describing someone's actions can, I think, help one integrate it, make a story of it, which is what you need to do. My intuition tells me that one does not ever simply get over someone else's past in a case like this. Not in the sense that one forgets about it or that it ceases to matter. What one does, I think, is transform that past into a story that one can make sense of, a body of knowledge about the world and about oneself.

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For instance, one falls in love with a former torturer. Only after one has loved him for many years does one learn that he was a torturer. One then has to make room for this new knowledge. Perhaps one calls it evil. Perhaps one calls it the intergenerational transmission of a traumatic history of abuse. Perhaps one calls it the evil of the state and the will to power. Perhaps also one has conflicting feelings about it: While horrified by the intentional infliction of extreme pain, one may also experience fantasies involving power and restraint.

So one gains knowledge and is humbled, because the world does not appear as simple as it once did. Before meeting a person like this, one might have disregarded any such behavior as beyond the pale. Then one comes to love a person who embodies irreconcilable facts of past and present and comes to some new knowledge. When someone says they cannot imagine how anyone could do anything like that, you think to yourself, Well, yes, I not only can imagine it, but I know how it can occur.

To create this new meaning might require extraordinary emotional and spiritual strength -- the kind of strength sought and sometimes possessed by artists and intellectuals who regularly wrestle with the incommensurable facts of existence. If you were a committed artist or intellectual with the time and the psychic energy to wrestle this phenomenon into expressive, comprehensible form, perhaps you could deal with it on your own. But few souls are granted the setting in which to pursue such problems, much less the fortitude to tease meaning and form out of them. So I would recommend that you seek help from a competent psychotherapist, psychoanalyst or the like. I would say to this person: I need to make meaning out of this.

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In an intimate relationship, everything is connected. At least that's what I think. We choose people for their positive traits, but we also choose their dark side. There are many kinds of dark sides -- there is the dark side of a person that is emotionally dead, tragically wounded, that is exuberant and power-hungry, narcissistic, hateful, etc. Why should it be only the positive traits we choose? While we consciously choose the bright smile and the record of achievement, our dark side is meanwhile choosing the history of abuse or the uncontrollable ego. Good citizens that we are, we name these attributes "faults." But the dark side likes them. It is mirrored by them. It finds connection. It is perhaps even healed by them. They remind us of something long forgotten; we feel comfortable with them, like with a family member. Out of all possible kinds of darkness, we choose a darkness that we know, a darkness we can get around in.

Isn't it odd that you were seeking innocence, and you saw innocence in his inability to unhook your bra? But it wasn't innocence of sex at all, but innocence of intimacy. This is the kind of question you might explore with a therapist. He is anything but innocent about sex. And he is not at all innocent about power.

It is also interesting that in your search for a man who was not obsessed with power -- i.e., a man without a black book, a man not boasting of his conquests -- you found a man far more obsessed with power than any of the other men. Power is probably a prominent theme in your relationships with men. Perhaps you are consciously attracted to acceptable kinds of power -- mastery, competence -- but not other, darker kinds of power -- domination, control. You might explore with an expert how your fantasy life may be affected by your knowledge of this man's previous activities.

I would also, from this expert, seek to understand what the scientific community knows about him as a member of a class of persons. What is his diagnosis? Is he a sociopath? What are the chances of relapse into past behavior? What are associated antisocial acts that a person like him might need to guard against? Are there dangers too great to bear?

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Learn as much as you can. Know yourself. Know him. Be on guard. Accept that he may be, in certain ways, not only damaged but dangerous. Recognize that you cannot take this relationship for granted, that in spite of all you do it may simply not work; it may come to a place in the road where it can go no further; he may balk and be unable to move forward. There may be ways in which he will never love you in a mature, adult way. Realize that if you reach that point, you may have to make the decision to leave him. And if you aren't ready to take that chance, and to do all the work required, it might be time to leave him now.

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