The “sex addiction” model isn’t harmless
One of the less fun controversies I’ve stepped into at Double X was when I questioned whether or not there was such a thing as “sex addiction”, pointing out that its biggest proponents are prudes who are looking for a cover story so they can continue to promote themselves as experts without having to get dinged for being sex negative. The most famous, of course, is Dr. Drew, who seems to think female sexual desire that isn’t properly contained by his own exacting standards is always the result of sexual abuse. (This little party trick he pulled on “Love Line” always annoyed me, because it’s so dishonest. The hit rate when you ask random women if some man has every molested them is extremely high, and so the fact that you “guessed” that someone has been abused is proof not that you have a read on them, but that sexual abuse is that common.) Of course, people invested in the idea of “sex addiction” are going to erect straw man arguments, accusing you of saying there’s no such thing as people who act out sexually, people who use compulsive sexual behaviors to self-soothe, etc. No one is saying that, of course. The skeptics merely point out that the addiction model is all screwed up, in no small part because they lean on prudery to convince people that sex itself is the problem—that it’s an addictive substance—and that the only way to be healthy is to strictly control your sexual behavior. And that the way to contain it is—surprise surprise—to suggest that sexual behavior outside the Christian Right® approved romantic, monogamous behavior is unhealthy.
Anyway, I bring this up because, even as defenders of “sex addiction” scoff at the idea that their framing promotes sex negativity under a pseudo-scientific veneer, the ugly reality is that “sex addiction” as an idea is creating substantial harm in the real world, to people’s happiness and mental health. Check out this letter Heather Corinna got from some teenage girl in her first sexual relationship:
My boyfriend and I have been together for almost 7 months. We had sex after the 1st month because we felt that special connection with each other. Ever since the first time with him, I keep wanting more. I think I’m addicted to sex with him. That is all I think about constantly. He is the same way but for my sake (he doesn’t want to be a father yet, if you get what I mean) he tries to control himself as much as possible. He can’t always though. To be safe I’ve asked him to buy condoms but since we both realized we are doing it too much, he says we aren’t going to do it anyway so why have them. Well then he comes over and we wind up doing it without a condom. It was a close call one time where he almost ejaculated inside of me, but pulled it out just in time. Do you have any suggestions on how we can overcome out sex addiction and try and be safer? I’m not allowed to go on the pill and my boyfriend and I have a lot of time to be alone together. We are just teenagers. Thank you for the advice.
Here’s the thing: I’ll bet a lot of folks like Dr. Drew and other “sex addiction” proponents would not see a problem with this letter, because they’d say that she’s too young and anyway, she’s acting irresponsibly. Which proves the point, of course. Not that abstaining is wrong, but if you’re planning to do so because you’re tricked into thinking that having a lot of sexual desire as a teenager is unhealthy, then what you get is this kind of crap, where a pregnancy is almost sure to happen.
This is why the addiction model is so dangerous, and a mask for prudery. After all, if sex is “addictive”, then surely you’re an addict if you want to do it all the time with your new amour, right? What’s moderate levels of “sexing”? Is there “binge sexing”? This poor kid thinks so. Worse, she thinks the incredible desire to have sex is comparable to an overwhelming desire to get smashed every night, as if she were an alcoholic or something. Reading this, I get the strong impression she probably thinks once a month is probably the moderate amount of sex. She’d probably be blown away to find out that it’s perfectly normal and healthy to go at it four times a night when you’re young and in your first sexual relationship.
Using the wrong framework to describe a problem has consequences. I would argue that for Dr. Drew, the consequences that we see here—where young people, especially young women are afraid and ashamed of being sexually voracious—are not a drawback, but the whole point. But all that’s going to happen here is that people who may not have had sexual dysfunction before are going to be facing unintended pregnancy, faulty relationships torn up by sexual guilt, and possibly health problems from not responding to your body’s signals for healthy amounts of sexual release. Nor are people who act out sexually going to be helped by this. Framing sex as some problem to be conquered instead of looking at your problems in a more holistic way strikes me as a really bad idea.