Two contradictory pieces on the subject of porn and sex addiction emerged recently, both of which — naturally — virtually ignore the role of gender in the rise of the various social and cultural phenomena people have chosen to lump under the rubric of “sex addiction,” as well as the variety of and wide variations between the behaviors that fall under that ill-conceived label. The first, a salacious Newsweek cover story that warns of a growing epidemic of “sex addiction” brought about by the internet’s facilitation of porn use and casual meet-ups, spawned the second, a Salon piece critical of the concept of sex addiction in which Tracy Clark-Flory interviews Liberal Dude author David Ley, whose new book The Myth of Sex Addiction is due out soon. A cursory reference in the Newsweek article to “greater stigma” for women who engage in risky sexual behavior notwithstanding, neither piece even skirts the obvious questions anyone who isn’t personally invested in the perpetuation of patriarchy should ask (I know there are at least seven people who aren’t personally invested in the perpetuation of patriarchy).
While both articles mention the fact that behaviors as different as compulsive porn use, emotionally and physically risky sexual behavior, and the serial pursuit of unhealthy romantic attachments — to which has been applied the unfortunate label “love addiction” — have been grouped under the umbrella term “sex addiction,” neither pays much attention to why that might be so, and neither has anything to say about the ways in which that ham-fisted grouping shapes the “treatment” that this motley assortment of “sex addicts” receives.
Given that gender is a foundational social organizing principle and that assumptions about gender color nearly every interaction a human being engages in, ignoring the role of gender (as well, of course, as class and race) in discussions of sex addiction (and pretty much anything else) places huge barricades in the way of understanding what the hell is even going on, much less what to do about it. Addiction – whether it be to bourbon, benzos, or getting busy in a Burger King bathroom – means very different things for men and for women. Gender roles come with prepackaged social expectations, and the processes by which women and men become addicted to various substances or behaviors and by which they come to consider themselves addicts differ, as do the gendered social consequences that attach to addictive behavior.
Let’s assume for a second that sex addiction — as defined as compulsively engaging in in-person sexual encounters — exists (which I will get to later). If we want to treat it, shouldn’t we at least try to determine its real causes? Those who believe in the existence of sex addiction identify an insatiable need for validation in the form of sexual attention as its root for both women and men, but socially inculcated gendered behavior results in that need manifesting in very different ways, with different consequences for both the addict and her or his partners. Women, when seeking affirmation or attention, tend to self-objectify and to seek out interactions with the kinds of men who value sexual availability over all other characteristics. You know, opportunistic assholes. It’s not difficult for a woman to find a dude willing to use her for sex, nor is it rare for a woman to run across a date rapist or a man who can’t wait to take out his misogyny on her body. Being a female sex addict in the era of porn saturation is thus physically and psychologically dangerous business for the addict herself. From the Newsweek article:
For Valerie, sex was a form of self-medication: to obliterate the anxiety, despair, and crippling fear of emotional intimacy that had haunted her since being abandoned as a child. “In order to soothe the loneliness and the fear of being unwanted, I was looking for love in all the wrong places,” she recalls.
Women — despite the fact that their stories often lead pieces about sex addiction (how odd) — rarely show up at therapists’ offices or Sex Addicts Anonymous meetings claiming to be sex addicts. The Newsweek piece attempts to explain away the paucity of female sex addicts:
If discussion of sex addiction can seem like an exclusive domain of men, that’s because, according to sex therapists, the overwhelming majority of self-identifying addicts—about 90 percent—are male. Women are more often categorized as “love addicts,” with a compulsive tendency to fall into dependent relationships and form unrealistic bonds with partners. That’s partly because women are more apt than men to be stigmatized by association with sex addiction, says Anna Valenti-Anderson, a sex-addiction therapist in Phoenix. “We live in a society where there’s still a lot more internalized shame for women and there’s a lot more for them to lose,” Valenti-Anderson says. “People will say, ‘She’s a bad mom’ for doing these sexual things. As opposed to, ‘She’s sick and has a disorder.’ But very slowly, women are starting to be more willing to come into treatment.”
