Jonathan Van Ness, America’s fabulous fairy godmother, has gifted us with a new memoir, Over the Top: A Raw Journey to Self-Love. Van Ness, known to Queer Eye reboot fans as the show’s exuberant grooming expert, does not write a manual to becoming a celebrity or exhibit a star- studded tea-spill; instead, JVN gives readers a narrative about overcoming trauma and internalized shame.
Initially, I wasn’t sure what to expect from a celebrity memoir—I’ve never before read one, and begun the audiobook expecting it might provide some humor to a long drive. Of course JVN did not disappoint on the humor front, but the memoir is painful and introspective throughout. While JVN’s public disclosure of his HIV-positive status hit headlines, his difficult and complex account of processing childhood sexual abuse has gotten very little coverage.
While many sexual assault narratives showcase avoidance, Over the Top portrays a survivor struggling with compulsive sexual behavior. To those unfamiliar with sexual assault and abuse, hyper-sexuality might seem contradictory—why would someone put themselves in situations reminiscent of the traumatic situation they are trying to heal from? Some might even wonder if a person is really suffering from trauma if they engage in compulsive sexual behaviors. If they did experience sexual abuse or assault, they would want less sex, not more! It is true that sexual expression can be inhibited because of past trauma for some people, but many others silently
struggle with hyper-sexuality.
Hyper-sexuality is a common, and dangerous, symptom of childhood sexual abuse and PTSD. For JVN, this symptom led him to risky sexual practices, lost him a loving partner, and 1 ultimately gave him HIV. Sex addiction or hyper-sexuality, however, has not been in the DSM for many years. Those against the diagnosis argue that it further stigmatizes sex, though they do not directly deny the impact of trauma on survivors’ sexual behavior.
In Over the Top, we get the perspective of JVN looking back on his struggle and being able to see how his sexual compulsions were directly informed by trauma. He writes, “I was trying to recreate these events from my childhood—only in this version, I was the one who was in control.” For Jonathan, he sought out sexual experiences that mirrored his own abuse—age-gaps, doctor-play, etc.
The work put into therapy and, in Jonathan’s case, 12-step, can help a survivor to see and understand their relationship with sex. For those in the throes of trauma-induced sexual compulsion however, seeing a compassionate narrative of their behavior and the reasons behind it might not be possible yet. The shame—not only is there shame in our society around general sexuality, but that the ways in which survivors of sexual abuse and assault heal is particularly scrutinized—can silence survivors in otherwise safe spaces.
In treating survivors of sexual abuse and assault, avoiding shame is crucial. Van Ness’s memoir, or similarly compassionate and nuanced literature, may help survivors of sexual assault and abuse to relate to someone who has not only succeeded despite their trauma, but who has deeply examined trauma’s affect on their life. Having a public figure, especially one as positive as Jonathan Van Ness, to relate to can help increase feelings of validity and worthiness among other
Arch Sex Behav. 2019 Apr;48(3):987-993. doi: 10.1007/s10508-018-1378-1. Epub 2019 Feb 19.
Ness, J. V. (2019). Over the top. SIMON & SCHUSTER LTD.
Sex Addiction: A Response to Trauma? (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/talking-about-trauma/201404/sex-addiction- response-trauma?amp.