October is Sexual Violence Awareness Month, held each year to raise awareness, promote support and uphold a clear message that sexual violence will not be tolerated in our communities.
Incredibly, the University of the Sunshine Coast (UniSC) has its own Sexual Violence Research and Prevention Unit (SVRPU), whose experts work collaboratively to generate research that reduces victimisation and addresses perpetration.
Andrew Allen, a Clinical Psychologist and Associate Lecturer at UniSC, is working on his PhD which centres on fantasy and sexual violence, investigating the use of a psychological intervention called Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, to prevent the enactment of sexual violence.
We asked Andrew to tell us about his innovative research in this space.
Alicia Gutierrez Brown: Let’s start with the research project. Can you tell me what it involved?
Andrew Allen: We asked several hundred participants from the community to visualise their favourite sexual fantasy, and then comment on different aspects of the fantasy. Some research has shown that it's not always the content of the fantasy that's the issue – so whether the content is normal sex or harmful sex - it's more about the characteristics of the fantasy itself, such as how vivid, emotional, arousing, or pleasurable the fantasy is.
What we found was that - irrespective of the content of a person's sexual fantasy - people who had more harmful sexual interests, or a history of harmful sexual behaviour, also had higher sexual fantasy characteristics…more vivid, more emotional, more arousing and more pleasurable fantasies, compared to people who didn't have those interests or a history of harmful sexual behaviour.
What this shows us, is that part of how we can intervene is using imagery strategies that reduce, diminish, or impair these characteristics in some way, because that will make the fantasies less appealing and less interesting for the individual.
In other words, if a fantasy is not as clear and not as vivid anymore, it's harder to get pleasure, arousal, and emotional sensations from it. It sets the basis for using some experimental psychology techniques for manipulators and changing a person's sexual fantasy.
AGB: Prior to this interview, we were discussing the Netflix show, “How to Build a Sex Room,” and talking about how your research can be linked to this pop culture fascination of creating a space to live out sexual fantasies. How is it relative?
AA: An interesting finding in my research was that a lot of people in the sample had extremely varied sexual interests. Sex can be a taboo topic that people feel uncomfortable talking about. This discomfort spans across a spectrum between issues of privacy, respect, maybe certain personal values, all the way up to embarrassment, shame and vulnerability in having those sorts of conversations with other people.
So, knowing that these sexual interests are prevalent in the general population, as demonstrated in “How to Build a Sex Room,” whether it’s a room or even just a conversation creates a space to honour and explore these interests in a safe way among consenting adults. I think that's equally important, because we don't want to kink-shame people or stigmatise varied sexual interest as all being harmful and damaging, because they're not. For some people, these are just their interests, and it's important to be able to explore that in a safe way.
It makes me wonder, maybe another way to think about this from an intervention perspective, is maybe if people had safe outlets for communicating and experimenting and experiencing their sexual fantasies, it may stop them from being more opportunistic with other harmful behaviours in other areas of their life.
"From an intervention perspective...maybe if people had safe outlets for communicating and experimenting and experiencing their sexual fantasies, it may stop them from being more opportunistic with other harmful behaviours in other areas of their life."
AGB: That's an interesting point. Is there a link between shame and not being able to openly talk about fantasies and maybe it then morphing into deviant sort of behaviours?
AA: Shame and embarrassment are key reasons for inhibiting communication of certain sexual interests or desires. But inhibiting that communication can create a rebound effect in the brain.
If I asked you not to think about a pink elephant, automatically your mind generates an image of a pink elephant and then you're trying not to think about it.
Pushing that thought out creates a rebound which makes you think about the pink elephant even more, which then creates a preoccupation with the pink elephant, right? And that preoccupation stays there, and you ruminate on it, and this results in physical sensations, desires and urges. And inevitably, this has some level of influence on behaviour and actions.
AGB: What are you hoping to achieve with this specific research?
AA: For people who have harmful sexual interests, or a history of harmful sexual behaviour, this research sets the basis of us understanding that we can apply specific cognitive interventions in a way that manipulates and changes their sexual fantasy, which ultimately reduces the behaviour.
We've completed a follow up study now, which is under review, where we took a group of people from the community, and we applied this cognitive technique to their sexual fantasies. What it showed was, over time, we gradually diminished the characteristics of their sexual fantasies…we made them less vivid, less clear, less emotional, less arousing for the individual. This effect was partially maintained in their one week follow up, and significantly reduced participants’ intention to act on their sexual fantasies.
One participant contacted us out of the blue and said, ‘Oh my god, that was so helpful. The fantasy I chose for the study was committing infidelity with my boss at work, a fantasy I just couldn't get out of my head. And the intervention actually made me feel nothing about the fantasy anymore. I don't think about it at all now and it doesn't have the same sensation anymore.’ It was interesting to get that feedback, we were able to incorporate it into the manuscript, because it was an unexpected finding..
"The fantasy I chose for the study was committing infidelity with my boss at work, a fantasy I just couldn't get out of my head...the intervention actually made me feel nothing about the fantasy anymore...it doesn't have the same sensation anymore."
