Mother Jones Writer Mac McClelland Says Violent Sex Cured her PTSD

Mac McClelland

This will just be a quick post without a lot of psychological analysis, because I haven’t had time to read all the articles about this carefully. I have to admit I’m somewhat flummoxed at the moment. From ABC News:

Mac McClelland, a civil rights reporter who has seen the impact of sexual violence around the globe, couldn’t shake the image of Sybille, a woman who said she had been raped at gunpoint and mutilated in the aftermath of Haiti’s catastrophic 2010 earthquake.

While on assignment for Mother Jones last September, McClelland said she accompanied Sybille to the hospital when the woman saw her attackers and went into “a full paroxysm — wailing, flailing” in terror.

Something snapped in McClelland, too. She became progressively enveloped in the classic symptoms of post-traumatic stress — avoidance of feelings, flashbacks and recurrent thoughts that triggered crying spells. There were smells that made her gag.

McClelland, 31, sought professional help but said she ultimately cured herself by staging her own rape, which she writes about in a haunting piece for the online magazine Good. The title: “How Violent Sex Helped Ease My PTSD.”

Here’s the article: I’m Gonna Need You to Fight Me On This: How Violent Sex Helped Ease My PTSD

She writes that a guy in her hotel in Haiti kept trying to get her to have sex with him, and finally he said “We can do this at gunpoint if that sells it for you.” And McClelland says it did appeal to her.

On that reporting trip, I’d been fantasizing about precisely what the local guy proposed, my back against a wall or a mattress with a friendly gun to my throat. But the plan was vetoed about as soon as it was hatched, when I asked him if his firearm had a safety and he said no. Like I say: I am not completely nuts.

I don’t want to judge, because clearly McClelland witnessed horrendous violence. Her reaction sounds more like survivor’s guilt than PTSD, but I have no way of knowing. Maybe it was both. McClelland’s description of her stress reaction to all the violence she had experienced and witnessed is harrowing, and I can understand why she broke down. She felt completely numb and unable to feel her emotions. From her description, it sounds like she was dissociating and experiencing depersonalization and derealization. Finally she told her therapist the only thing she wanted was to experience violent sex.

“All I want is to have incredibly violent sex,” I told Meredith. Since I’d left Port-au-Prince, I could not process the thought of sex without violence. And it was easier to picture violence I controlled than the abominable nonconsensual things that had happened to Sybille.

Meredith was wholly unmoved by this.

“One tried but true impact of trauma is people just really shutting themselves down,” she says when I interview her about it later for this piece. “Also, stuff comes up for people like the way it came up for you: Folks can have a counterphobic approach, moving toward fear instead of away from it. And sometimes people have fantasies like that after trauma, putting themselves in dangerous situations, almost to try to confirm with themselves that they were not impacted. ‘Look, I did it again. It’s fine. I’m fine.'”

Finally she asked a former lover to rape and beat her. Of course this was a role-playing situation and she was in control to some extent. I’m not going to post the description here, because it’s extremely graphic. I’ll leave it to you to decide if you want to read the article. But McClelland claimed she made a major breakthrough. Her PTSD was cured and she was able to return to work.

According to Conor Friedersdorf, writing in The Atlantic, a group of women who have worked in Haiti were so offended by McClelland’s descriptions of life in Haiti, that they wrote her a letter in protest, essentially accusing her of racism.

Marjorie Valbun reacted to McClelland’s piece with a critical article in Slate titled What’s happening in Haiti is not about you, in which she calls McClelland’s confessional article “Offensive.” “Shockingly-narcissistic.” “Intellectually dishonest.”

At Feministe, Jill counters with “But sometimes it is about you.”

McClelland didn’t have a “need to feel victimized.” She spent years reporting from war-torn and devastated countries, and she become psychologically overwhelmed. It’s not narcissistic or intellectually dishonest to discuss the very real impacts that can result from seeing suffering day in and day out.


Criticism that McClelland focused too much on herself at the expense of actually covering the situation in Haiti would be more warranted if the piece about PTSD was one of McClelland’s only journalistic contributions. But she has covered human rights issues tirelessly. She wrote a book about Burma. She has written dozens of articles about Haiti, including articles about sexual assault. She is not the central character in the vast majority of the pieces she’s written. The GOOD piece has gotten more attention that most of the other articles McClelland has penned, and that’s a worthy criticism, but it’s not McClelland’s responsibility or fault. To suggest that she used her time in Haiti just to write a narcissistic sex piece is wildly inaccurate. To further suggest that there’s something selfish about leaving after recognizing that you’re traumatized? That’s cruel and irresponsible. The argument that “Haiti is not about you!” is one that I’d usually be sympathetic to; but here, the article wasn’t about Haiti, it was about Mac and her experiences and her mental state and the strange position she found herself in. Haiti was a backdrop for that, but I don’t see how she was under any obligation to fully represent the complexities of the situation there in a personal piece about her own mental health.

