The Problem with Sex Addiction

After a conversation I had about the term “addiction” with some of Good Vibrations’ newer staff members, I decided that I wanted to unpack this notion a little. There is not as much critically-considered information about sex addiction (and using this kind of language to describe things like masturbation habits and erotic preferences) available to ordinary people as I’d like to see–instead, most people hear the term “sex addiction” so frequently that it may seem like a simple, accepted description of the problems some people have with sex and sexual appetite. I’ve put together some thoughts about this, and hope you find them useful.

First, the term “sex addiction.” Annie Sprinkle wrote a terrific piece about this some years ago which she allowed us to publish in the Good Vibrations Magazine. It’s absolutely worth a revisit. I’ll wait right here while you click over there and read it.

The things  Annie doesn’t explicitly say in her essay that I immediately noticed when I first saw “sex addictionology” materials in the late 1980s (when I started my PhD program at the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality) were, first, how heterocentric the language of these brochures was — really verging on homophobic. The second thing was that the notion was essentially anti-masturbation. It expects the norm to be heterosexual partnership — and even then, you shouldn’t be too focused on sex! As Annie notes in her article, of course some people have real difficulty with their sexual desires and impulses. But most of the people who talk up sex addiction in the media really talk primarily about two issues that have nothing to do with true addiction:

1) People who are worried that their sexual interests are not normal. They think they should only want monogamous heterosexual vanilla lovemaking, and that anything outside this is an unhealthy manifestation of “addiction.” (Note that before we had the language and concept of “sex addiction,” which became popular in the 1980s, this kind of worry was coded as deviance or sin — but the issue was the same, the idea that you shouldn’t desire things outside of a perceived sexual/relationship norm, and there was something wrong if you did.)

2) Those who think the kind of sex, toy play, or masturbation they respond most strongly to amounts to them being “addicted” to that thing because they like it better or it works better for them than other alternatives. Here again there’s an underlying idea that most people are essentially the same sexually, and difference must constitute a problem.

In fact, though, for many varying reasons, people are different: in the type of stimulation they like best, in their sexual orientation and fantasy lives, in all kinds of ways. This is why it’s always a challenge when someone comes into one of our stores and asks “What’s the best vibrator?” We know different vibes are best for different people, depending on how they respond and the specific ways they like to use their toy. The problem is: This message of diversity is clearer to us (and most people whose professions or areas of academic study have specifically to do with sex) than it is to the general public.

Many sex therapists and most sexologists have a big problem with the very idea of “addiction” as far as sex goes. They argue that addiction involves a physical craving for a substance that causes chemical changes in the body. Pro-sex addiction people now respond to this complaint by saying that sex does cause chemical changes: the release of endorphins and other hormones that a person can become addicted to. I would say that the jury is out on this question, but because every healthy person has these chemical responses to adequate sexual stimulation (adequate for them, that is, since people’s sexualities are different, as we’ve discussed), we should at least exercise critical thinking about the notion that for some people, these brain chemistry changes are benign and necessary for pleasure, and for others they’re dangerous and addictive. Especially when the so-called “normal” (and socially accepted) sexual choices aren’t the ones that anybody tends to call “addictions.”

Some language changes that may help unravel this tangle of science, pseudoscience, and social norms:

–Instead of the out-of-control notion of “sex addiction,” talk about “compulsion” (this acknowledges that some people feel that their sexual choices and ability to set boundaries have gotten out of their control — that absolutely can happen). But just liking one thing over another does not mean it’s a compulsion: that level of definition has to do with a person who feels s/he/ze can’t stop doing something even if s/he/ze really wants to (and they have a good reason for wanting to).

–If someone says they’re “addicted to” (let’s say) masturbating by rubbing on their pillow, they’re probably really simply “into it,” “have a preference for it,” “get off best when doing it.” I think many of us tend to use the term “addiction” colloquially, like slang: “I’m totally addicted to Lady Gaga’s new album” or “Those fries are just addictive.” Obviously it’s not that ironic pop-culture usage I am attempting to call out — it’s those people who seem concerned that their preference is really not OK for some reason.

My colleague Charlie Glickman adds his thoughts:

“Most sex therapists (outside the circle of addictionologists) argue that it’s not a question of what type of sex someone has or how often they have it, but rather, what their relationship to it is. If they feel like their sex life is beyond their ability to control, that’s a potential problem whether they have sex daily or once a decade. Similarly, if they find themselves feeling guilty or ashamed because of their desires or practices, that’s something to explore, although these feelings can easily be because of their own or other people’s sex-negativity rather than because they’re doing anything dangerous or damaging. It’s also worth noting that ‘You’re a sex addict’ has become a way for people to attack their partner(s), especially when they have different preferences for how often or what kinds of sex they have.”

If there weren’t a bunch of therapists making good money off folks with sexual concerns who use this notion of addiction as their baseline philosophy, we would not need to have this conversation. If those therapists weren’t often originally influenced by a homophobic and sex-negative philosophy, ditto (since certainly there are people who need therapeutic help with their sexual choices or compulsions, as I have said). And it’s true that much of the smoke from the sex addiction campfire has drifted toward people who watch porn, not so much gays any more — except in distinctly homophobic, “We can cure that” circles. But this idea is one of the cultural memes that prevent many people from really accepting themselves (or their partners) and their own natural erotic diversity, and when that’s the role it plays in someone’s life, we must be careful not to support it, and may be doing people whose shame draws them toward this “diagnosis” a huge favor by helping to put their sexual concerns in a different perspective.

This is an ideal time to draw upon the insights of the PLISSIT model of sex education and therapy: most people with sexual issues need Permission, Limited Information, and/or Specific Suggestions, and a minority need Intensive Therapy. (While we only do the PLISS part at Good Vibrations, there are sex therapists and clinical sexologists who can address from a very sex-positive perspective a person’s concerns about sex, arousal, habits and desires if their need is for therapeutic intervention.)

The bottom line: While it is perfectly possible for someone to feel out of control about their sexual impulses or choices, calling them a “sex addict” is not the most positive way of handling distress when what they really may need is support in understanding their desires, community, appropriate partners, and the sense that they can be happy people just as they are.

Dr. Carol Queen

Carol Queen has a PhD in sexology; she calls herself a "cultural sexologist" because her earlier academic degree is in sociology: while she addresses individual issues and couple's sexual concerns, her overarching interest is in cultural issues (gender, shame, access to education, etc.). Queen has worked at Good Vibrations, the woman-founded sexuality company based in San Francisco that turned 35 years old in 2012, since 1990. Her current position is Staff Sexologist and Good Vibrations Historian; her roles include representing the company to the press and the public; overseeing educational programming for staff and others; and scripting/hosting a line of sex education videos, the Pleasure-Ed series, for GV’s sister company Good Releasing. She also curates the company's Antique Vibrator Museum. She is also the founding director of the Center for Sex & Culture, a non-profit sex ed and arts center San Francisco, and is a frequent lecturer at colleges, universities, and community-based organizations. Her dozen books include a Lambda Literary Award winner, PoMoSexuals, and Real Live Nude Girl: Chronicles of Sex-Positive Culture, which are used as texts in some college classes. She blogs at the Good Vibes Magazine and at SFGate's City Brights bloggers page and contributes to the Boston Dig. For more about her at carolqueen.com.

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