I caught this Newsweek item on The Daily Beast, which was picked up almost immediately by YourTango and the Huffington Post and likely, other news outlets. Specifically, the article addresses the Sex Addition Epidemic – and epidemic is their term, not mine – as figures estimate
between 3 and 5 percent of the U.S. population — or more than 9 million people — could meet the criteria for [sex] addiction.
9 million people “could” meet the criteria for sex addiction. Well now. That’s certainly phrasing that inspires confidence and a credible statistic.
Might I add that when YourTango picked up the article and ran with it, they offered a headline asking Is Sex Addiction Destroying Marriage? I daresay that’s a particularly provocative twist – and one that begs the issue of Internet activities encouraging both sexual addiction and the demise of marriage.
Is online activity automatically part of the sex addiction puzzle, or only if a person is married? What about turning to the services of an Ashley Madison for extramarital affairs? What if the Internet is used solely for viewing or chatting? At what point does exploring become infidelity, or habit – addiction?
It’s this ambiguity – all of it – that raises my hackles with articles like this. We point our fingers at the Internet, at the media, at misdeeds of powerful public figures, and we damn them with declarations about the declining state of contemporary culture – specifically, our lack of moral fiber. And we focus our condemnation on the symptoms rather than the causes.
Good Sex, Bad Sex, Any Sex
Of course we’re interested. We’re curious. We sit up and take notice when any source delves into sexual behaviors, and we’re likely to gauge our “normalcy” – whatever that may mean – relative to the sexual context in the spotlight.
As to the content of the Newsweek article, it points out that sex addiction – once the realm of middle-aged men, has spread to women as well as adolescents and senior citizens. So what – exactly – are we supposed to make of this? And what does it mean – really, if we even believe it?
And I do believe that sex addiction exists. But I’m piqued at the sensationalism in referring to this phenomenon as epidemic, and the breadth of behaviors that are mentioned in the mix.
The Nature of Addiction
If we consider the nature of addiction, we recognize physical and psychological dependence, a preoccupation with getting that next “fix” – drugs, alcohol, nicotine, food, sex – and generally, the destruction that eventually follows as the addiction exerts its power.
And what about sexual addiction, specifically?
According to PsychCentral, sexual addiction is:
characterized by compulsive sexual thoughts and acts. Like all addictions, [with] its negative impact on the addict and on family members…
The National Council on Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity has defined sexual addiction as “engaging in persistent and escalating patterns of sexual behavior acted out despite increasing negative consequences to self and others.”
But aren’t these wildly open-ended definitions? What would you include?
The Pleasure Principle
The Newsweek report elaborates on the similarities between sex addicts and those who are addicted to substances.
Sex addicts are compelled by the same heightened emotional arousal that can drive alcoholics or drug addicts to act so recklessly, say addiction experts. Research shows that substance abusers and sex addicts alike form a dependency on the brain’s pleasure-center neurotransmitter, dopamine.
Personally, I don’t doubt the voracity of these descriptions or the extremes involved. But I find the lack of clarity around the discussion to be disturbing, as well as the lack of consensus on the definition.
Sexual Addiction “Epidemic”
And the term epidemic?
According to Dictionary.com, use of the term epidemic involves:
attacking or affecting many persons simultaneously in a community or area; often applies to disease; a rapid development or spread; a widespread occurrence
The Newsweek report refers to 3 to 5% of the population, and suggests that it ranges from kids sexting to Grandpa at the computer. Is this really addiction, or is it a matter of bad habits? Is it a new form of (typical) teen behavior – no matter how much we disapprove? Is it a solution (albeit not ideal) to the aging single’s boredom or isolation?
I mean no disrespect, but geriatric viewing and adolescent sexting is a far cry from the story which opens the article and concerns a woman whose compulsive need to engage in ever more dangerous sexual affairs ruined two marriages, cost her a job, destroyed her self-esteem, and landed her on the street.
Not the word I would use.
Sex Addiction – Real, But. . .
And I’m back to square one, irritated at this sort of reporting. I believe that sex addiction is real, destructive, and like other addictions – capable of destroying lives and requiring specialized help. But these numbers? The underlying agendas?
Moreover, I have concerns that we aren’t dealing with the root causes – an increasingly despairing population that is grappling with anger, isolation, lack of physical touch and individuals who feel unwanted. As to the changing demographics suggesting that more women engage in these behaviors, is it tied to proving something to ourselves – judged so often by body image and sexual appeal?
Isn’t this about pain, and a drive to obliterate the pain – through drugs, through alcohol, through food, and through sex – especially when we feel unvalued?
Woman vs. Mother
As a woman who has lived much of my life single, and some of that time abroad, my view of healthy and natural sexual behavior may differ from yours. I know my views at 50 are different than they were at 30, and I imagine they will be different at 70. We are all moving targets, and evolving with our experience. Naturally, the extent to which we enjoy sex or seek it out changes as we change physically, and as our circumstances change.
I am wholeheartedly against sexualizing children in any way, but I believe that whatever consenting adults do in their relationships or for that matter – their bedrooms, their cars, their verandas, or their rooftops – is their business.
No harm, no foul.
And to me – that includes whatever materials someone wants to look at for their pleasure, as long as it involves adults.
Do I want my kids sexting? Hardly.
Do I want them respectful of their own bodies and emotions, and those of their partners as they explore their sexuality? Naturally.
Do I think it’s advisable for someone to prefer six hours of virtual interaction to getting out in the world and engaging in a flesh-and-blood relationship? That’s a judgment call, not mine to make, and in my opinion would depend entirely on the circumstances of those involved.
Would I want the man I’m seeing to prefer online viewing over real world loving and lovemaking?
Of course not. But I recognize the range, the degrees, and the varying circumstances that factor into acceptable and enjoyable sexual behaviors.
Desire, Connection, Touch
Can we ignore the fact that we live in a world in which little remains constant?
Can we ignore how easy it is to lose a job, a spouse, a home – and struggle for anything that feels like human connection, even briefly?
Do we disregard the numbers of sexless marriages that leave so many men and women bereft and seeking any means to feel desired again – the emotional affair, the Internet affair, the hours spent imagining some way to make the pain disappear?
Do we allow for the fact that even in marriage, libido may fade for one and not for the other? What about physical conditions or medications that undermine the sexual relationship and may turn one partner to alternatives – with tacit knowledge of the other?
When behavior spirals out of control – dangerously out of control – then help is necessary. I am not someone who believes this spiral happens easily or willingly, but nor should we deem such a breadth of activities that touch on sexual behaviors as automatically destructive, or necessarily inclusive in the definition of sexual addiction.