To be human is to be a sex addict. To be subsumed in sexual fantasy, to masturbate regularly, “to have sex with inappropriate people,” “to think that there might be more you could do with your life if you were not so driven by sexual or romantic pursuits”: All these things are normal. And yet we’ve clumped these behaviors into a haphazard diagnosis: sex addiction. In its pathologization of normal sexual behavior, sex addiction is a dangerous concept.
No single behavior pattern defines sexual addiction. These behaviors, when they have taken control of addicts’ lives and become unmanageable, include: compulsive masturbation, compulsive heterosexual and homosexual relationships, pornography, prostitution, exhibitionism, voyeurism, indecent phone calls, child molesting, incest, rape and violence.
Not only is sex addiction nearly impossible to define, but there’s also no consensus on whether the disease actually exists. The bible of psychology, the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of disease (which is used by insurance companies to determine coverage) included sex addiction in its pages in 1987, but then removed it in 1994. However, a lack of scientific evidence has not prevented popular culture from becoming captivated with sex addiction, and a slew of celebrities have blamed sex addiction for their cheating ways (see: Tiger Woods, David Duchovny, Rob Lowe). Furthermore, sex-addiction centers abound, supporting a healthy industry of 12-step treatment programs, expensive sex addiction therapies, and innumerable books. Given its shaky scientific basis, sex addiction should have faded away a long time ago. So why is the concept still being taken seriously?
In part, it’s because the sex drive is so overpowering, animalistic, corporeal. Labeling our powerful sex drive a “disease” allows us the illusion of control. We are driven by our deepest sexual desires, but we are socialized into directing our sexual energy into marriage and other culturally sanctioned systems. However, sexual energy cannot always be directed to our partners, so we direct it to other outlets: we send pictures of genitals to random people on the internet, we watch bukkake porn, we sleep with a co-worker or 10. When these behaviors become public, they’re threatening because they remind us of the lust that we all have inside of us, so we ritualistically shame those who are caught violating our bizarre social norms, by condemning their behaviors while either secretly engaging in them ourselves or wishing we had. But since public shaming is no longer socially acceptable, we cloak our morality in a medical diagnosis.
Sex addiction is not a new concept, and history has shown us that it is not a harmless one. Over the past two-hundred years sex addiction has gone by multiple names. In the 19th century it was called nymphomania (for women) and satyriasis (for men), among other things (hysteria, neurasthenia, etc.) To cure it, doctors tried all manner of remedies including placing leeches on the uterus, removing clitorises, and instructing patients to take cold baths or use cool enemas, according to historian Carol Groneman. Although we no longer take such drastic measures to cure sex addiction, we hurt people in other ways. We label them as diseased, shunting them into treatment centers, and making them pariahs. Instead of alienating sex addicts and transforming them into the Other, we should align ourselves with them. As friends of cancer patients shave their heads to show solidarity, we should do the same for our sex-addicted brethren. We are all sex addicts, and we must learn to understand our sex drives, not destroy them. –Hallie Lieberman