Sex addiction

newsweekIt’s been a while since I’ve written about this subject.

Sometimes, a person will read this site and conclude from it that I’m a “sex addict.” Or, that I understand myself to be a “sex addict.” Usually, people who conclude these things are oblivious to the subtlety of meaning communicated by my use of quotation marks around that phrase.

When I first started this blog, I set up a Google alert for the phrase “sex addiction,” and I haven’t bothered to turn it off. As a result, every day or two, I get an e-mail from Google listing the latest occurrences of the phrase on the web, in the news. Oddly, it seems the vast majority of writing about “sex addiction” is in India. I’ve learned a lot about the weird mix of modernity and puritanism that characterize India’s popular culture by following a tiny proportion of the links Google’s sent me over that time.

When they’re not some Indian newspaper or other lamenting the impact of porn, or prostitutes, or whatever, my alerts are most often news of some or other celebrity seeking treatment and/or excusing his or her behavior.

Occasionally, though, I get an alert of something different. Recently, I got a link to an article by a “nationally certified sex therapist and clinical sexologist” explaining that “sex addiction” is “socially constructed.” Or rather, explaining that the “sex addiction model” was “created by social constructionism.” I’m not gonna link to the dude, because you have better things to do with your time than to read his tripe. If you really want it, contact me, and I’ll send it to you.

This argument feels so discontinuous from my own experience, and thinking, on the subject that I figured I’d take this chance just to write a few words on the subject, since I haven’t written on it in so long.

First: on whether the “sex addiction model” was “created by social constructionism.” I’m not really a big fan of masturbating in public, and this question feels fundamentally masturbatory to me. I’m not a philosopher. Or an epistemologist. I’m just a guy. And to me, it’s obvious – and uninteresting to note – that many, if not most, things we think are in some way socially constructed. Or can better be understood by imagining that they are. Gender, for example: we used to think it was a “thing,” that gender was determined and coterminous with sex. (Sexuality too, for that matter.) Understanding gender, and sex, and sexuality, as socially constructed has definitely led to a better world for many of us. So too most abstract concepts: as soon as we have a name for something that’s not objectively describable, it’s a good bet that, in some way, that name represents a socially constructed category. This is particularly true with pathologies and diagnoses. Some pathologies and diagnoses are clear, and objective. Syphilis, say. Or HPV. Others, not quite so much – like alcoholism, or depression. “Sex addiction,” if it indeed, is a thing, clearly is a socially constructed thing.

Ok. So what?

I’ve long said that I’m not a real believer in there being much value in understanding “sex addiction” as a thing. Or really, what I’ve meant, I suppose, is that calling the suffering of those of us whose sexual behavior is or has been out of control “sex addiction” is a strategic move by people who have an interest – usually, a financial interest – in how our suffering is understood, and treated.

At least until 2009, I behaved in ways that were indistinguishable from the ways in which addicts to heroin behave. My “drug of choice” was sex, rather than heroin, but my behavior was the same. But I gained nothing – and lost much – by dissociating myself from the causes of my suffering in the ways that the addiction model demands.

My sexual behavior wasn’t a “disease doing push-ups in my basement,” as many in the 12-step world would have had me believe. My sexual behavior was a desperate attempt to avoid feeling things that (I believed) were too painful to endure. My personal “recovery” came not from a higher power, not from a theology different from the one with which I was raised, but from a reorganization of my basic understanding and experience of my emotions.

I sat and meditated. I underwent a rigorous examination of my interior landscape. And I emerged. Not, actually, changed, or transformed, but with a new perspective. I learned in my outdoor meditations, for example, that the fact that I was cold, that I wanted to go inside, didn’t actually mean that I had to go inside. I have spent years applying this lesson to all sorts of impulses: just because I’m hungry doesn’t mean I have to eat. Just because I want a cigarette, doesn’t mean I have to smoke. And, just because I want to go pay for a handjob doesn’t mean I must.

There was more for me. I thought that I wanted to go pay for a handjob. And sure enough, I did. But there was more to it. More than that, what I wanted was to stop feeling whatever I was feeling in that moment, and to replace that feeling with the feelings I could obtain by paying an anonymous woman for a handjob. I had to learn to tolerate two feelings: first, the feeling I was desperately eager to flee, and second, the hunger for sexual distraction.