AGB: It sounds like this therapy could be used potentially in lots of ways, from less serious fantasies like infidelity to extremely harmful behaviours, like sexual violence and paedophilia.
AA: When we say, ‘harmful sexual interests or behaviour,’ it encompasses a continuum of sexual violence, whether it’s breaches of consent, behaviour that’s hurting someone else, or against someone else who hasn't got capacity to consent, we cover that entire spectrum. There are many fantasies that people struggle with, or that they don't want to enact, or that they've learned from previous experiences. So, there are ways we can reasonably intervene around that for individuals. Really, my research is just providing support, trying another type of intervention.
AGB: Is it preventative, or more of a therapeutic intervention? In other words, would this therapy be used to prevent sexual violence or treat it after it's already happened? Or both?
AA: Both, I think.
It's interesting, we're not born knowing about sex, right? We’re born, and then we start to learn about ourselves and our bodies, and we get urges, and then we have evolutionary drives that gradually get stronger over time. We learn about sex through different sources, so it depends what your first learning experience was. Was it a conversation with your parents? Stumbling onto a pornographic website? Or, is it an unfortunate interaction with someone else that results in some form of sexual assault?
A great example recorded in literature is around one of the earliest cases of exhibitionism where a man describes quite clearly that he was publicly urinating, and he got caught by surprise by an adult female. He felt embarrassed and ashamed, but at the same time he was excited, and aroused that he got caught. And he's like, ‘Oh, I want to do that again….and again.’ And that became the fantasy that contributed to ongoing exhibitionist behaviour that eventually got him in trouble and under arrest.
So, if we could apply this technique early on to reduce the intensity before the behaviour becomes problematic, we could impact the behaviour significantly.
AGB: What led you to take on this study? Was there a specific reason from previous work that interested you, or what inspired it?
AA: A lot of these ideas have been done before, so I'm building on that research by looking at the follow up and the behavioural intention.
The original inspiration came from one of the early placements I had in clinical psychology; a program for adolescents who sexually offend. We dealt with a lot of referrals through Child Safety and Youth Justice.
I quickly learned there's not a lot of evidence or intervention to help people in that environment understand sexual information and sexual learning and managing fantasies as well as understanding the harmful aspects of their behaviour.
The other thing I learned through some of the referrals and the contexts in which these behaviours occurred, is how children are learning about sex and harmful sexual behaviours, and how important those learning experiences are. I thought, well, there's a lot of useful work that can be done in this space. It really stayed with me, until I went further with my clinical practice, and then eventually had time for a PhD.
The technique itself comes from trauma-based literature, which shows how post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is driven by traumatic memories, so one way we can manage PTSD symptoms is by targeting trauma memories and desensitising them. When we desensitise trauma memories, they become less vivid, less emotional and less distressing. So really, we just took that technique, and thought, if we can apply this to trauma memories, can we apply this to positive memories as well?
You might think, ‘Why the heck would you want to do that to positive memories?’ But positive memories can drive psychopathology like addictive behaviours, such as positive memories about alcohol and substance use, positive memories related to gambling. And then finally, the perpetration of sexual violence, positive memories around certain sexual experiences or acts. If we can target these specifically, couldn’t we potentially reduce people's perpetration of sex crimes?
For the small group intervention study, we asked participants at the start, ‘If hypothetically you were given the opportunity, would you engage in your sexual fantasy, without consequences?’ And everyone's like, ‘Yeah, of course.’ Then at the end, after the imagery technique, we asked them the same question and about 60% of them changed their answer. That’s a huge shift from a small intervention and time frame.
AGB: Wow. Do you think they changed their answer because they became aware that it was harmful, or because the fantasy had been reduced, so it wasn't as exciting in their mind?
AA: That's a wonderful question. The main premise we're working on is it became less exciting, less arousing, less vivid, less emotional. But, in the sexual fantasies study, we weren't privy to the details of what participants were fantasising about, because part of the ethics was telling them to just focus on the characteristics of the image and not give us too much detail.
"Positive memories can drive psychopathology like addictive behaviours, such as...positive memories around certain sexual experiences or acts. If we can target these specifically, couldn’t we potentially reduce people's perpetration of sex crimes?"
"The stats are as high as one in three women who experience sexual violence in their lifetime. I was thinking about this in relation to my three children, all girls, like, ‘My god, statistically one of you are going to experience sexual violence in your lifetime.’ Man, if we can reduce that in any meaningful way, that's worth the effort."
AGB: To wrap it up, if you had one outcome that comes from this, what would it be in a nutshell?
AA: Any reduction in the commission of harmful sexual behaviour is worthwhile, even if it's just reducing one person’s behaviour, that can make a big difference in protecting other people and the community as far as I'm concerned.
Andrew’s PhD supervisor, Dr Nadine McKillop, who is also co-leader of the SVPRU, says this ground-breaking PhD research is at the "precipice of innovative practice." "While these findings are preliminary," she said, "they do add to our understanding of the role of sexual fantasies in sexually harmful behaviour; and with more research have the potential to positively impact current therapeutic responses, and even prevent victimisation from occurring in the first place.”