Book Review: The Myth of Sex Addiction

myth-of-sex-addiction-david-j-ley-lynsey g by David J. Ley

Sex is so deeply enmeshed in our culture’s morality, religion, power dynamics, gender roles, child-rearing, entertainment, news media, and deeply rooted fears that it’s virtually impossible to get a hold on a slippery subject within its purview: sex addiction. What is sex addiction supposed to be? How does one define it? Diagnose it? Treat it?

The answers to all these questions are the same: nobody really knows. But people are damn well willing to try and to make a lot of money, get a lot of media attention, and wring every last drop of benefit out of it. I’ve had an issue with this idea, and particularly the idea of porn addiction, for years now. I’ve seen a lot of people brush off responsibility for their actions by claiming an addiction, and a lot of other people shrug as if sex and porn are things that can control people. It’s a typical American response; in a culture so litigious that we need to put caution labels on hot coffee to cover our asses, a force as powerful, as seductive, and as hidden in the darkness of our fears and preferences as sex is perhaps the most logical one to throw into the addiction mix.

The lack of open dialogue and of mutual respect is what’s at stake in the way we view male and female sexuality. The ability to find a middle ground from which differences can be celebrated rather than muffled, in which sex and life are not battlegrounds but a round table. The pendulum seems to swing back and forth in society and in power dynamics, between men and women, strong and weak, right and wrong. And sometimes we end up in bizarre situations like the concept of sex addiction, which very much places negativity and blame on high libido, in which a historically (and possibly genetically, but that’s another conversation entirely) “feminized” view of sex is being enforced on men who have a lot of it.

I don’t like it that Dr. Ley put things into such a binary by talking so much about male sexuality as being demonized. But nor do I like it that he has a point. And even less so do I like it that sex, whether it’s the male or female or some other version, is demonized to the point where the only way for people to want to discuss it is as a disease.

It’s not about female and male, at least not to me, but it is about people being terrified of their own sexuality. And that is a taboo that cuts both ways. In feminist circles we talk about the evils of slut-shaming and invoke the name of male empowerment in every other sentence. And we are not wrong. But neither are the men who feel afraid to talk openly about their desires because they have been deemed brutal. Too terrified to talk about it or try to figure it out. Too terrified to try to take control of it. Terrified by growing up in a culture where it’s simultaneously obsessed over and vilified, coveted and condemned, a source of passionate pleasure and deep shame. To me, while there were issues of cherry-picking facts, perhaps some over-credulity and leaning on books and studies whose assertions were muddied, aged, or speculative, and perhaps an oversimplified bias toward a black-and-white view of male versus female sexual behavior, the point remains the same: sexual behavior is only pathological in the presence of an already-existing pathology. Sexual addiction is no more real that “chocoholism.” Sex addiction sells newspapers, funds exorbitant sex rehab facilities, and makes a whole lot of very conservative, sex-negative people feel better about themselves and the world. But it is not a diagnosis—it is a term thrown about as a symptom of a culture so obsessed with a sexuality that it glories in keeping in the dark, where demons and angels dance together (and probably get it on), where it can get scarier and sexier. Understanding it, harnessing it, and learning to take responsibility for it is less fun than splashing it across newspapers and websites, thrilling to it in the dark of our bedrooms with the doors locked, and gleefully blaming our actions and our fears on it instead of ourselves.


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