The persistent myth of sex addiction
Either we're all sex addicts or nobody is
According to every online test I've taken, I'm a sex addict. And if you took the quizzes, you probably would be too, at least if you answered honestly to questions like "Do you often find yourself preoccupied with sexual thoughts?" "Do you ever feel bad about your sexual behavior?" and "Have you used the internet to make romantic or erotic connections with people online?"
Even if you answered "no" to all these questions, you're still not off the hook. If you watch porn, you might be a sex addict; If you "often require the use of a vibrator... to enhance the sexual experience" you might be a sex addict; if you spend some of your time "ruminating about past sexual encounters," you might be a sex addict.
By these standards, nearly all human beings are sex addicts, as a recent study found that 73 percent of women and 85 percent of men had looked at internet porn in the past six months; other studies found that about half of American men and women have used vibrators. Perhaps that is right: sex is one of our strongest drives, and according to one study, the median number of times people think about sex is 10-19 times a day. But pathologizing all of humanity for expressing normal human sexuality is ridiculous in the least and dangerous at the worst. The fact that most people would be considered sex addicts is positive for only one group of people: those employed by the multimillion-dollar sex addiction industry.
Sex addiction treatment forces people into a kind of re-education program, which tries to convince them that perfectly normal consensual sexual behavior is the sign of a serious problem. Some of them are run by Christian pastors, others by licensed professional counselors. In-patient facilities are often located in picturesque areas, like palatial Arizona desert retreats, complete with poolside ping-pong and equine therapy (how nuzzling a horse cures sex addiction is never explained). These programs tell supposed sex addicts that they can reprogram themselves through behavioral modifications to become ideal sexual citizens: monogamous, non-porn-using people who rarely masturbate or fantasize about anyone other than their main partners. Some even take it further and force people to abandon healthy activities like masturbation for 30 days.
If this sounds familiar in a bad way, it might be because some of the same centers that treat sex addiction also offer gay conversion therapy, although they no longer call it that because conversion therapy has been banned for minors in 19 states (instead they say they treat "unwanted same-sex attraction" and "homosexuality/lesbianism"). This sad fact further illuminates the ugly truth behind the sex addiction industry: it's based on a moralistic judgment on what sexual behaviors are socially acceptable, yet it's cloaked in a scientific sheen that gives it legitimacy. Although gay conversion therapy is much more harmful, sex addiction treatment is similar in that both are about modifying behavior even though biology and psychology are compelling a person in a different direction.
One key question that appears on nearly all sex addiction quizzes is: "Do you feel that your sexual behavior is not normal?" The problem is, most people don't know what a "normal" sex life is, and consensual sexual behaviors that are statistically abnormal are not the sign of a disease. As psychologist David Ley has argued in his book, The Myth of Sex Addiction, the criteria for sex addiction "reflect heterosexual and monogamous social values and judgments rather than medical or scientific data."
Sex addiction isn't a new concept, it's a new name for an old one; it falls into a continuum of pathologizing sexual behavior going back to the 19th century when women were labeled nymphomaniacs for behavior we would consider normal today, such as having orgasms through clitoral stimulation. In fact, 21st-century sex addiction therapists sound nearly identical to 19th-century vice reformers.
"Pornography coupled with masturbation and fantasy is often the cornerstone for sexual addiction. This is a dangerous combination …A fantasy world is created, sometimes as early as adolescence, that is visited throughout developmental stages," says the website of a current therapy center called L.I.F.E. Recovery International. "The sexual addict may use his or her addiction in place of true spirituality — sex becomes the addict's God," the website declares.
Similarly, 19th-century vice reformer Anthony Comstock wrote that "Obscene publications" and "immoral articles" [sex toys] are "like a cancer" which "fastens itself upon the imagination…defiling the mind, corrupting the thoughts, leading to secret practices of most foul and revolting character." He suggested that young adults read the Bible instead of giving into their sexual urges.
Why do we continue to further such an outdated view of sex? Sex addiction is a way to police sexual behavior and impose conventional morality through a seemingly scientific, trendy addiction model. It attempts to slot people into some mythical standard of normal sexuality, one defined by monogamy and devoid of fantasy.
The sex addiction industry persists in spite of the fact that again and again sex addiction has been debunked by experts. Sex addiction isn't considered legitimate by psychologists; the scientific literature doesn't back it up; and it isn't in the DSM-5, the authoritative catalog of mental disorders published by the American Psychiatric Association. Yet therapists benefit financially from sex addiction diagnoses, moralists benefit spiritually from them, and supposed sex addicts benefit practically from them. Sex addiction provides a great excuse for people who engage in socially objectionable sexual behavior (It's not my fault! I couldn't help banging the sexy neighbor! I'm an addict! I'll go to treatment!).
This coincides with the fact that most sex addicts are heterosexual men, so the diagnosis frequently becomes a way to legitimize male sexual behavior, while also sometimes labeling their female partners as enablers. Convicted rapist Harvey Weinstein reportedly checked himself in to an in-patient treatment program after allegations against him were first published in late 2017, a path that many other high-profile men have taken in the wake of scandal.
The concept of sex addiction makes sex seem way more logical than it actually is. It fits into our culture's view of controlling and constraining sex through rules, like the criminalization of sex work. Hiring a sex worker or engaging in any illegal sexual activities is a sign you're a sex addict, according to most sex addiction screening tests. Yet, a wide range of more widely accepted sexual behavior is also illegal in the U.S., including having sex with an unmarried person of the opposite sex (a crime in Idaho, Illinois, and South Carolina) and adultery, which is a crime in over a dozen states.
But sex is messy and complicated, and hardwired and controlled by hormones, and no amount of counseling is going to stop you from having sexual urges. The sex addiction model provides a 12-step solution to the messiness of sex and the challenge of monogamy: if you follow these simple steps, the thinking goes, you too can be in control of the strongest biological urge and be free of daily horniness. If only it were that simple.
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