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Sex Addiction Panic! The Conservative, Religious Push to Pathalogize Sexuality

The science behind sex addiction is "abysmal," says clinical psychologist David Ley. Why does the concept continue to resonate?

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It seems the question underlying the whole conversation is: What does a healthy relationship to sex look like?

They are typically unable to put forth a healthy model of sexuality, and when they do, it is so transparently conservative and religiously driven that it’s frightening. Most of the leaders of the sex-addiction movement are themselves recovering supposed sex addicts and religious folks. That’s fine, it’s fine for them to be advocating, but what they’re advocating for is a moral system, not a medical one.

For a while, they were pushing the idea that if you had an orgasm once a day, every day, that made you a sex addict — but they finally had to back off on that because data was building up showing that there are lots of people who have sex once a day and have no problems. That’s the other big hole in their argument: For every one of the behaviors they raise as addictive — whether it’s porn, strip clubs, masturbation, infidelity, going to prostitutes — I can present 10,000 people who engage in the exact same behavior and have no problems, and they can’t explain why that is.

They are trying to connect a lot of disparate behaviors. Frankly, I think that it is ludicrous to try to apply one sex-addiction concept to the behavior of a person who spends 12 hours a day masturbating and that of a person who has three or four mistresses.

How should we look at someone who spends their entire day masturbating?

A lot of the research that has been done shows that between 70 and 100 percent of these alleged sex addicts have some other major mental-health problem — there is some other diagnosis, whether it is substance abuse, depression, anxiety or a personality disorder. It violates Occam’s razor to then throw in a sex-addiction diagnosis when these behaviors are just symptoms of the underlying mental illness.

The other thing is, why are we singling out this one behavior as a problem? There are people who do model trains obsessively: They focus their life on it, their relationships end because of their interest in this, they fill their houses with these model trains –

But we aren’t rushing to subject them to brain scans.

Exactly, right. This is a moral attack on sexuality. They it is in the interest of people to build and develop fear of sex. Because they think that if we’re not afraid of sex, people are going to go out and have lots of sex. God forbid.

What cultural forces are bringing this to the fore right now?

I think it’s a perfect storm. It’s the media and the transparency of our society. All of these behaviors have been happening for millennium — people cheating, people having lots of sex, people viewing pornography. There’s nothing new about this. But all of a sudden we have this 24/7 media that is hungry for scandals. “Gotcha” journalism grabs an audience by putting out a sound bite, a meme, as quickly as possible, regardless of how true it is. The memes that grab the most are black-and-white, two-dimensional concepts. Rather than explaining that there are thousands of reasons a person might engage in infidelity, it’s easier to say: Sex addict.

Does it make people feel more secure, like the threat of infidelity is contained to a “disordered” or “addicted” population? Blaming infidelity on sex addiction might be easier than questioning monogamy or our expectations for long-term commitments.

Yep. Instead of examining the application of the concept of monogamy over a 30- or 40-year marriage, and looking at how male sexuality works, it’s much easier to say: “Well, it’s a disease.” I include a quote in my book where a woman says, “When my husband was cheating, it really was a comfort to consider it a disease and that it really wasn’t his fault. Finally, I had to realize that it wasn’t a disease, it was just him being selfish and treating my life and health casually.” If we look at it as a choice, what changes?

 
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