I still feel them both. That’s just how it is for me. But now, mostly, I respond differently to them.

The argument that “sex addiction is a social construction” is dangerous not because it’s wrong, but because the implication the author of this article is that the suffering of “sex addicts” is a result of the social construction of sex addiction. That our behavior isn’t problematic, that it’s the social understanding of our behavior as problematic that makes us suffer.

This may well be true for some. I met more than my fair share of men who purported to suffer from “same-sex attraction” in my days in 12-step land. Surely, a portion of their suffering was social construction. But my suffering was not even slightly a result of the social construction of my behavior as problematic. My behavior was problematic. Objectively. Physically. Financially. Relationally.

Reconfiguring our understanding of sexuality to leave space for multiple commercial sexual encounters in a day as somehow “acceptable” wouldn’t, actually, have in any way diminished my suffering, because my problem wasn’t the social construction of sex addiction. It was my intrapsychic landscape, my inability to tolerate my own feelings, my inability to regulate my body, my mind, my behavior.

I’m not the only person whose behavior has at times veered out of control, nor am I the only one whose sexual compulsions have nearly ruined my life. I don’t imagine that my lessons are, or need be, broadly applicable. But here’s what is broadly applicable: for many of us who have suffered from sexual behavior we imagined was beyond our control, the “solution” to that problem didn’t lie in a changed understanding of the meaning of that behavior in the context of the world in which we live – as the social constructionism argument suggests.

For many of us (for me, at least) relief lies in a greater understanding of ourselves, and of the meaning(s) of our impulses in the context of our own understanding of ourselves, and the world in which we live.


  1. just curious: have you read christopher ryan’s “sex at dawn”? really paradigm shifting for me, that’s for sure, because it’s an anthropology of human sexuality.

    1. It’s tripe. A really bad book. No academic of any seriousness has anything positive to say about it. Terrible science. It happens to provide pseudointellectual ballast for things lots of us want to believe. But it’s garbage. It’s most definitely NOT an anthropology of human sexuality. It’s a polemic in support of polyamory, with selectively drawn pseudo-anthropological and pseudo-zoological examples. Don’t be fooled. There are all sorts of arguments in favor of polyamory, and against monogamy. But this book is a bad place to find them.

      1. Thanks for the reply. We see it differently. Perhaps as someone who is African-American and had spent years and thousands of dollars in “reparative therapy,” I am suspicious of dominant narratives (science) that purport to be gospel truth–slaves were psychopathologized for wanting to escape (drapetomania), and gays were given electroconvulsive therapy for being “unnatural.” Remember that serious scientists supported these claims!

        Unlike you, I didn’t leave the book with a sense that it was anything other than an alternative view to what is clearly a hegemony of monogamy (ists). I also found a deeper understanding of the of hunter-gatherer societies really fascinating (a la Jared Diamond), given the current state of our world and what appears to be a catastrophic destruction of our ecosystem looming.

        The binary of for/against isn’t what I took away from the book, but rather that there should be room for both/and. And particularly because as a gay man who is married, the fact that so many of us are attempting to parrot uncritically heterosexual “norms,” we might doing ourselves a disservice by trying to live up to standards that we didn’t create.

        Just my 2 cents.

        1. I appreciate your two cents, and, reading what I wrote, I’m amazed at how much I sound like Donald Trump.

          I think my objection to them isn’t at all their message, with which I’m wholly sympathetic, but rather, their pretensions. They PURPORT to be presenting a scientific, anthropological case in support of polyamory/in opposition to monogamy, but, on the terms that they themselves have chosen for themselves, they fail.

          I think that, a la Jared Diamond, they’re great story-tellers. Unlike Jared Diamond, the stories they tell aren’t history. That’s my objection.

          Of course, I agree with your final paragraph. I just think that it’s a disaster if people walk away from their book thinking that they have good arguments in support of their positions. I totally support the positions the book purports to advance (e.g., in favor of non-monogamy, in opposition to the deterministic arguments in support of monogamy). I just think their science is bad.

          And I take – in full – your point about the danger of dominant narratives. I just think that the counter to dominant narratives isn’t bad science. It’s better science. Which this book isn’t. In spite of its good conclusions.

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