What do you think?

37 Comments on “Mother Jones Writer Mac McClelland Says Violent Sex Cured her PTSD”

  1. Minkoff Minx says:

    Thank you BB for posting about this. I read this article of hers when she first published it, and honestly I did not “get it.” I even had thought of sending it to you and see if you could explain it to me…but it was so graphic…I decided against it.

    One thing, it looks like she got this PSTD from witnessing the reaction of a woman when she saw her rapist in the street. She has seen violence repeatedly while reporting around the world, but the emotional reaction from Sybile is what did it?

    Makes me wonder if she already was curious about violent sex in some subconscious way. I just can’t see why anyone would want to experience being “raped” by their own choice, and I must say…getting a violent lay from your ex-lover is not the same as being “raped” in the real world.

    As a rape victim, I speak from personal experience…why anyone would feel like Mac is beyond me.

    • bostonboomer says:

      I’ve added some more links to the post, in the past few minutes. Did you read the article? I have questions about this too, but I’ve never experienced violence anywhere near the level McClelland did. This certainly doesn’t fit with what I know about rape trauma, but I don’t want to judge her. If she really got better this way, It’s her own choice. I just hope other traumatized women don’t follow suit without having a very good support system.

      It’s definitely true that role playing is not the same as actually being raped and having no control. I think she does recognize that though.

  2. madaha says:

    That is such a sad story. I hope she does feel better, and it’s not just some kind of complicated denial. But can PTSD ever really be cured, or does one just mange better sometimes than others? And the symptoms possibly decreasing with therapy and the distance of time, but is that a “cure”?

    This sounds way too simplistic. (and sadly self-destructive?) I’m very dubious. I hope she continues to get help anyway.

    • bostonboomer says:

      The symptoms of PTSD can be alleviated. I speak from experience. I do think facing down your fears is a big part of recovery. She seems to have chosen “immersion,” like when someone with a phobia of snakes for example, choosed to be exposed to snakes very quickly with some support. That can work for phobias. I’ve never heard of using it for PTSD, and this sounds very risky. I hope she really is better.

      I had a lot of the same reactions that you did.

  3. Branjor says:

    I’m glad she felt some mastery over the experience as a result of the violent rape. As long as it doesn’t become chronic, where she has to relive it over and over again. I’ve heard women say the same thing about BDSM – it helps them deal with their sexual abuse. The trouble is, they have to do BDSM over and over again, leading me to believe nothing has been resolved by it for them.

  4. northwestrain says:

    Way back in college I remember reading in one of my text books about the various human pair bonds and which were found to be the most stable. S & M — tended to be the most stable. That little footnote has always disturbed me. So I’ve been doing my own research since some of the curtains have been opened on the BDSM “life style”. I have a intensive training in Personality Assessment — and from an intellectual standpoint I can understand the specific personality types (submissive) who are drawn to sadistic personality types.

    Also the study of cults and the personality types drawn to cults helps to understand how some people are willing to give up control to another person. There are some forms of therapy which break down a personality and then “rebuild” — the CIA paid for experiments in personality disintegration (the review can be found in Naomi Klein’s “Shock Doctrine” — her review is fact based.) These sorts of therapy are known as “Depersonalization” — the Canadian doctor who experimented for the CIA is now considered a monster. Cult leaders have been using these tricks for years and some personality types are drawn in by master personalities. (Snapping: America’s Epidemic of Sudden Personality Change, 2nd Ed. – Paperback (Apr. 13, 2005) by Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman. This is a good resource.)

    I have to agree with Minkoff Minx that having a former lover engage in rough sex is not even similar to being raped, it is more like BDSM — and she may be a submissive personality. Now that’s a whole other discussion. From what I’ve read about dom/sub relationships — the sub gives permission to the dom and then trusts the dom not to step over “the line”. Which is what happened in this case McCleland gave permission.

    Another word you might want to add to the personality disorder above is narcissist — In my opinion McClelland needs help — or perhaps she needs to explore the Sadistic masochistic lifestyle and then report back that she doesn’t know WTF she is writing about.

    McClelland does a huge disservice to women (and men) who have been raped and sexually abused. I sort of see narcissist and 15 minutes of fame written under her name.

    • bostonboomer says:

      I appreciate your insights. Thank you. I’ve read Snapping twice. It was very helpful to me in understanding the Obot phenomenon.

