Silva Neves

Silva Neves
Psychosexual, Relationship and Couples Therapist

Thursday, 12 December 2019

Beware of 'sex addiction' online tests

Are you worried about your sexual behaviours? Do you think you might be watching too much pornography? Do you keep being unfaithful even though you love your partner? Do you promise yourself not to repeat an unwanted sexual behaviour, and find yourself doing it again? 

If so, you might be worried that you’re a ‘sex addict’. It is easy to worry about it. There are so many books and online forums that discuss people suffering from the ‘illness’ known as ‘sex addiction’. Those forums might make you feel even more shame about your unwanted sexual behaviours and increase your fear that you’re ‘one of them’. At that point, it is common for people to leap onto an online test to check if they are indeed a ‘sex addict’. There are various online tests you can take, an American one and a British one.  

If you scored high enough to be in the category of ‘sex addiction’, don’t panic. Don’t call a ‘sex addiction’ therapist straight away. Keep reading this blog. 

The diagnosis of ‘sex addiction’
Firstly, let me reassure you: ‘sex addiction’ is not a recognised mental health diagnosis. The correct term currently is Compulsive Sexual Behaviour Disorder (CSBD). The CSBD diagnosis is under the Impulse Control category, not addiction. If an online test uses the term ‘sex addiction’ it will not be testing with the clinically endorsed diagnostic framework. Similarly, if a therapist uses the term ‘sex addiction’, they may not be up to date with the latest diagnostic criteria. 

To be diagnosed with CSBD, you have to meet a set of criteria which most people don’t meet. Many people have sexual behaviour problems with a range of sexual compulsivity elements that can be examined in therapy, but to have the actual disorder is pretty difficult. Yet, those tests diagnose many people with ‘sex addiction’ every day. 

Those online tests are designed to score you as a ‘sex addict’ because they are made by clinicians who offer expensive ‘sex addiction’ treatments. They have a financial interest in making you fear you’re a ‘sex addict’. Some of my sexologist colleagues and I took the American test several times and we all scored as ‘sex addicts’ every time, although none of us have sexual behaviour problems. So what do those tests really assess? I believe they test for a breach in heteronormative monogamy. In other words, ‘sex addiction’ is another term for sexual oppression. It seems that all you need to qualify as ‘sex addict’ is to enjoy masturbation more than the creators of the tests, or you might have a high sex drive; or perhaps you might be sexually adventurous or maybe you are polyamorous. None of these things are a disease or wrong, but they might not fit in your current monogamous arrangement.

How are those tests design to diagnose so many people as a ‘sex addict’?  
Any good psychometrics need to have a time period in which to report a behavioural problem. The diagnostic criteria of CSBD has a time period of six months. The American test doesn’t mention any time period, so the way that the questions are phrased are confusing as they are formulated as an absolute. For example, if you cheated on your partner when you were a teenager (not all that uncommon behaviour) but haven’t done so in years, the phrasing of the question enquiring about infidelity will encourage you to tick ‘yes’ even though it is actually irrelevant to your sexual problems today.

The British test is milder. When I took the British test titled: ‘Am I a Sex Addict?’  I didn’t score as a ‘sex addict’. At least, it does have a time window of ‘more than two years’ to report sexual behaviour problems rather than the absolute reporting of the American test, which means that your normal frequent masturbation as a teenager won’t be taken into consideration.

However, the phrasing of the British test is questionable too. The second question on the test is: ‘Do you regularly view pornography for more than 11 hours a week?’. The threshold of eleven hours is arbitrary as there are no solid studies, clinical evidence nor any diagnostics that support that more than eleven-hour use is a problem. Some people masturbate to pornography for over one hour a day without any negative consequences to their lives at all. This eleven-hour threshold seems to be more of a moral bias of the clinicians who constructed the test rather than any clinically sound studies. 

Both the American and British tests fail to ask important questions in order to assess someone’s sexual behaviours: there are no questions about sexual pleasure, which is an important component of the diagnostic for sexual compulsivity. They don’t ask the questions about why you think your behaviours are unwanted. Is it because of feeling sexual shame that watching pornography ‘should’ be wrong? Is it because of a partner’s disapproval? Is it because of a particular society or faith prohibiting a sexual behaviour that one is turned on by? These are crucial questions because people can’t actually be assessed without those answers, according to the ICD-11 diagnostic. 

The phrasing of the questions in the American and British tests covertly imply that the best way to be sexual and relational is in heteronormative monogamy. Having multiple partners is wrong. Watching pornography is wrong. Choosing to be a sex worker is wrong. Buying the services of a sex worker is wrong. All of those reflect a lack of knowledge in sexology and a lack of understanding of sexuality and relationship diversity. 

