Sex & Relationships

"Sinful" Sex Addiction: The Newest Way to Demonize Sexuality

Sex addiction has emerged as the 21st century version of sin -- the latest way to guilt people about sex.

Addictions. Gotta love 'em. Gotta hate 'em too, sometimes. But first, we gotta love 'em, or we wouldn't have 'em in the first place. Addictions are the spices of our lives. Of course, too much spice spoils the enchilada. But remember, without a little salsa, it's all just beans and dead meat.

Granted, addiction can certainly be a destructive force, wreaking havoc on your world, but it can also be the source of tremendous creative energy in human life. Sometimes, the only way to truly master something is to become passionately, obsessively addicted to it. Without the driving vigor of our addictions, we surrender to mediocrity, bureaucracy, and (shudder) mere functionality. The world's greatest artists, many of our greatest statesmen, certainly our greatest lovers, and even some of our greatest scientists have been notoriously addictive personalities, all living and dying in overheated pursuits of pleasure, power, knowledge and love.

Our addictions give us a taste of paradise. It may be a temporary paradise, and it may be an artificial paradise, a dangerous, even doomed paradise, but the pursuit of paradise, ecstasy, bliss, nirvana, heaven-on-earth -- also known as “the pursuit of happiness,” as written into the U.S. Declaration of Independence -- is one of the great natural drives of humanity, maybe even of all so-called intelligent life on earth.

The Seven Deadly Addictions

Everybody's addicted to something, even if it's the philosophy of not getting addicted to anything. Some of us channel our addictive drives into stuff that society deems safe or constructive. For instance, work is a socially acceptable addiction, even though the heroes of our culture, the work-driven businessmen and traders, are more likely to die young of a heart attack (or jump out the window when the stocks crash) than the pot-smoking slackers among us. Shopping is another socially sanctioned narcotic, until all your credit cards are maxed out, and suddenly your favorite shopping outlets stop loving you back. Then there are prescription drugs, an all-American addiction with soothing celebrity-studded ads to make those mysterious little pills easier to swallow, and you don't even have to worry about your credit cards if you've got the right insurance.

Other addictions are not generally treated with such compassion. Some are vilified and punished severely. The fact that you can be locked up and tortured for decades within the humongous U.S. prison system (a growth industry which thrives on addiction), over simply indulging your addiction to an "illegal substance" is bad enough. But it goes beyond questions of legality. Indeed, the very idea of addiction has assumed that mortifying place in our hearts and minds that a sense of sin used to occupy. To be a "sinner" is now cool, like sporting tattoos or playing in a band. Nobody's ashamed to be a sinner anymore. But an addict? To be an addict is to be what a sinner used to be: weak, despised, disgraced and diseased. The concept of Original Sin is almost meaningless to the modern mind. But the Addictive Personality? We can all relate to that.

So, the Seven Deadly Sins have given way to the Seven Deadly Addictions: Alcoholism, Drug Addiction, Food Obsessions, Workaholism and Gambling Mania are the first five. I'd put Exercise Junkies into the category of Workaholism. After all, an obsession with working out is just a variation on overworking. I'd place Stock Trading and my own personal addiction to playing the CPCs on Google Adwords under Gambling Mania.

Love Junkies

Then there’s #6: Love Addiction. This one's a mass attacker. Excepting the occasional sociopathic loner, everybody gets it. What normal, people-oriented person has not suffered from the deep, sweet agony and ecstasy of codependent love addiction? Since being identified as a disease, "codependency" has spread like the flu, because who can't relate to the symptoms, who hasn't yearned to hold and be held, to care and be cared for, to depend on someone who depends on you? Isn’t that what sharing your life is all about? Not according to many self-proclaimed gurus with troubled pasts who tell us we must -- at any cost -- break our addictions and squash our dependencies on the people who mean the most to us.