      • northwestrain says:

        Yes that’s why someone (you perhaps) suggested reading Snapping — because it was very helpful in understanding the 0bots.

        Interesting that others have mentioned the BDSM connection in this story. In another response to this story — there was the usual response that anyone who didn’t sing the praises of “Mac” was racist. Typical 0bot response/non response to the underlying theme of masochistic acting out by this reporter. The woman needs therapy — and some of her “friends” don’t seem to be helping. Pat sort of hit the nail on the head in her comment.

    • WomanVoter says:

      Thank you for your comments. When I heard about this, I was very concerned as I have not heard/read of any ‘official’ approval for such extreme use of flooding and I also have concerns about it getting out of hand and involving others, while seeming to promote the ‘treatment’ as a ‘cure’.

      Having heard some shocking first hand accounts of Abuse/torture/rape, I would run off in fear (thinking they lost the plot) if someone offered this (what Mac McClelland describes in this article) as debriefing to me…seriously.

  5. Pat Johnson says:

    This woman is obviously sick in the head.

    What was her report supposed to convey? That she is in favor of abuse victims following the same course?

    I am not clear about her intent but it is overall very disturbing. And where were her editors in all this? She clearly is experiencing issues that cannot be glossed over and may in time come to regret publishing such a bizarre experience.

    I am deeply perplexed at what this article is hoping to uncover. Troubling that there is someone a little more in balance who should have held back exposing this woman’s life and the risks involved to her mental state.

    • bostonboomer says:

      I think she just intended the article to be confessional in nature–perhaps therapeutic for her. I was really flummoxed by it, as I said in the post.

      I don’t want to judge someone who has experienced and witnessed horrible events. But I too am troubled by what I read.

    • paper doll says:

      I think it’s about normalizing S/M and abuse ? what else could it be…a thread in pro left is the normalization stuff such as the c word…(which I can’t type out right now ) normalizing anti woman stuff…I doubt they would publish a man saying this…and are you telling me Mother Jones has nothing better to publish given all the issues?

      My contention is there is no Left media…it was bought up in 2004 to help Obama get in and it pertends to be Left …and so we gets this shit . The only place you can hope to get some news is on independent blogs….

  6. Beata says:

    This is DEEPLY disturbing to me. I don’t want to read any of the links. It is irresponsible reporting in my opinion. I just hope other women don’t try to “cure” their PTSD the same way. The consequences could be very dangerous, emotionally and physically.

    • bostonboomer says:

      That’s why I didn’t exerpt the graphic description. It made me very uneasy, and I too hope no other traumatized women do this.

      • WomanVoter says:

        I second the motion…and thanks for opening up the discussion, albeit, a difficult one to have…

        Do you remember the ladies that killed a little girl, trying to ‘process’ her via some ‘treatment’ that would ‘cure’ her by going through a rebirth? That ‘treatment’ came to mind, when I read this…and yes, I read it twice…couldn’t believe what I was reading and wanted to make sure…

    • dakinikat says:

      I found this really disturbing when I read it. I’ve met her and this is about the last thing I would’ve expected although she’s really into shocking people from what I’ve observed. She’s obviously be impacted by witnessing all the things she’s witnessed and needs help. I don’t think this comes under the heading of ‘help’.

      • bostonboomer says:

        I read most of the article, but I actually skimmed the worst part. I just didn’t want to read it.

  7. JeanLouise says:

    While I have no trouble believing that the author is experiencing PTSD, I think that publicly reporting her reaction to it and her claim to be “healed” is irresponsible. There are so very many women who’ve suffered trauma at the hands of others who may be desperate enough to try this bizarre experiment in an effort to heal their own PTSD.

    Imo, she needs more therapy.

  8. gxm17 says:

    I haven’t read the article and don’t have a desire to. But this is my take. If she requested and consented to the sex, then it wasn’t rape. It was mutually agreed upon violent sex, or BDSM. That’s not rape and for a “journalist” to present it as such is irresponsible, just plain bad journalism, and a disservice to the victims of actual rape. My mind reels at the thought of rapists, and rape apologists, who will cite this as evidence that they were just curing some poor victim’s “hang ups.”

    • bostonboomer says:

      She didn’t present it as rape. She states that in the article. She explained exactly what she did–ask a friend to act out a violent sexual situation with her. It does sound like BDSM to me too.

  9. djmm says:

    I have not read the article — I don’t think I can.

    It seems weird to me but I am not in her shoes. Sometimes one has to face one’s fear to overcome it. It sounds like that’s what the author did, in a controlled, relatively safe way.

    If it worked for her, I am glad. But it is not like really being raped, I am sure. I am also not sure it would help anyone who was the victim of actual violence.