After the tests, meet the ‘sex addiction’ therapists. 
The clinicians creating those tests believe in the unrecognised addiction model. It means that they are likely to offer an addiction treatment, which is not clinically endorsed. The World Health Organisation recently released their clear statement: 
“… although the term ‘sex addiction’ has been taken up by the popular media, the Working Group concluded that available evidence did not support this conceptualization… materials related to the ICD-11 make very clear that CSBD is not intended to be interchangeable with sex addiction, but rather is a substancially different diagnostic framework.”

In summary, I suggest you stay away from online ‘sex addiction’ tests as they are not clinically sound. You are more likely to be assessed by someone’s moral bias rather than someone informed by the science of sexology.  

The treatment for sexual compulsivity is not focused on stopping the behaviours, which are only symptoms of an underlying disturbance, but to treat those disturbances underneath with psychosexual therapy, integrative and humanistic psychotherapy and CBT. 

It is totally ok to ask a therapist before you meet them how they think and work with sexual compulsivity and if they offer an addiction treatment or not. Beware of the ‘one-size fits all’ type of treatment programmes. 

A proper assessment is enquiring about what works in your sexual behaviours, what you find pleasurable, what turns you on, what your relationship(s) are like, what are the functions of the unwanted sexual behaviours, why you don’t want those sexual behaviours, and so on. The therapist’s questioning should be open and curious about your entire life rather than only enquiring about the problems in leading questions that imply ‘wrongness’. 

It is currently challenging to find a therapist who is practicing a sex positive approach to their treatment of sexual compulsivity (many therapists will say that they’re sex-positive, but rarely practice it). If you’re in doubt, feel free to send me an e-mail and I will be happy to refer you to a trusted colleague who works beyond the addiction model. 

Saturday, 16 November 2019

The unhealed wounds of Parent and Adult Child

The nation felt uncomfortable watching the latest episode of RuPaul Drag Race UK when contestant Baga Chipz insulted her mother on the show. Understandably, many negative comments were made towards Baga Chipz on social media. 

However, it is important to pause and take a breath. It is so easy to throw immediate comments on social media from the safety of our living rooms and demonise Baga Chipz for what she has done without knowing any details of what got them both to that runway awkward moment. By doing so, we forget that on the receiving end of those comments are two people already wounded by each other. 

I do not condone the behaviour of Baga Chipz. It was harsh and it was humiliating for her mother. No matter how we feel about our mother or any other people in our lives, we still have to be respectful and not drag them in the mud in public.  What Baga Chipz did was wrong. But, as a psychotherapist, I could also see her pain and hurt behind the harsh defence. We don’t know her story with her mother, so we should not judge. 

Equally, Baga Chipz’ mother has her part to play. Was she not aware of their difficult relationship? Or did she hope that by doing this grand gesture of appearing on RuPaul Drag Race UK next to her son, it would somehow heal some unresolved issues between them, like a magic wand? Indeed, it is easier to think of one gesture that would patch everything up rather than doing the more effective, yet much harder task of sitting down and discussing in details what went wrong in their relationship. 

What Baga Chipz missed, though, is that her mother was actually willing to step outside of her comfort zone and come on the show for her. We can interpret it as an act of love. Many mothers will never have the courage to do so especially when there is a wound. For that, her mother should have been praised. 

What her mother missed, perhaps, was that it might not have been the right time or the right gesture to repair the relationship. Perhaps, she didn’t hear what Baga Chipz actually needed from her. 

Once again, let’s take a pause. We don’t know their story. Perhaps, it has nothing to do with the relationship between Baga Chipz and her mother. Perhaps, it is something to do with what the mother represents for Baga. Perhaps, her mother is a reminder of a difficult childhood that is independent from the relationship between them. 

Healing the wounds between parent and adult child is never easy. It takes a lot of courage and a lot of painful discussions. The goal of conflict resolutions is not always about arriving at a place of happiness between two people. Sometimes, it is about accepting what is. Accepting that the wounding will always leave a scar and that scar might sometimes itch. It is admitting to each other that they are different people and won’t be able to connect meaningfully. Sometimes, it is to recognise that love only thrives between parent and adult child when there is distance. Sometimes, it is about accepting that we don’t get to choose our parents and we have to live with the fact that they are not perfect, or inadequate or unskilled at being parents. Conflict resolution is not always about forgiving the other, but it is about forgiving ourselves for being unable to connect with our closest blood relations. There is too much pressure to be in harmony with our parents, our children, or other people in our family of origin; it is not always possible. Letting go of that pressure can improve mental health. 

