Magazine article The Humanist

You're Addicted to What? Challenging the Myth of Sex Addiction

Magazine article The Humanist

You're Addicted to What? Challenging the Myth of Sex Addiction

Article excerpt


PERIODICALLY, some famous politician, athlete, or entertainer gets caught with his or her pants down, damaging or even destroying their reputation, livelihood, and marriage. Within hours, my email starts buzzing, as media vultures circle the fresh carcass and want my expert opinion: Is Tiger Woods a sex addict? Was Katharine Hepburn? How about Eliot Spitzer, David Duchovny, Charlie Sheen, John Edwards?

The twenty-four-hour cable/Internet news cycle doesn't want experts to talk seriously about this-they simply want people (Maury! Tyra! The ladies on The View!) who will announce, with just the right mix of scorn, smirk, gravity, and total confidence that so-and-so is a sex addict.

The schadenfreude is so thick you can cut it with a knife. Moralism stands in for sympathy. High dudgeon stands in for nuanced understanding. From all corners, we hear a Greek chorus of voices linking someone's extramarital affairs to feminism, testosterone, the Internet, sadomasochism, consumerism, or even 9/11. And then they inevitably wheel in the heavy gun: "sex addiction."

Most importantly, these public thrashings are a chance for the audience to condemn sexual acting out while vicariously enjoying it. America loves an excuse to sneakily enjoy unauthorized sex. The fall of the rich and famous is a bonus.


So when USA Today calls about Eliot Spitzer's high-end escorts, or CNN emails about Anthony Weiner's sexting, I'm usually pretty slow to respond to the ghoulish invitation.

I don't diagnose people I haven't met. More importantly, I don't use the diagnosis of sex addiction. In thirty-one years as a sex therapist, marriage counselor, and psychotherapist, I've never seen sex addiction. I've heard about virtually every sexual variation, obsession, fantasy, trauma, and involvement with sex workers, but I've never seen sex addiction.

New patients tell me all the time how they can't keep from doing self-destructive sexual things; still, I see no sex addiction. Instead, I see people regretting the sexual choices they make, often denying that these are decisions. I see people wanting to change, but not wanting to give up what makes them feel alive or young or loved or adequate; wanting the advantages of changing, but not wanting to give up what makes them feel they're better or sexier or naughtier than other people. Most importantly, I see people wanting to stop doing what makes them feel powerful, attractive, or loved, but since they don't want to stop feeling powerful, attractive or loved, they can't seem to stop the repetitive sex clumsily designed to create those feelings.

The conflict over sex addiction is important to humanists for several reasons. "Sex addiction" is a special weapon now used by the religious right to combat perceived liberalism, to ignore science, and to ignite fear. It also helps legitimize anti-sex moralism and bigotry. And psychologists, judges, legislators, and the media are buying it.

When people refer to themselves or others as "sex addicts," what are they actually talking about? More than anything, simple narcissistic character structure: the familiar "I guess I thought I could get away with it." "Deep down, I don't really believe the rules apply to me." or "When I hurt, I want relief, and I don't care so much about breaking promises or hurting others."

If that sounds like normal people--if that sounds like you--it's not surprising. Narcissism is a common human condition. So here's my evaluation of almost everyone who is diagnosed as a sex addict--by themselves, their loved ones, or an addictionologist: it's someone who is unhappy with the consequences of their sexual choices, but who finds it too emotionally painful to make different choices. You know, the way some of us are with cookies, new sweaters, or watching the Kardashians on TV.

Which is to say, it's not about the sex. …

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