What We Talk About When We Talk About Sexual Addiction

I just don’t see how anyone can write about sexual addiction without also writing about masculinity and feminism. But before I do that, let me propose a few caveats:

  1. It is not my place (or ambition) to say whether sexual addiction exists or not.
  2. I am not claiming that there are not also women who identify as sexually addicted.
  3. When I question the ways we conceptualize sexual addiction, I am not doing so to trivialize or disrespect anyone’s experiences.
  4. Despite the possible inclusion of “hypersexual disorder” in the DSM 5, I will use the term “sexual addiction” because it remains the term of choice and because the word ‘addiction’ shapes our understanding of the disorder.
  5. There will be some explicit references in this post.

I feel the need to begin with these caveats because I have already learned that to speak about sexual addiction with any sort of doubting curiosity is to invite angry assertions of its existence. The invocation of addiction implies the absolute certainty of the recovery movement. It demarcates a clear trajectory into abjection as well as the redemptive potential of recovery. Cohering (as in: bringing together and making coherent) sexual excess under this term leaves little room for nuance. Yet, as I have argued earlier, sexual addiction remains an aporia that helps shape notions of sexuality, morality, and even addiction itself. If we do not pay close attention to what we mean when we say that certain destructive sexual behaviors are “addictions,” we risk losing sight of what we might learn about gender roles and entitlements.

The other response to any doubting curiosity is the seemingly inevitable reference to men who feel compelled to masturbate until they bleed. 

So sorry about the "bloody penis" thing. Here's a mental image to cleanse your palate.

I find it strange, then, that when I do a little googling (“blood penis masturbation”), I mostly find references to a little blood in ejaculate and nothing much about that image I suspect we all had when we first heard of the bloody penis. As with sexual addiction itself, it seems, the bloody penis is a signifier in search of a signified.

Indeed, I have come to think of that bloody penis as the master signifier of sexual addiction. It appears in any conversation that threatens to veer from vague to precise when describing the sorts of behaviors we include under the diagnosis. The invocation of the bloody penis, much like the invocation of addiction itself, sucks all the air out of the room. How, that bloody penis seems to demand, can one be a bastard if one is so deeply (self) injured?

I wonder, however, if the bloody penis can also stand in for the crisis of masculinity, which, I believe, shapes conversations about sexual addiction. And I do not see how we can talk about the crisis of masculinity without also talking about feminism.

If the rapid proliferation of various men’s groups in the late 1980s and early 1990s is any indication, second wave feminism scored some major victories in its mission to challenge behaviors that, until then, had maybe been seen as unfortunate (or even immoral), but not as sexist and illegal. It’s easy to forget that second wave feminism is responsible for terms such as “sexual harassment,” “date rape,” “rape culture,” and “marital rape,”(as well as insults like “male chauvinist pig”).  With those terms came the recognition that the activities they described were not individual acts of lust, but part of a larger pattern structured by uninterrogated notions of masculinity. All of a sudden, a man like Don Draper looked less like a successful “man” and more like that male chauvinist pig, and that made it a little harder to be – or aspire to be – a man like Don Draper.

Feminism, according to the men's rights movement

It should come as no surprise, then, that various men’s groups would try to imagine other ways to be a man. Some saw feminism as an opportunity to renounce the privileges and perils of masculinity. Others tried to recreate a new, but still essentialist, “deep masculinity.” Then, there was the “men’s rights” movement, which aimed at reversing feminist achievements by repositioning men as victims of feminism rather than as oppressors of women. Whatever the permutation, however, these movements were all concerned with similar questions: how can a man be a man after feminism? What behaviors are still acceptable, and how do we categorize behaviors that are no longer acceptable – or sometimes even legal?

The seminal mythopoetic book, in which the "deep masculine" is represented by a wild yet gentle fairy tale character.

In 1983, as women were taking back the night and insisting that men not just “be men,” Patrick Carnes came out with the first major book about “sexual addiction,” a term he is credited with coining.  In the book, he describes a continuum of behaviors, ranging from masturbation to cheating to public lewdity to child molestation. Although he makes glancing references to women who regret having casual sex (suggesting that some prostitutes are really just sexual addicts), the majority of his examples involve stereotypically male behavior. Despite his claim, then, that he uses the male pronoun “simply to preserve sentence continuity,” it does seem to be the appropriate one for the majority of sexual addicts in this early study (xxv).

This book, the media, and the cottage industry of sexual addiction researchers, therapists, authors, and recovery groups have helped shift male bad behavior from badness to sickness. As Peter Conrad and Joseph Schneider argue in Deviance and Medicalization, there has been a gradual progression of most behaviors considered deviant from “badness” to “sickness.” Often, this transition happens when the deviant person shifts from the creep on the street to the person with cultural capital. Refiguring deviance as sickness is seen as a kinder, gentler approach, but it also entails a loss of agency on the part of the deviant, who now must assume the sick role.