What I saw on RuPaul Drag Race UK however, was two hurt people with unhealed wounds and either could forgive themselves for co-creating the relationship that they now have. It was painful to watch. But I hope that this terrible moment between them can be the next step into sitting down and talking properly with each other. I wish them both well. 

Silva Neves 

Monday, 11 November 2019

Being Single

Emma Watson coined ‘self-partnered’ to describe her singledom. When celebrities create new terms, it can be catching. Sometimes it is a good thing because their public influence can bring forth some important unspoken social issues.  

As a psychosexual and relationship specialist, I’m aware that there is so much myth about sex and relationships that really confuse people, precipitating and maintaining problems in their lives.  So, I think Emma Watson’s comment has brought forward a welcome dialogue. 

The term ‘self-partnered’ is useful to remind us all that we need to be treating ourselves with love and kindness. It is a synonym to ‘self-love’ and ‘self-care’. I would go as far as it can encompass ‘self-pleasure’ as masturbation is a healthy sexual behaviour with self that can be an act of self-love. 

Being our own best friend first is actually important if we were to meet someone else. Typically, people who don’t like parts of themselves tend to project those onto others thus making a relationship with others difficult.  

Our society has bombarded us with messages of the word ‘partner’ means ‘another’ or a collaboration with someone outside of the self. ‘Self-partnered’ is therefore a helpful addition to our vocabulary and expanding the notion of singledom and taking care of the relationship with ourselves. 

However, I don’t think we should be colluding with the sense that ‘single’ is a bad word. ‘Self-partnered’ doesn’t have to be a replacement term for ‘single’. Our society has somehow made the word ‘single’ a sad status, an undesirable place to be. ‘Single’ has been made a bad word especially for women, perpetuating horrible ideas such as the ‘spinster’ stigma or the fairy tale stories where the woman waits to be picked by the handsome prince and wanting to marry her, only then, will she be happy! 

If we think about it, why does it have to be the man getting on his knees asking a woman to marry him? Can’t a woman decide for herself when and how she wants to propose a marriage? Could a woman decide not to ever marry (and have children) and still be seen as equal to other women making a different choice? 

Our society, so modern in many areas, remains old fashioned when thinking about women’s singledom. Our society is still invested in thinking that somehow it is wrong for a woman to choose to stay single. 

A colleague of mine who is a relationship specialist too, and above all a friend, posted a thought-provoking message on her social media. I asked for her permission to share some of it: 
‘I have read several articles questioning why Emma Watson is alone as if there is something wrong with her. I reflect on my own state of “alone” and, being away, it is in my face pretty much all the time. From the floating around in a king sized bed, to the two place settings at meal times where one is discreetly removed, double sets of towels, sun loungers placed in pairs, to the ‘oh you are alone’ comments from other guests with an air of superiority, pity or curiosity, the list goes on. At this moment in time, I am actually choosing to be single until I meet someone I choose to be in a couple with. I see so many people unable to be with themselves. It is as if society as brainwashed us, especially women, that we are not complete unless we are in a relationship. The idea of there being the “one” sets us up for unrealistic expectations. I feel so grateful for the life that I have. I am immensely privileged, but above all I feel proud that, at that moment, I am not in a relationship’. 

This social media post from my friend is an intimate and powerful account of a woman empowered with her ‘single’ status. She understands that ‘alone’ is a privilege of being comfortable with herself, and it is not the same as ‘lonely’. 

Let’s get together and challenge society’s reductive judgements of ‘single’. Let’s reclaim the word as a positive and empowering choice. Let’s remind ourselves that we don’t need another to be complete or successful. Let’s enjoy dinners for one and not confuse being alone with being lonely. 

We need connection and a sense of belonging for wellbeing but it doesn’t mean we need a spouse. We can find connection and belonging in our community, our work, our friendships, our hobbies, our families of choice or families of origin. We don’t need to find it in the eyes of someone who wants to marry us. 

Let’s embrace the status of ‘single’ and let’s make ‘Self-partnered’ the process by which being single is nourishing and flourishing. 

Silva Neves 

Saturday, 27 July 2019

YES, we need proper Relationship & Sex Education in schools

Whether we want to admit it or not, our children, from the moment they are born, are in relationships with others. First, with parents and primary care givers. Then, we other young children in nursery, then with older children and adults around them. 

Children have great skills at observing the world around them to start to build a sense of themselves. What they observe is only from their immature eyes, they don’t have anything else to compare what they see with other knowledge, so they make up their own conclusion. 

