The XX Factor

Sex Isn’t an Addiction

In response to a reality TV show about sex addiction starring Dr. Drew (whose first instinct when he hears a woman talk about her sexual desires is to ask what broke her), Tracy Clark-Flory of Salon investigates the question of whether or not there is such a thing as sex addiction. She comes to no definite conclusions, but I’m going to side with skeptics like Susie Bright and Dan Savage and say that I highly doubt that people are “addicted” to sex. The entire enterprise has more than a whiff of woo to it, starting with the fact that the definition of “addiction” is entirely subjective.

Proponents define sex addiction as any kind of sexual behavior that causes stress to you, your family, or your work life. In theory, this sounds like a fair way to define it, but in practice, this means that if your coworkers or family members are serious prudes, homophobes, or have massive hang-ups, then you are fair game for being called a sex addict. People who masturbate with any regularity often find themselves being eyeballed as sex addicts, particularly if they’re married to someone who has decided that masturbation is somehow a betrayal of their monogamous arrangement. As Dan Savage says in the article, it doesn’t take much time paying attention to proponents of the sex addiction model-people like Dr. Drew-to pick up on the strong puritanical streak underlying their diagnoses.

But what about people who really do exhibit compulsive sexual behavior, who claim that the addiction model of therapy was the best way to address their problems? Clark-Flory treats those folks with sympathy, but I remain skeptical. Claims that they aren’t swept up in puritanical judgments of diverse sexual experiences fall flat. Believer Benoit Denizet-Lewis claims he’s not against anonymous sex in one breath and then suggests in the next that people who participate in it have a “limited life.” Former porn star and believer Jennie Ketcham swears up and down that she’s all for kinkiness, but then also suggests that every encounter with every partner be “meaningful” and an “ultimate display of intimacy.” People who are able to do both and to switch off depending on the partner and what day it is don’t exist in this model. But they do in real life.

Reality TV shows pick their participants through the tokenism strategy-got to get some women, throw in a gay guy, etc. Therefore, Sex Rehab doesn’t give the audience a clear picture of who gets labeled a “sex addict” in our culture. And frankly, in the real world it mostly seems to be straight men who have created an entire sex life away from their wives, creating tension in the relationship. Sometimes it’s probably unfair, and the wives are way too judgmental of a perfectly normal masturbation rate. But much of the time, it’s men like Tiger Woods, who cheat a lot, or men who retreat completely from the marital bed in order to masturbate to pornography as their main sexual outlet. Tracy suggests this is an easy out for the Oprah crowd that wants to condemn and be angry without analysis. I agree.

We want to call these men “addicts,” because to admit what’s really going on would be to open a can of worms about marriage, sex, and gender roles that we’d prefer to leave sealed. It’s really hard to play the mothering, doting, responsible, take-care-of-everything wife and also be an object of erotic fascination to a man, particularly if he’s got a touch of the sexism and separates women into Madonnas and whores. It’s not even remotely surprising to me that men who expect their wives to play the role of good wife find that they can’t get sexually excited by it and end up looking elsewhere. And it’s not just men like Tiger Woods, who have the wife at home taking care of business and sexual excitement on the road. The world of evangelical Christianity has a big time sex “addiction” problem of men who sexually neglect their wives and express themselves mainly through pornography. Of course they do! All the qualities of a good Christian wife-namely, subsuming your identity into husband and children-are the antithesis of the erotic for most people. When a woman slips out of the role of individual and into the role of extension of her man, then having sex with her probably does feel like masturbation, but more work. So of course men get desperate to have real sexual excitement. But that’s not the sort of thing that a puritanical addiction model could ever address.

Photograph of lips in mantle by Christopher Robbins/Stockbyte/Getty Images.