Sex addiction revisited

I know I’ve written about it before, and I doubt I have much new to say, but it’s the nature of this blog that from time to time I circle back and reiterate things previously said, only slightly differently. You can never step in the same river twice, right?


I was reading Maggie McNeill’s The Honest Courtesan the other day, and she, in a throwaway line in this post, dismissed the concept of “sex addiction” as so much bunk. In one sentence. With a backhand flip. In other posts, such as this one, she goes into more detail about her belief that the very concept of sex addiction is a symptom of “neofeminist pathologization of normal male behavior.” (Incidentally, she also writes that one of the dangers of people’s misapprehension on the subject is that they confuse non-pathological male sexuality with “the real and serious psychological disorder which the DSM-IV calls ‘hypersexuality’….” The only problem with this is that the DSM-IV only references “hypersexuality” as a symptom of other disorders, not a disorder in its own right. Hypersexual disorder was explicitly rejected by the APA for inclusion in the DSM-V.)

I’ve heard others I respect a lot do the same thing, disparage the concept of sex addiction in a dismissive way – Dan Savage, one of my gurus, chief among them.

This seems to me both right and just and at the same time, naive.

On the one hand, surely, there is no such thing as sex addiction. One cannot be addicted to sex. One doesn’t develop a tolerance (in a clinical sense), and one doesn’t become dependent (in a clinical sense). When I stopped smoking, my body suffered withdrawal symptoms. Not psychological withdrawal – physical withdrawal. The removal of nicotine from my system necessitated a gradual detoxification process. If I don’t have my morning caffeine, the same thing happens: my headache reminds me that my body actually depends on caffeine just to be normal.

And/but, it is true of behavioral “addictions” (or “process addictions” as they’re sometimes called) such as sex, overeating, gambling, spending, whatever, that those of us who suffer from them mimic this experience of true addicts (of morphine, heroin, alcohol, nicotine, caffeine). As do “addicts” of non-habit-forming drugs such as marijuana.

When McNeill or Savage ignore “sex addiction,” allowing themselves to be distracted by the shiny metal object that is its most vocal proponents – moralizing anti-sex activists and entrepreneurial ideologues like Patrick Carnes – they deprive sex addicts of their otherwise sane voices, perspectives, and, in the case of Savage, advice.

See, here’s the thing: the truth is, as with so many complex things, neither black nor white. No, there’s no such thing as sex addiction. It’s good it’s not in the DSM, and there’s a reason no credible clinician (by credible I mean a clinician whose practice doesn’t depend on it) uses the diagnostic term. BUT…. those of us who suffer from compulsive sexual behaviors, who act out sexually in lieu of having basic daily emotions, we are addicts. Not in the sense of suffering from a physical addiction to a substance, without which we will become sick and possibly die. But in the behavioral sense that we do every single thing an addict to those substances will do in pursuit of her or his next fix. We will lie, cheat, steal, deceive ourselves and those we love, put even those we most cherish at risk of grave bodily harm, and do it all believing that we are purer than the driven snow, that we don’t have a problem, everyone else does.

McNeill’s backhand slap, and her larger philosophical and political critique, denies this reality, has no way of accommodating people like me. I’m not moaning that I don’t feel validated or acknowledged. I’m making a more basic point. It is oversimplifying to the point of being incorrect to suggest that there simply is no such thing as sex addiction without saying more.

I’d be eager to hear what more McNeill – a former prostitute – might have to say about her personal experiences with people whose sexuality was compulsive, was beyond their conscious control. She’s thoughtful, and open-minded. I don’t know if she’s particularly psychologically minded – that’s not an area about which she writes very much.

And I’d be less eager, but still curious, to hear what Savage might have to say to a person like me, struggling with behaviors that taste, smell, sound, feel, and look like the behaviors of a garden-variety addict trying to quit. Would he say, “Just STOP!” and hold up a red “stop” sign (as a therapist I know of once did)? Or would he have more nuanced advice?

Maggie? Dan?


  1. Can there be a difference between compulsiveness and deliberateness when it comes to behavior? And can’t you act sexually in a deliberate manner in order to observe the emotions that brings you? Rather than acting out to avoid the emotions. I think that Maggie McNeill has a point about the female mind.

    1. In my past, the were times I was compulsive but mindful, and times I was compulsive and not mindful. I’m not sure what you mean by “deliberate,” but for me, the key component of compulsion is the desire to relieve an intolerable feeling.

  2. By deliberate, I mean on purpose. And if you feel an intolerable feeling, can you resolve it in any other way besides compulsive acting out? Are compulsions always necessarily bad?

    1. “On purpose” is kinda meaningless to me in reference to behaviors. I mean, I always acted out “on purpose,” but often felt I had no choice. As for “intolerable feelings,” I think a more accurate way of describing them is “feelings I do not successfully tolerate.” Because “intolerable” suggests some sort of objective state, when, in fact, it is really a post hoc description of a response. And as for “bad”-ness – who’s to say? I don’t know that “bad” is a meaningful characterization. But generally, compulsions cause one to do something that is out of step with one’s conscious desires.

  3. I think you ask the right questions, and have a personal wealth of experience to draw upon to question so-called other “expert” opinions and statements. I also believe that you are right, there is no black and white answer on this topic.

  4. I don’t think one can be addicted to sex, per se, but face it, ppl are addicted to shopping and gambling and drama and washing their hands, if you can call it that. They are just, no offense intended, fucked up. We are all fucked up, some ppl’s crazy happens to be sex.

    1. What does addicted mean? I disagree with you that people can be addicted to those things. I think the use of the term “addiction” in reference to such behaviors ultimately is an attempt to avoid responsibility for behaviors over which we feel powerless.

    1. I think “acting out” is generally understood to be acting in lieu of feeling or expressing. Acting with conscious Intentionality, in furtherance of explicit goals is very different.

      And again, I’m not sure what “unhealthy” means, or who is the arbiter.

      I am generally happier when my actions and my intentions are linked, explicit, and conscious.

  5. Food and sex is just part of human nature. It’s only that some people have greater needs or higher libido, but I don’t think that is sex addiction! The compulsive behavior is probably a reflection of some underlying problems and this problem is expressed in the form of sex and for others it can be expressed in other forms such as non-stop eating !

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