For example, a young girl who doesn’t see their parents touch or kiss, yet watches a Disney cartoon about a princess being rescued by her prince through a passionate embrace can be confusing. 

A girl who is dressed like a princess at a party and is being told by adults how pretty she looks comes with an unspoken implicit message, yet strong one based on children’s stories, that there will be a prince somewhere that will choose her and make her happy, all she needs to do is stay pretty. The Prince Charming might even come into her bedroom whilst she’s asleep and kiss her without her explicit consent – how romantic, not! 

Similarly, a boy dressed in a super hero outfit for the same birthday party is forced to act strong and powerful – it is even a permission to be a little aggressive, only because he’s Spiderman that day. The very same boy, from a very young age, is already conditioned to know that it is not acceptable to be curious about playing with dolls or want to wear a pink t-shirt. The worst toxic message for boys is being taught not to cry. 

Girls are conditioned to hold hands and kiss each other, but boys are told not to kiss other boys. Children are told to be careful when adults want to touch them and they are also forced to endure that horrible sloppy kiss from the smelly grandpa each time they visit him. This is another confusing message about consent, which children can find very difficult to understand properly without proper education. 

These are only a few reasons why it is crucial to have proper and thorough Relationship and Sex Education in primary schools and secondary schools and High Schools. Many people protest about it because I think there is a misunderstanding of what it actually means. I think people are hung up with the word ‘sex’ and they think teachers will go into schools telling inappropriate sexual content to their children. This is not the case. 

In Primary School, children need to be taught how to form friendships. Children will form relationships from the time they are born, so it is definitely not too early. Forming good friendships and making sense of what they observe is really important: they can gain a much greater sense of the world around them and understand properly what they see everywhere: in their parents relationship, in cartoons, children’s movies and stories. In primary schools, the teaching of friendships comes with accepting who is different (different colour skin, different cultural clothes, different bodies, different abilities, different types of families, and so on). Frankly, the world could do with a lot more kindness and acceptance, and if we can start teaching these in primary schools, perhaps the world could be a better place. Children of primary school age who come from a homophobic household will already be conditioned to be homophobic, even if they don’t know what it means, they simply imitate their parents (That’s the wrong kind of Relationship and Sex Education). It is not uncommon to see young children expressing racism, it is not them who have those views, they only repeat what they hear from parents. So, it is most definitely not too early to teach children of that age group some proper information about accepting difference. 

In Primary Schools, we have to teach our children about consent in a way that is age appropriate and relevant to their lives. It is in that age group that body exploration comes in the way of: ‘I’ll show you mine if you show me yours’. Although being curious about each other’s genitals and body parts is a normal process of our children’s development, we need to teach children that it is ok to be curious and it is ok to say ‘no’. 

It is also in Primary Schools that we need to teach children about what is coming next: puberty. Some many people go through a very confusing time at puberty when their bodies change so much and so fast and with very little conversations about it. There needs to be a lot more conversations about puberty before it happens, and throughout. 

Relationship and Sex Education in Primary School is not about sex and inappropriate content. It is about appropriate and relevant information that is crucial to the children’s well-being as well as the whole community. It is teaching about friendships, kindness, acceptance, love, their sense of self in the world, what is ok and what is not ok, and how they can say ‘no’ when it is important to say so. 

In Secondary and High Schools, Relationship and Sex Education also needs to be age appropriate, and that means more details about what is relevant in their lives. How to form peer relationships, romantic relationships and sexual relationships. There needs to be a lot of space to discuss consent properly: what it actually is, what it means and how it is done. There needs to be teachings on good sexual health to prevent STIs and unwanted pregnancy, but it needs to be done in a matter-of-fact way rather than in a scary way to put young people off. 

There needs to be a lot more conversations about sexual pleasure and how to enjoy their bodies. There needs to be conversations about recognising when sex stops becoming pleasurable and how they can stop it then rather than enduring it.

Relationship and Sex Education absolutely needs to include same-sex relationships and there must not be an option for opting out. Too many children and teenagers are harmed by homophobia. It is a matter of public health. Just as we can teach Primary School children about accepting the diversity of human beings, we need to reinforce this teaching in Secondary and High Schools: acceptance and kindness is key. Homophobia is not acceptable. Teachers much learn not to ignore homophobic language and behaviours that happen before their eyes. 

