11/13/2012 06:42 pm ET Updated Jan 13, 2013

Sex and the General: A Small Drop in a Much Larger Bucket

The current drama now playing out in the media related to General David Petraeus' affair is without question the tip of the iceberg in relation to a concern that is both under-recognized and misunderstood by military leaders and the general public. It is neither salacious nor unpatriotic to hold an honest discussion about the increasing number of documented incidents of inappropriate problem sexual behavior occurring among the ranks numbers of our servicemen and women on a daily basis. Let us not forget the secret service members who were hanging out with prostitutes while on duty a mere few months ago. While the majority of our military demonstrate great respect for their role and fully understand what it means to represent our nation at home and abroad, there are more than a few troubled soldiers, sailors, and enlisted officers who regularly engage in problem sexual behavior both on and off duty -- an issue that profoundly affects the morality, dignity, and long-term health of our armed forces.

As a therapist, author, and treatment expert in the areas of problem sexual behavior and sexual addiction, I have been privileged to provide multiple educational programs for U.S. Military Chaplains and Military Family Advocacy therapists worldwide -- trainings specifically focused on the growing concern of problem sexual behavior by U.S. servicemen and women, both on and off base. Having conducted many such training sessions over the past few years, I feel uniquely qualified to comment on this topic, as today it has once again become front page news.

The problem of inappropriate sexual acting out in the military is not simply one of a few servicemen "blowing off steam" when on short-term leave -- an activity that has over time developed an honored rite of passage aura. Of much greater concern at this point are sexual harassment and rape by fellow servicemen, as well as the abuse of pornography on military owned computers, laptops, smartphones, and other devices. During trainings on numerous bases -- trainings that involved both educating and listening -- I have been told firsthand about the incidence and underreporting of:

  • Sexual harassment and rape of female soldiers occurring both on and off-base
  • Male on male rape in barracks, conducted as a demonstration of power
  • Officers procuring prostitutes for (male) soldiers on leave, making sure each man has a room and woman waiting for him during off-base leave
  • Soldiers downloading porn onto government owned computers, both on and off duty
  • Inadequately trained mental health professionals being asked to treat servicemen who've sexually offended on base and been moved to the brig
  • Officers encouraging the use of porn and masturbation to relieve the stress of active duty
  • Rape and sexual harassment carried out off-base -- a problem with profoundly negative consequences for bases outside the US, many of which are located in areas with already hostile local populations

These issues are not new and they are not unique to this time, but, much like the kinds of problems that occur and go unmentioned in any "looking-good" family, they are oftentimes swept under the rug, deferred to the mission at hand, or, worse, handled idiosyncratically depending on who is in command that day.

This moment may well be one in which we all shake our heads, look the other way, and view what happened with General Petraeus as an isolated, unique problem that will go away when he and the others involved are disciplined. But I challenge the powers that be within our military, as an invited professional -- someone who has spent a great deal of time training those tasked to emotionally and psychologically support our servicemen and women -- to view this incident as a wake-up sign. This moment provides an opportunity to openly and thoroughly review overall military policy and procedure related to problem sexual behavior, while also addressing the larger problem of sexual acting out within the U.S. military.

Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is the author of three books on sexual addiction and an expert on the juxtaposition of human sexuality, intimacy, and technology. He is founding director of The Sexual Recovery Institute and Director of Intimacy and Sexual Disorders Services at The Ranch and Promises Treatment Centers. Mr. Weiss is a clinical psychotherapist and educator. He has provided sexual addiction treatment training internationally for psychology professionals, addiction treatment centers and the U.S. military. A media expert for Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times, Mr. Weiss has been featured on CNN, The Today Show, Oprah, and ESPN among many others. Rob can also be found on Twitter at @RobWeissMSW.