Constant avoidance of codependency leads to "addiction to perfection," a phrase coined by Marion Woodman to describe chronic fear of involvement with others, a far more debilitating affliction than lovesickness. Of course, the experience of being in love can have negative consequences, ranging from separation anxiety to murder, if a toxic combination of character and circumstances comes into play. But codependency itself is not "dysfunctional." There's nothing wrong with being Addicted to Love. Just don't get addicted to loving a jerk.

If you find yourself getting involved with jerk after jerk after jerk, okay, you win the prize label of “Love Junkie,” and would probably benefit from therapy, if for no other reason than the fact that a therapist will give you that full-focused attention you crave. That longing for attention is the very thing that keeps sending you head first into the arms of jerks in the first place! But if your paramour is a paragon, or at least a non -jerk, then why not give it all you've got? As the 18th century French playwright P.A.C. de Beaumarchais said long before there were Women Who Love Too Much, "Where love is concerned, too much is not even enough."

And yes, you could make a mistake. You could find yourself deeply involved or addicted to someone or something that's really hurting you. Then you must make the Herculean effort to extricate yourself from your many-pronged addiction as from the jaws of a many-headed hydra. If you defeat the hydra, you'll be a hero. If the hydra defeats you, well…it happens to the best of us.

Why is it so tough to leave a jerk? Because being in love is like being on drugs. Hard drugs. True love, or even deluded love, is a natural high far finer and smoother than anything you could inject, smoke, snort, drink or swallow. Of course, love isn’t something you can pick up at the pharmacy or even on the black market. You can’t really even “find love.” Love finds you. It strikes you like a mystical gift from God, an arrow from Eros, or a practical joke from tricky, fickle old hot Mama Nature, the Original Drug Dealer.

The first Love Drug Stew that Mama stirs up is a fricassee of powerful chemicals: dopamine, norepinephrine, phenylethylamine (PEA) and other natural cousins of amphetamines, stimulants and painkillers that flow through your bloodstream and permeate your cells, creating a place within you where hormones meet holiness, angels dance, and the city never sleeps. This “hot love" eventually dies down, leading many to wonder: Where has the love gone? But often, the sizzling heat gives way to “warm love,” when opiate-like endorphins and sweet-feeling oxytocin flow in, sensitizing your nerves, stimulating muscle contraction, enhancing orgasm and making cuddling feel absolutely divine, bringing on that nice, warm sense of well-being you get when you’re really comfortable with someone. The thing about Warm Love is that, unlike Hot Love, it can last forever. In fact, it’s quite habit-forming. This is why breaking up is so hard to do. Even when you know someone is wrong for you, and you should move on, it often feels like you can’t. Why? Because you’re chemically addicted. Oxytocin, when it’s got you hooked on the wrong partner, can be tougher to quit than heroin. Sometimes you need a therapist, a whole support group or just a really good friend to help you kick the habit.

But if you’re with the right person, the cozy codependent compounds that concoct Warm Love create a “good addiction,” helping to keep you happy together long after your Hot Love peaks have petered out. Warm Love chemicals aren’t just a high; they’re a health benefit, naturally strengthening your heart and immune system, as well as your relationship.

Sex Addiction

Last but not at all least, we come to #7 of the newly revised Seven Deadly Sins, the deadliest, most demonized and glamorized sin of the pack: Sex Addiction.

Just about every horny person who calls me for sex therapy these days -- male or female -- asks me if I think they’re a “sex addict.” Often they come up with the notion they suffer from “sex addiction” while researching their favorite fetish online. All roads lead to Rome, and almost all sexual or fetishistic search words eventually take the seeker to articles deploring an interest in that fetish as a form of sex addiction. Then again, perhaps someone they know has called them a “sex addict” in a fit of righteous exasperation. Or maybe they identify with certain sexy but star-crossed superstars like David Duchovny, Charlie Sheen, Amy Winehouse or Kanye West, or powerful former Presidents like Bill Clinton and John F. Kennedy, all of whom have been branded by the media and various “experts” with this most exciting, perverse, shame-riddled and downright sinful of labels. Then again, they might just be intoxicated by the idea of being utterly out of control, ruled by their libidinous desires, or by a seductress who takes advantage of their vulnerable, addictive sensibilities. Yes, the modern Scarlet Letter doesn’t stand for simple Adultery anymore, but for Addiction -- Sex Addiction.