The religious groups that oppose Relationship and Sex Education may be mis-informed. Good teaching on sexual health is teaching teenagers the importance of having sexual contacts that match their values. It means that if a young person does not want sex because of their religious or moral values, it is ok. Good relationship and sexual health is knowing that it is ok to want sex and it is also ok not to want sex. However it is not ok to impose one’s moral values or beliefs onto someone else and be sexist, racist or homophobic. Young people also need to know that it is ok to have same-sex attraction no matter what their religious or moral beliefs are, and to be given the right resources of who they can see to discuss these issues in a confidential and non-judgmental place.  

I urge the Government to put in place adequate resources to enable every single UK schools to have a well-trained relationship and sex educator because in my profession, I see many adults who have distressing problems as a consequence of poor relationship and sex education. 

Good relationship and sexual health is crucial to people’s overall health. By having a solid relationship and sex education system in all ages of schools, we can actually save lives by preventing too many tragedies like suicide. We can prevent so much physical and psychological pain, we can help people lead much happier lives, and we can start to create a new generation of people who will understand kindness, acceptance and love on a deeper level and shape a better world. 

Silva Neves 

Tuesday, 9 July 2019

‘Sex Addiction’ or compulsive sexual behaviours?

The debate on what is ‘sex addiction’ is still a hot topic in our field. Many people absolutely believe in treating sexual compulsivity with the addiction framework. However, a growing number of clinicians are moving away from the addiction model as there is now a large body of clinical evidence that supports sexual compulsivity to be quite a different phenomenon from addiction. Studies and research done in this area show a lack of scientific evidence that sexual compulsivity is an addiction. 

Many studies cited in support of the addiction model are conducted with confirmation bias, without enough critical thinking and ignoring the knowledge of the sexology field. 

So why do we still call Compulsive Sexual Behaviours ‘sex addiction’? 

‘Sex addiction’ is a term that was born in the 80’s in Mid-West America. The religiosity is strong in that part of the world and the term flourished at the time when people were scared of sex during the AIDS crisis. But now we have new knowledge on sexual functioning and sexual behaviours. We have more and more science on sex and the brain. Our understanding of the problem has evolved exponentially since the 80’s, yet the old-fashioned term remains. And the addiction-focused treatment remains. 

Isn’t it time to update our clinical language and treatment? 

As a field that continues to learn and evolve, we have changed many terms in the past. We have changed ‘impotence’ with erectile dysfunction. ‘Retarded ejaculation’ with delayed ejaculation. We challenge words like ‘frigid’. We fight against body shaming and female sexuality shaming. We are more mindful of pronouns. We changed the word ‘manic depressive’ for bipolar disorder and ‘hysteria’ to stop pathologising women. 

As psychosexual and relationship therapists, I believe it is time to finally embrace the field of sexology and offer clients the appropriate modern treatment. I believe it is time to leave the term ‘sex addiction’ behind, belonging to the list of old-fashioned words. 

At the very least, we should be calling it Compulsive Sexual Behaviours as there is now a diagnostic criteria for it. The diagnosis for the disorder is hard to meet, leaving many people without a word for their sexual behaviour struggles. I propose we call it problematic sexual health behaviour. Or as Doug Braun-Harvey and Michael Vigorito prefer to call it: Out-of-Control Sexual Behaviours. These modern terms seem to be more inclusive and less pathologising as they do not imply a disorder, but rather a sexual health problem. 

Psychosexual and relationship therapists should be the ones at the front of this new wave of clinicians treating this specialist presentation. The Contemporary Institute of Clinical Sexology is offering a unique 3-day training to update the knowledge of compulsive sexual behaviours to modern understanding. During this training, you will learn how to treat sexual compulsivity safely, efficiently with tools immediately applicable to your existing clinical practice.  

I’m looking forward to seeing you there. 

Silva Neves 

Tuesday, 14 May 2019

Are you happy with your body?

It’s Mental Health Awareness Week 2019. This year the theme is body image. 

If you look at popular magazines, you will notice that there are some many cover headlines about dieting, looking good, or shaming a celebrity with an unflattering beach photograph. It may all be for fun and light-hearted, but underneath, we can easily internalise body shaming. 

Slowly, days after days of reading, looking and hearing about what kind of body is ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong’, we can develop distorted thinking about our body and start to hate it. It can have a huge impact on our mental health, leading to acute anxiety and depression. 

Hating our body can also create big problems in our sex life and relationship. The more we dislike our body, the more we might push our partner away. Over time, it can cause distress in the relationship. 

Feeling bad about our body used to be predominantly a problem with women and gay men – the gay scene is quite harsh about body image, just as the rest of the world is to women. But now, heterosexual men are starting to have the same problems: there is one type of body that is ‘desirable’ and there is pressure to obtain that body. 

Of course, needless to say that most of what is considered the ‘right’ type of body, the ‘desirable’ shape or the ‘worthy’ look is largely unrealistic, promoting obsession going to the gym and eating disorders.  

