Sex Addiction and the Rhetoric of Normal Sexuality


Originally posted to NSRC’s Dialogues on 10/21/09.

Is there such a thing as a sex addict? In a culture of plenty we tend to pathologize our access to excess and any pleasure seeking behavior can be an addiction. Shopping addiction, gambling addiction, food addiction: all seemingly innocuous behaviors that can be considered an addiction if taken beyond the blurred line of social acceptability.

Addiction is real. I have seen loved ones battle with drug addictions all the way to their graves. The successful ones went through hell while their bodies went through the painful process of adapting to a drug-free state. It seems disrespectful to the severity of addiction to lump compulsive pleasure-seeking activity into the same category.

Proponents of sexual addiction recovery insist that because sex activates reward centers in the brain, addiction is real and serious enough to require intervention. Some invoke models of psychological dependency while others argue that sexual addiction is part of compulsive behavior. The addict or compulsive person is powerless to stop the behaviors on their own.

Treatments for sexual addiction center on support groups and other therapeutic measures. The most prevalent self-help group is Sex Addicts Anonymous, a self-help program modeled directly from the 12-steps used in Alcoholics anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. What I find most fascinating about SAA is the hidden agenda of normalized, heterocentric sexuality in favor of absolute sobriety from sex. Would you ever imagine AA or NA to encourage members to consume drugs and alcohol responsibly and in moderation?

SAA asserts that, “Most of us have no desire to stop being sexual altogether. It is not sex in and of itself that causes us problems, but the addiction to certain sexual behaviors.” What are these certain sexual behaviors? Anything that is not part of a healthy sexuality centered on monogamy. Multiple affairs, masturbation, sex with strangers and regular pornography consumption are all part of a sexual addict’s problems. This sounds familiar. Where have I heard this before? Oh, yes: Gayle Rubin’s 1984 seminal piece titled Thinking Sex.

In Thinking Sex, Rubin outlines the boundaries of sexual norms with the “Charmed Circle”.

Charmed Circle

Sex Addicts Anonymous has its own circle.

TheThreeCircles

My, my, the two look mighty similar although reversed. (Acceptable behaviors lie on the inner circle for Rubin and on the outer circle for SAA.) Aside from self-definition, the only major difference is that SAA includes a middle circle of behaviors that can lead to the inner circle of sexual behaviors from which the addict wishes to abstain.

While I reject the assertion that people can become sex addicts, I understand that humans are prone to compulsive behaviors. (I sometimes wish there had been a Cleaners Anonymous for one of my exes.) But compulsion is not addiction and we only want to treat behaviors that are antithetical to social mores. Hence why there is a Sex Addicts Anonymous but not a Germaphobes Anonymous. Certain kinds of sex are bad but hyper-sanitization is good!

I am a proponent of support groups to help individuals improve their lives and they way they interact with the world. However, thinly disguised sexual regulation that asserts participants are powerless over their actions is potentially harmful and pathologizes the individual. Our entire culture is obsessed with sex. We must define it, control it, discuss it, legislate it, criminalize it and utilize it at every turn. Sex is less about love and connection than it is about identity and consumption.

Is it any surprise then, in this cultural climate, that some individuals seek sex compulsively, end up dissatisfied after their encounters and so seek out another sexual encounter only to have the same results? This is not addiction. This is a cultural issue that creates compulsive behaviors. Do not tell individuals that they cannot help themselves, that they are powerless against their own behaviors. Sex without personal responsibility is dangerous territory.

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