  10. Fannie says:

    I really can’t accept this. Have any of you met up with the rapist after being raped?

  11. Uppity Woman says:

    This feel that her ‘curative rape’ story is wrong on so many levels, I’m speechless. And you know how often I’m speechless.

    • dakinikat says:

      lol … yeah … me too on that account … I caught it while I was on the phone to BB and all I could say was you need to post this because I’m speechless and you’re the psychologist here maybe you can say something THEN she just put it up with out much narrative … that means both of us were essentially speechless at first

    • WomanVoter says:

      Yup, I will note that Uppity Woman…you sure are not one to be speechless and agree.

  12. paper doll says:

    Basically we , the reading left, are expected to be the submissive here. This article is part of the push to make anything done to woman not a crime… Like we need Mother Jones to join in that as well….guess there wasn’t other important stories out there to cover.

  13. mary m says:

    In 1994 I was raped during a housewarming party in a soundproofed recording studio that my husband had buit as a gift. The rapist was the best man at our wedding 3 yrs earlier. This assault was violent-with a knife to my throat he taunted me telling me “You can scream all you want and no one will hear you.” I imagined my husband finding me dead hours later so I submitted. This was one assault in a long line of sexual abuse that I had endured since childhood. I have spent many years trying to overcome ptsd. I am still married but sexually dysfunctional. I read that article and fantacized about staging my own rape and reliving all of my abuses in one shot. The thought of a “cure”brought me hope so I had my husband read the article. He told me that he would never consent to do such a thing to me and then he had me speak to a friend of ours-a psychologist who has actually tried to help me over the years-and he told me that by no means should any ptsd victim ever stage a rape. He guaranteed that I would have a psychotic break that might be irreparable, not to mention, the damage I would cause to the man playing the rapist. Thank God I had someone to set me straight. All the theories discussed here are exactly what my friend told me was probable. I just hope no one tries this method. There are no quick fixes-just alot of hard work that people like me will need to do to come out on the otherside. Oh but how hellish it is to be desparately hurting.

    • bostonboomer says:

      Thank you for sharing your story, Mary. I’m so glad you have such a wonderful supportive husband. I wish you all the best in your healing process.

    • WomanVoter says:

      Thank you for sharing, and wishing you and your family well.

  14. bostonboomer says:

    Interesting analysis from Northwestrain at Politics and Imagination:

    What happens when a reporter doesn’t know the difference between BDSM and rape? A female reporter sees horrible things happening to other women so she gets a case of PTSD. Then to cure PTSD she asks a former lover for rough sex (simulated rape?) and now she claims to have been cured of PTSD. This is what happens when a female reporter doesn’t know the difference between BDSM and rape. The rough sex she had with her former lover was at her request — this is what BDSM is. BDSM personalities — Domination and submission is something that most of us know very little about. There are a few books of fiction that give some insight into this lifestyle. There is a lot of room for abusive treatment of women (some men play the submissive role) — to the point that spousal abuse is excused as “love” by some fans of BDSM. In my opinion the reporter who saw horrific things happens to helpless people as part of her job — needs help. She also needs to explore the world of BDSM.

    • Woman Voter says:

      Thanks BB, for placing the link as I hadn’t seen it and it makes some solid point that were missed by many media outlets, including ‘Mother Jones’.

  15. D says:

    I think it’s important to get the facts straight about this before condemning or praising the author. She never said she was raped. She said the condition she faced arose largely from observation of other women’s tragedies, not from living her own.

    Also, I think it’s important not to assume it’s BDSM. She doesn’t fetishize the violent sex she had, so it doesn’t smack of the normal expression of submission or rape fantasy.

    Psychologically speaking, people sometimes suffer the sort of uncontrolled emotional reactions common to PTSD when confronted by emotional phenomena they haven’t managed to contextualize. Putting a framework of reason or context around the class of event that sets you off can help you manage your reactions. Sometimes this contextualization can be accomplished by getting close to the horrifying event in a relatively safe way.

    I suggest that the right way to approach this story is as a psychological study, not a piece on politics or the state of journalism. Besides, we can’t ask journalists like this not to publish confessional pieces because we don’t like what the implications might be. This is her truth. We need to incorporate her data points into our view of the world.

    • dakinikat says:

      Our bostonboomer who wrote this is a PhD holding psychologist.

      • bostonboomer says:

        I specifically did not make any judgments about McClelland’s experience. If this worked for her, great. I do hope that rape survivors won’t try something like this without talking to a therapist first (as McClelland did) and having a very strong social support system.

    • paper doll says:

      This is her truth. We need to incorporate her data points into our view of the world.

      no, we don’t