Muscle dysmorphic disorder is becoming more and more common amongst gay and heterosexual men. It is an acute obsession with going to the gym to ‘beef up’, and the muscles can never be too big. Those men with this disorder feel the need to gain more and more muscles no matter how big they already are. This goes unnoticed because it is socially accepted, even desirable to have big muscles. But underneath the muscles, there often is unhappiness and distress. 

Here is a check list to figure out if you might have an issue with your body image. 

You may have a problem with your body image if: 
1-   You have frequent preoccupation with your body image and body shape to the extent of controlling your life. 
2-   You feel distressed, unhappy or depressed when you look at your body. 
3-   You do excessive exercise.
4-   You’re always on a diet, juicing, detoxing, etc. 
5-   You have problems with relationships: avoiding social occasions because you think you look bad.

You may have body image distress if you feel bad about your appearance: 

1-   At social gathering where you know a few people
2-   When you look at yourself in the mirror
3-   When you are with attractive people
4-   When someone looks at parts of your appearance that you dislike
5-   When you try on new clothes
6-   When you exercise 
7-   After you have eaten a full meal
8-   When you wear revealing clothes
9-   When you get on the scale to weigh
10-When you think someone has rejected you
11-When in a sexual situation 
12-When you are in a bad mood
13-When you think of how you looked when you were younger
14-When you see yourself in a photo or on video
15-When you think you have gained weight
16-When you think about what you wished you looked like
17-When you recall hurtful things people have said about your appearance
18-When you are with people who talk about weight or dieting

Here are five tips of what you can do to help feel better about your body: 
1-    Speak to yourself like you would speak to your best friend. Don’t be unkind about your appearance. Challenge your critical thoughts. 
2-    Avoid focusing on the body parts that you don’t like. Instead, take a broader look at your body and also look at the parts that you like. 
3-    Don’t go on a scale every day. Moderate your exercises. Take some time to do other fun things and hobbies that do not involve working on your fitness or body. 
4-    Have a balanced diet that include all types of food group, including a dessert once in a while. Make meals a time for relaxation and fun. 
5-    Learn to love the body parts that you don’t usually like. It is all part of self-love, self-compassion and self-acceptance. You don’t need to have a six-pack in order to be handsome, attractive and a worthy person.  

If you feel much distress to a level that it stops you from living the life you want, it is a good idea to find a therapist who specialises in working with body image. 
We have only one body for life. Take your first step to make peace with it today. Be really proud. We are all beautifully imperfect. 

This Mental Health Awareness Week, let’s help each other be kinder with conversations about our body. 

Monday, 11 March 2019

Beyond Neverland

The documentary Leaving Neverland has shown a light on the darkness of what happened behind the closed gates of Michael Jackson’s heavenly world. 

It sparked debates and sometimes aggressive insults from the fans of the star. It also opened conversations on the unsettling topic of sexual abuse. 

The Neverland Process

Michael Jackson’s Neverland story is an extreme one due to the level of his stardom which strongly survives his death, but it is also consistent with the millions of other stories of childhood sexual abuse, all of them with a Neverland process: why? Because the Neverland process is what sex offenders use to abuse. 

The Neverland process is sex offenders creating a world of distorted beliefs for their victims and the adults around them with specific steps:  

1-   Blending in society looking kind, caring, benevolent and trusting. When we think of sex offenders or child molesters, we are invested in having an image of an undesirable, monstrous and disgusting man we can spot a mile away. This image is partly so that we foster a sense of knowing how to protect our children. However, the reality is much different. Most sex offenders blend very well in our society, especially in places where children are accessible. They look good, they look fun and they look very friendly. 

2-   Friends of parents. Most sexual abuse happen in the child’s home by someone whom the child knows well and even loves. It is often one of the parents or both, or a grandparent, uncle, cousin, childminder, and so on. Occasionally, it is someone outside of the family who makes lots of efforts to befriend the parents. They pretend to be kind, loving and caring so that the parents have no suspicion of the hidden agenda. They eventually persuade the parents that they are the safest person to leave their children with so that they can have a much deserved break from parenting. This is called grooming the family. 

3-   Love. The sex offender makes the child feel very special, the chosen one, they make the child feel very loved and safe. They desensitise the child with lots of hugs and seemingly innocent bodily contact to normalise close physical proximity. And very gradually move towards inappropriate sexual touch, which they manipulate the child into believing it is a special kind of love. This is called grooming the child. 