But what exactly is sex addiction? Is it even possible to come up with a definition that all the so-called experts can agree on? Probably not. According to some sex addiction specialists, an interest in any type of sex other than married-monogamous-missionary-position-sex-with-the-lights-off could qualify you. So, if you masturbate regularly, enjoy pornography, have an affair, go to swing parties, dance in strip clubs, like phone sex, see a dominatrix, work as a dominatrix, wear panties under your clothes (if you're a guy) or over your clothes (if you're a gal), own more than three pairs of stiletto heels (if you're a guy or a gal) or if you fantasize about anyone or anything other than your beloved, you are at risk of being branded a sex addict. I guess if you host a show about sex in a bed wearing lingerie surrounded by dildos under a giant photo of a bonobo chimpanzee, you might as well have "Sex Addict" tattooed across your cleavage.

Not that sex addiction is just a joke; it can be a very serious, complicated matter best treated with highly focused therapy. Sex addiction can take a variety of forms and can involve any sexual practice. It’s not the activity that makes the addict, it’s the attitude. The true sex addict compulsively engages in unwanted behaviors that make his or her life unmanageable. The “unmanageable” part is the key, because we all, on occasion, have bad sex or do sexual things we’re not so proud of. Unmanageability could involve anything from failing college exams because Internet porn overtook studying, to spending the family savings on a blackmailing dominatrix, to engaging in bareback sex in public restrooms while your wife and kids sit at the dinner table watching the roast get cold. A true addict is out of control. He or she may wish to stop yet repeatedly fails to do so, often ruining relationships and experiencing job loss, financial troubles, sickness, arrest, accidents, guilt, shame, low self-esteem, impotency and despair.

Sounds pretty bleak, but if the sex addict really wants to change, he or she can. The first step is usually admitting that you have a problem and deciding that you want to make a change. The next step is reaching out for help, which can take many different forms. You might benefit from talking to a therapist who can help you understand the problem and put you on a program for positive change. You could join a group that can help you to voice those thoughts and feelings you’ve only been able to express through negative sex-addictive behaviors, and ultimately support your efforts to change for the better. You might be able to use a friend as a sounding board, though friends tend to have their own agendas in mind for you. Books, art and even snarky self-help advocates (who often quote the great thinkers of history, even if they personally have nothing original to say) can also be helpful when you want to tame the wild beasts of an obsessive-compulsive libido. Churches, synagogues, mosques, temples and other religious institutions can also assist certain types of addicts, though they generally have a very specific religious agenda, and have been known to commit religious sexual abuse upon their congregants.

Though sex addiction is a real problem, much of what is solemnly or sensationally labeled “sex addiction” is just normal erotic angst, sexual experimentation, fetishistic fun and relationship troubles. Ironically, these days, many people seem to grab the term like a designer label on sale, because even though it’s embarrassing and demeaning, calling yourself a “sex addict” is, well, sexy. Some long to wear a glittering Scarlet Letter “A” for Addict on their breast, and seem disappointed when I say “um, just because you masturbate three times a week does not make you a sex addict.” More and more people seem to like the idea of being sex addicts with no ability to control their prodigious desires. It’s become something of a fad, or at least a trend. Normal healthy people with sex problems, frustration, fetishes, questions and fantasies do often benefit from sex therapy and fantasy roleplay. But they don’t require the intensive treatment the true addict needs.

Treatment for addiction can be as hazardous to humanity as the addiction itself. Just look at the murders committed on antidepressants, the innocents thrown into prison for nothing more than smoking a joint, the decent people branded as sex addicts, dysfunctional or even criminal just because they pursue unusual, albeit consensual sex practices. Addiction can be awful. But far worse than a society that harbors a few crazed addicts is one that reduces our sexuality – or the rest of our lives – to merely being functional.