Despite the plain differences between male and female “sex addicts,” the therapy community insists on equating the kind of behavior Valerie describes with male sex addicts’ exploitative sexual behaviors:
“The addiction will take you to a place where you’re walking the streets at night, so keyed up, thinking, ‘Maybe I’ll just see if there’s anybody out there,’” he says. “Like looking for prey, kind of…”
Addiction leads male sex addicts, it would appear, to obsessively seek female sex addicts. When they fail to materialize, most turn to prostitutes or to porn. While one could make the argument that renting women comes with the risks of sexually transmitted infections (though it’s usually male customers who insist on sex without condoms), there is a clear and gendered imbalance in the consequences for sex addiction. While male sex addicts might lose a romantic partner or two over their philandering, they don’t face the same level of social opprobrium women do for engaging similar behavior, nor do their risky sexual behaviors come with the threat of rape or murder as women’s do. In addition to avoiding the bulk of the consequences that their female counterparts confront, male sex addicts can be a detriment to many others beyond the romantic partners that they serially cheat on, because they often help create the demand in the porn and prostitution industries that allows for their continued existence and continued exploitation of women and children.
But let’s be serious. Is every character flaw going to become a disease that one can only escape from via rehab? If men are wandering around, glassy-eyed and thoughtless, in search of women they can joylessly fuck, is the problem really that these men are addicts, or is it simply that they’ve bought into the idea that life should be like Entourage and thus lost the plot? If there are women frantically seeking attention from soulless, predatory men who don’t value them for anything other than their breasts and orifices, are they diseased, or are they just manifesting the central lesson our warped social and cultural system has to teach women and girls: that they are valuable only to the extent that men find them sexually useful?
Note that every single person interviewed in the Newsweek article has a stake in the addiction recovery industry. The Salon interview — though it is guilty of get-with-it-ism as it presents porn addiction and sexual dishonesty as unproblematic save for their effect on the flowery sensibilities of puritanical weenies — at least takes note of the fact that those in the therapy industry have a personal financial stake in the mainstream acceptance of the addiction model.
I have an idea. Farting in public is rude and often costs people the respect of others, but there are people out there who just can’t help themselves and get a dopamine rush out of doing it. I’m setting up an in-patient farting-in-public recovery center in LA, complete with massage, fitness center, yoga classes, and personal nutritionists for each of our clients who will help them create meal plans that will minimize flatulence and hence help our patients avoid a key trigger for addictive behavior. We’ll take major insurance plans, of course.
That may seem absurd, but it looks like it’s where we’re headed. A pattern is emerging in late capitalism: leaders of a given industry will seek ways to create physical and emotional dependencies on their products among the public in order to ensure their own continued profits, those dependencies will eventually threaten the consumer’s emotional or physical wellbeing, and then a new branch of the therapeutic industry will materialize to make a profit off of helping consumers shake off their dependencies, thus replacing a dependency on the products of the sex, alcohol, drug, or processed food industries with a dependency on the recovery industry. As long as somebody’s making money, everything’s cool.
And the recovery scene is addictive. Where else but a twelve-step meeting can one narcissistically recount booze/sex/drug party stories in front of an audience that swoons over the most depraved details? And where else can one find a community of people who will repeatedly excuse any failure to abstain from damaging behavior as a disease that simply cannot be helped? Not only do twelve-step programs and therapists offer a convenient way out of trouble for those whose behavior has resulted in negative consequences, but they also provide excuses for continued poor behavior with the language of “illness” and “powerlessness.” That’s right: the addiction model tells us that the guy who jacks off to bestiality porn all day long and/or cheats on his wife with prostitutes a few times a week is powerless to control his own behavior. He’s sick, he needs help, he knows not what he does. The poor guy. What can his wife do to help him recover?