4-   Distancing the parents. By fostering the sense of a special kind of love with the child, the sex offender also creates a wedge between the child and the parents: the child starts to believe that the offender loves him more than his own parents and therefore wants to spend more time with the offender than the parents. Most often, the parents perceive it as the child creating a bond with others, which is usually seen as healthy socialising development. If it is one of the parents abusing the child, that parent will make the child believe that the other parent is the unkind one and the child should have a special secret relationship with the ‘better’ parent. 

5-   Psychological abuse. The sex offender manipulate the child into staying silent, lying to the parents and keeping the secret of the abuse to protect themselves from reporting and also to ensure they can continue the abuse multiple times. They often say something like: ‘nobody understands our special bond, if you tell you will hurt everybody and you will be taken away from your family. You’re safe here, this is our secret’. 

As you can see, all of these steps above were eloquently described by both James and Wade in the Leaving Neverland documentary. The Neverland process happens in most childhood sexual abuse, including with the ones involving a celebrity. 

The intoxicating Stardom 

What makes the childhood sexual abuse by Michael Jackson stand out is his fame, obviously. His stardom status such that the grooming is made very easy as it started even before Michael Jackson met his victims. Wade was already a big fan of his, he was primed to respond to him so well. When I saw Wade dancing on Michael Jackson’s stage, I saw a child who wasn’t just being made to feel special, like the usual sexual abuse process, but a child who was intoxicated by Jackson’s stardom, a feeling that nobody else in the world could ever offer him. Nobody can compete with that kind of attention. Wade himself said that Michael Jackson was his God. 

It was a little different with James. As a child he wasn’t a fan of Michael Jackson, he was unlucky enough to be cast in his Pepsi advert. Soon after meeting him on set, he found him in his home, put posters of him on his walls, which is essentially like manufacturing a new fan. James being young and vulnerable got trapped into the Jackson dream web.

Both set of parents got trapped in the same web too. There is no precedence for a mega star to turn up in your humble home and wanting to be friends with you. James’ mother was flattered that her family was the chosen family of his friendship, and because of his child-like persona soon considered him as one of her children. This would have not happened if an ordinary fully-grown man turned up at your front door wanting to be your son’s best friend. Wade’s parents wanted their son to live his dream and be a friend of his favourite idol, making very bad judgements of the situations. As it was explained in the documentary, the normal judgment process went out of the window because he was a huge star. 

Michael Jackson’s callously used his stardom and his child-like persona to bypass parents’ guards. ‘How could such a sweet child-like man harm another child?’ people would say to reassure themselves. Jackson was both a child and Santa Clause, as James described: he would take him to toy shops and allow him to fill his trolley with whatever he wanted: it was magic!  

Michael Jackson’s father robbed him of his childhood and he had traumatic early years. But let’s make no mistake: Michael Jackson was not a child trapped in a man’s body. He was a fully grown man who was a sex offender. Only adults with a fully functioning brain are capable of such psychological abuse and manipulation that was described by both James and Wade. A combination of his fame and child-like persona was his way in into children’s lives and their parents for accelerated grooming. 

Trauma, the brain and psychological abuse: why survivors don’t report 

As we see in the documentary, and as I see in my consulting room every day, the impact of childhood sexual abuse is far reaching. One of the hallmarks of trauma is that parts of the brain becomes impaired during the abuse. The Broca’s area responsible for speech production and language processing goes offline which means that it is sometimes hard for survivors of sexual abuse to verbalise what happened to them. It may be after a long psychological treatment that some words to the abuse can return. 

The prefrontal cortex is also impaired so it is difficult for the brain to formulate a coherent story of the abuse, often missing many elements to it, with some fragmented memories or complete loss of memories. These brain impairments that are normal faced with trauma are some of the reasons why some people don’t report straight away. They fear that if they are being asked questions, they won’t have all the answers and therefore won’t be believed. 

Another reason why people don’t report abuse is the silencing effect of the psychological abuse that goes with sexual abuse. Both James and Wade didn’t’ suffer memory loss but they both said that it was easier not to talk about it because they couldn’t make sense of it all. If you can’t make sense of it yourself, how can you start a conversation about it with someone else? 

It is common for survivors of abuse not to have a coherent narrative. Even if survivors remember everything they doubt their own reality. As Wade says: Michael Jackson was a God to him. How can he make sense that his God, the one who opened the gates to Heaven for him and his family be also the one sexually abusing him? How can he make sense of such a God telling him that it is how love is expressed? 

How can survivors make sense that the unwanted touch felt loving and pleasurable too? 
How can they make sense that the man they love and allegedly loves them back also threatens them if you tell anybody? 

