I am endlessly fascinated by the sex addiction debate: is it a real thing or not? The diagnosis, which did not make it into the DSM-V, has been a cash cow for ambitious therapists. In Los Angeles, sex addiction therapists can command upwards of $200 an hour for individual therapy . When you add on group therapy, couples therapy, intensive outpatient treatment, and even inpatient treatment — well, you might as well take out a second mortgage. My guess is that many people get roped into treatment they don’t need for the purpose of keeping high-end treatment centers in business.
There is no doubt that sexual compulsivity breaks up marriages and hurt careers — look no further than Tiger Woods for evidence. But let’s assume a radical position for a moment. Is the world-famous golfer really a sex addict? Or is he simply a man so privileged that he can have virtually any woman, or combination of women, that he wants? Would more men partake of these opportunities if they had Woods’ access? And, if Woods was a rock star who screwed his away across America, would the public even care?
When I got divorced I began to wonder what would happen if monogamy were no longer a social construct, and more couples agreed to open arrangements. If people felt secure in their primary relationship and had permission to have sex outside the marriage, would those we view as sex addicts stop looking like sex addicts? Think about it. There would be no need to keep secrets. There would be no betrayal to overcome. There might even be less risky acting-out since people would be able to take appropriate sex partners.
Most important, there would be no shame. And shame, I believe, is at the heart of addiction. Shame creates self-loathing which then leads people to engage in increasingly extreme behaviors to obliterate their sense of personal failure, or to escape any situation they can’t manage with healthy coping skills.
Director Steve McQueen, who helmed 12 Years A Slave, made a wrenching film about a sex addict’s spiral into despair, called, appropriately, Shame. Michael Fassbender plays a successful ad executive whose life is run by his sexual compulsions. His joyless existence shrinks until he has no attachments to anyone, no interests beyond web-camming, cyber-porn, escorts, and hook-ups — and one hook-up so dangerous he nearly dies. Yet, despite his despair, he’s unable to quell his soul-killing compulsivity.
I don’t know how anyone could watch this film and insist that there is no such thing as sex addiction. And I’m puzzled why those who say sex addiction isn’t real can’t admit that people often abuse sex just as they abuse drugs or alcohol.
Sex addiction naysayers get sidetracked by the puritanism that pervades our culture — the same puritanism that promotes slut-shaming and patriarchal attempts to regulate women’s bodies and unnatural religious mandates to suppress healthy sexuality. Those in the anti sex addiction camp have a legitimate gripe that we are too quick to pathologize non-vanilla sex and sexually charged people.
But an “anything goes” perspective can be as myopic as slapping the sex addiction label onto people and practices outside the norm.
Let’s substitute alcohol for sex. There are heavy drinkers who function in their professional and personal lives and can stop drinking if they feel their drinking has become destructive. Those people are not alcoholics. But the people whose substance use causes them to blow up their relationships and lose their livelihoods are clearly alcoholics. Alcohol, then, is not the problem in either of these scenarios; it’s the misuse of alcohol that is.
My time on OkCupid has been a fascinating exploration of social anthropology. I have met individuals all along the sex and relationship spectrum, from those desiring traditional monogamy to those who embrace alternative sexual lifestyles, including polyamory, group ex, kink, and BDSM.
I liken those who are into extreme sex with those who are into extreme sports. Triathletes structure their lives around their sport. They may seek flexible work hours to accommodate their rigorous training schedules. They spend a lot of money on sports clothes and gear. They maintain a special diet. They hang out with other triathletes, perhaps to the exclusion of “regular” people, and travel the country, and the world, to participate in events.
Is this not evocative of those heavily into the swinger, kink, and fetish scene?
Again, as with alcohol, there is nothing inherently wrong with sex. What’s inherently wrong is sex in the absence of respect, trust, communication, and healthy boundaries. Unfortunately, any extreme lifestyle can and does attract trauma survivors who end up re-traumatizing themselves, abusers trolling for victims, and those with psychiatric disorders seeking to self-medicate but end up spiraling out of control.
The Internet is a wonderful forum in which to educate the public about sex, and to create community for people who feel marginalized by their sexual preferences. As awareness grows, I hope that our views on sexual behavior become less polarized. I hope that common sense replaces a black-and-white worldview, and that everyone is afforded the privilege of owning their sexuality without shame or judgement.