Although “sexual addict” might be a tough pill to swallow, it does seem preferable to labels like “sexual predator,” “cheater,” or even “male chauvinist pig.” The diagnosis permits a person who has hurt another to avoid responsibility for his actions, if only temporarily. It helps reconceptualize sexist bad behavior away from a reflection of a person’s character to a symptom of a disease that is, despite claims to the contrary, surmountable.

So sorry I had to bring it up again. Here, look at the cute bunny.

What better image of this sick role than the bloody penis? Anyone else who might have been hurt or betrayed is overshadowed by the image of man who would transform pleasure into pain, who would pay for his sins with such terrible self-abuse. The man who has broken trust or violated the rights of others is now both victimizer and victim.

I suspect, when conceptualized within the framework of a feminist challenge to conventional notions of masculinity, sexual addiction must inevitably bifurcate. On one side, there is the sickness: the compulsion to masturbate, for example. On the other side, there are behaviors that might better be returned to the category of badness: breaking marital agreements, preying on the vulnerable, paying for sex, lying to get sex, treating women as objects (outside of consensual BDSM).

These behaviors result from the structural entitlements men still enjoy, after all. To include them as forms of sexual addiction is to draw attention from the real disorder, which is (if I might propose a new diagnosis) the linked mental illnesses of sexism and misogyny. After all, if there were no sexism, no continuing inequality between men and women, I’m not sure we would need terms like “sexual addiction” to contain or cohere sexuality that infringes on the humanity of other people.

Men like Tiger Woods or Bill Clinton or Eliot Spitzer or Anthony Weiner might not get such an easy out if we were to look at their actions as the result of choice rather than compulsion. Doing so, however, would reposition them as active agents in their own lives, not victims of urges beyond their control. And those few people – men and women – who suffer from terrible, self-injurious sexual compulsion might get the attention and help they deserve once the waters are less muddied by a condition that might better serve as a symptom than a diagnosis.

2 thoughts on “What We Talk About When We Talk About Sexual Addiction”

  1. There’s such a long history in US Christian culture (well, European too, but let’s stick with one to make this clearer) of people blaming bad behavior on “an urge beyond their control,” with sex being one central focus of that. Heck, I’d even venture that one huge arm of Christian theological theory is that sex itself is “an urge beyond one’s control,” with various groups on a continuum between “Satan made me do it” and “too weak to avoid sins of the flesh.” With such a world view, people then need a way out of being trapped as victims of these urges, so, flash, the Redemption Narrative. I was blind but now I see, I was a victim of Satan/weakness but now I’m redeemed and reborn. Since the addiction narrative comes out of that world view, it’s little surprise how similar they sound, with “I was addicted” replacing “I was influenced by Satan” as the “get out of jail free card” phrase of choice in a post-Freudian world.

    Whether or not one can play that card, of course, is absolutely about privilege. What color are you, what class are you – these questions determine whether the card you pull reads “go to rehab” or “go directly to jail.”

    And Christian “sin” stories often have some gory detail, like the bloody penis. I mean, rat with her teddy bear. For that matter, “diet” narratives also have their weird gory details, about amounts of food eaten that probably aren’t possible, about being desperate enough to want to “cut it off,” and so on.

    But what I’m wondering about right now is the connection between male privilege and harming oneself until one bleeds. As Alexine notes, the “bloody penis” story is used as the ultimate symbol (money shot, as it were) of how these poor men are truly broken and so need compassion rather than judgment. But I’ve done years of work with women who do SIV (Self-inflicted violence), or, to use a slang term that stinks of condescension, “cutters.” For these women (often quite young, and, in my experience, always victims of abuse, usually within their families), the blood that they draw is not understood by the therapy/mental illness industry to be a site of compassion but is seen as the women being attention-seeking, manipulative, crazy. Many therapists force women to sign “contracts” saying that if they cut or self-harm in any way the therapy will end.

    So the (fantasized) male bloody penis = get this guy some help while the actual bloody female arm/leg = this crazy bitch is trying to manipulate me.

    Which pretty much sums up the gendered relation to power.

    Thanks, Alexine, for a great posting!

  2. Alex, great post! I agree with your analysis, and I’ll add from my experience in the poly community. Many of the people who choose a poly life feel that they really can’t “do” monogamy–so sex addiction would seem like an out. But, I have yet to meet any poly person who claims that problem, because as you point out, it makes them someone who needs to be cured. Instead, they question why shouldn’t they have sex with lots of other people? Or, they instead argue that they fall in love with more than one person at a time, they can’t help that, and it would be morally wrong to try to love _less_. Either way, they are making choices according to some principle.

    Often though, relative or friends who object to the choice may say that their friend/sibling/child must be addicted to sex, because they would rather believe that, than believe having multiple partners was a choice. So it’s not just the person having sex who might want to believe in sex addiction, but also people around them who want to believe, sometimes regardless of what the person having the sex says him or herself.

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