As Oprah Winfrey points out, when Michael Jackson says to a child: ‘the best part of the holiday was to be with you, I mean it’, how can you not feel so loved? 

With psychological abuse, the narrative of what happened becomes distorted. As both Wade and James said, they didn’t realise that what was happening to them was abuse. They just couldn’t identify the word ‘abuse’ with their story. 

This is why many adult survivors of sexual abuse never speak out, and never report. And the longer they wait, the more they fear not being believed: ‘Why did you wait so long to tell? Why did you keep hanging out with the abuser? Are you sure you remember right? Why did you change your story?’ The longer survivors wait, the less likely there will be evidence, and the more likely they fear not being believed. 

But not talking is isolated. Isolation is where sex offenders want survivors to be so that they can be protected from being reported and continue to abuse. 

The trauma of being sexually abused doesn’t go away and, unfortunately, time doesn’t heal it. In fact, time can make the trauma fester and it leads to people hating themselves more and more towards self-harm to the extent of suicide. Both Wade and James described their self-hatred eloquently. They could connect well with hating themselves but not connect with feeling empathy towards themselves. They could only connect to it when they saw their own children’s vulnerability. 

Forgive and forget? 

It is not possible to forget. Survivors will never forget what happened to them. James said in the Oprah Winfrey interview: ‘forgiveness is not a line you cross, it’s a road you travel’. It is usual for survivors of sexual abuse to be very angry at the adults who allowed the abuse to happen. In the case with James and Wade’s parents, perhaps they made gross bad judgements being blinded by the star. In some cases, the parents intentionally turn a blind eye to prioritise and preserve other family relationships and not ‘rock the boat’. In that case, the parents also become abusers. 

If survivors are willing, they can go on the long journey of forgiveness, and some can forgive. But they will never forget, and the relationship with those adults will never be the same. However, forgiveness is not necessary for healing. Forgiveness is perceived as the ultimate good thing to do, sometimes, it is seen as the superior thing to do. Survivors of sexual abuse do not need to forgive their abusers or those who have wilfully enabled the abuse. True healing can happen without it. I think it is an important message because survivors are often reluctant to start therapy fearing that the therapist might ask them to forgive when they don’t want to. 

It is not the child’s fault, ever. 

When there is sexual abuse, it is always the abuser’s fault. The adult is always the one holding the responsibility to protect a child, never the other way around. It is not the child’s fault if he felt sexual pleasure. It is a normal physical reaction. It has nothing to do with him liking or wanting it or not. It is not a child’s fault for loving his abuser. It is what the abuser manufactures so that they can continue abusing. It is not a child’s fault if he wanted to stay with his abuser: abusers makes a child love them so that they can ensure access to him, and continue to manipulate him into staying silent. It is not a child’s fault if he wanted to protect his abuser. It is the normal reaction of survivors who have been psychologically abused into doing so. It is not a child’s fault if he has been sexually abused. He was not the seducer, he was a child, only the adult is responsible for it. 

The vitriol of Michael Jackson’s fans

This blog will probably be criticised by Michael Jackson’s fans. As Oprah Winfrey says in the interview with James and Wade: ‘We are all going to get it!’. Most people don’t understand what it is like to be a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, and they much less understand the psychology of sex offenders. Therefore, it is easy for the public to make up their own stories, ideas and judgements about their star. For the fans, changing Michael Jackson’s image would be a painful process of re-thinking what they had felt in their own childhood about their idol. Some fans can be aggressive, as Wade explained receiving death threats from them. That is unacceptable. But when we think of Michael Jackson’s fans’ vitriol, let’s remind ourselves that they are not talking about the survivors of sexual abuse, they’re talking about themselves and their inability to regulate their anxious emotions of change. It doesn’t make the aggression acceptable to survivors of sexual abuse, though. 

I would suggest not to allow those aggressive people deter survivors from speaking out: they can choose a safe person to tell first: usually it would be someone who can understand them, like a specialised therapist. Or it can be a good friend whom they trust to be believed and supported. It is good to start with one safe person, and then decide what they want to do next. In the UK, there is no expiry date for reporting a sex offender to the police. 

Hope and healing: effective trauma treatment

If you have been sexually abused as a child, there is good treatment available and there is great hope for healing. Find a therapist who is trauma informed and specialised in sexual abuse. Some of the effective psycho-traumatology treatments available are: 
Somatic trauma psychotherapy 
Trauma-focused CBT
EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprocessing)

There is a life beyond the Hell of Neverland. There is a vibrant, exciting, thriving and safe life for you to enjoy. Be courageous and start the steps of healing. 

Silva Neves