Sex is not heroin. Sex is not alcohol. The sex addiction model being put forth by the recovery industry is:
“valley-girl science”… They will tell you, and [the Newsweek] article is a good example of it, that sex addiction is like an eating disorder, it’s like a heroin addiction. The reality is this is an incredibly weak form of argument, because it’s so subjective; and when they tell you that sex addiction is like an eating disorder, they don’t tell you all the things that are different about it. They live by anecdotes, because they don’t have good science.
Lumping porn use and compulsive promiscuity under one umbrella term doesn’t do us any analytical favors. Jacking off to porn all day long is not the same thing as compulsively engaging in casual sexual encounters, and they need to be approached as distinct phenomena. Further, treating sex addiction as if it were similar to alcoholism, etc. creates the assumption that the entirety of the problem is chemical or biological rather than behavioral. Yes, studies show that porn use can cause structural changes in the brain and can warp sexual responses to the point that the prospect of in-person sex with a real female human being fails to turn porn addicts on. But no adult man (the topic of porn’s effects on children’s developing sexuality will have to wait until another day) wakes up one day unable to get a boner without porn out of the blue. It’s a process that occurs over time, and it’s a process that anyone with enough internet access to jack off thirty times a day has to be aware of, since it’s the hottest news story since the PS4 dropped. Even teenage boys are aware of that potentiality.
Sexual compulsions, even if they have progressed to such a point, are at base behavioral problems that can be corrected if there is any impetus to do so, even if correcting them isn’t a mega-fun fuckfest and requires that men exercise some self-control and empathy for the sake of others. Men possess free will. Let’s not get carried away with all this “addiction” business and turn them into hapless victims, thereby granting them impunity from the social consequences of their choices. Remember, they’re listening; Ariel Castro just attempted to use sex and porn addiction as an excuse for rape, kidnapping, and murder.
Does this guy sound like someone who deserves pity?
The conflation of sex addiction with problems such as alcoholism reaches the realm of comic absurdity when it comes to treatment. AA has a marginal success rate. When it does succeed, it isn’t because the members “work the steps” and fervently adhere to Bill W.’s gospel, it’s because the AA scene (depending on the city in which one attends meetings) offers mid-range alcoholics the one tool that can help them avoid drinking: people to hang out with who don’t drink. Beyond that, it’s nebulous, fruity, quasi-religious self-help folderol that probably puts more people off than it helps. Since most twelve-step meetings for sex addicts call themselves Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous in the hopes of serving both men and women, they undercut the only useful aspect of AA/NA by creating a community that makes it even more difficult for people to abstain from whatever behavior brought them to the meetings in the first place. A room full of male “sex addicts” and female “love addicts” talking about sex is a recipe for unadulterated (hehe) failure, am I right?
David Ley argues in the Salon piece that part of the problem with the addiction model is that it leads people to measure sexual behavior against that of an idealized (and probably non-existent) monogamous, married, heterosexual couple. Anything that does not fit within those parameters is deemed pathological and “treatment” is recommended. That’s only part of the problem. Ley assumes an atomized individual subject without social relationships or responsibilities, and completely elides any discussion of the role of popular culture, male supremacy, or the sex industry in fomenting destructive behavior. The solution to the “sex addiction epidemic” is not to normalize sexual exploitation and sexual dishonesty in the name of smashing prudery, it’s to recognize what actually motivates compulsive sexual behavior and the anxiety that results from it. We have to decide what’s pathological based not on whether it offends Pat Robertson, but on whether it hurts anyone, and we have to deal with pathology by seeking its root. The solution to empty, hyperactive, and exploitative sexuality is political consciousness, not “treatment” or the fuck-first-don’t-ask-questions-later plan. Unfortunately, “treatment” enables men to continue to exercise their right to use and abuse women, while political consciousness comes with social, political, and emotional costs for them.