The Crack Baby Incident

guess which one is the crack baby…

A funny thing happened when I started telling people about the crack baby myth: they didn’t believe me. “Myth?” they said, “but the crack baby is real!” My facebook page was consumed in a 25-comment debate before I could convince some of my intelligent, educated friends that, indeed, the crack baby is a fiction. An off-hand comment to a doctor likewise met with amazed surprise – no such thing as a crack baby? Over coffee, friends struggled to let go of the idea of the crack baby because, as one person confessed, it feels so viscerally true. How could something as awful as crack not cause permanent damage to babies? Maybe we don’t yet know how, their resistance implied, but it must be true.

…not this one!

Saying there is no such thing as a crack baby might be a slight exaggeration, but it pales in comparison to the things people were saying in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Despite the fact that infants born to crack-using mothers were not old enough to attend school, moral entrepreneurs (to borrow Becker’s term) were already warning about a “bio-underclass” flooding our communities and schools, unable to suckle or learn or feel human emotions. Even though early studies suffered from methodological shortcomings (small sample sizes, unreliable identification techniques, selection bias, inconsistent measures, high-attrition rates, racial and class bias) and confounding variables (alcohol, tobacco, and other drug exposure, overlap between cocaine exposure and poverty, poor home environment, lack of parental care, poor maternal health, poor nutrition, social disadvantage, maternal depression), politicians used the specter of the crack baby as part of a larger swing towards conservative, victim-blaming, anti-woman, racist, and classist social and legal policies, with terrible consequences for mothers and children.

“Our job is never easy because drug criminals are ingenious. They work everyday to plot a new and better way to steal our children’s lives” – R. Reagan
… but pregnant women often couldn’t access treatment, Mr. President, so who are you calling the criminal now?

Forgive me, then, if I sound glib when I say that there is no such thing as a crack baby. It just seems that if we have to continue to prove this very basic point, then we can’t go on to think about lessons we might learn from the whole crack baby scare.

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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. 

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A Sex Addict By Any Other Name

The problem, in a nutshell; check the ad in the lower right corner.

It seems the DSM-V might revive (and rename) a contentious old diagnosis: hypersexual disorder is proposed to take up the spot previously occupied by “sexual addiction” and, on occasion, “sexual compulsion.” Over the past century, we have seen this shifting set of symptoms in many other guises, including hyperesthesia sexual, satyriasis, nymphomania, Don Juanism, paraphilia, sexual deviance, hypereroticism, hyperlibido, hyperphilia, and perversion. It has been categorized as a form of obsession, a compulsion, an impulse-control disorder, an addiction, and, in more private conversations, perhaps, bad behavior, tom-foolery, men-being-men, she’s-gotta-have-it, no-good-two-timing, misogyny, macking, swinging, or just dating.

This newest diagnosis describes “recurrent and intense” sexual fantasies, urges, and behaviors that emerge in response to “dysphoric mood states.” People who suffer from this disorder engage in non violent sexual activity “while disregarding the risk for physical or emotional harm to self or others.” The last time we saw a similar diagnosis was in the 1987 DSM IIIR. That entry, on “sexual addiction,” described “distress about a pattern of repeated sexual conquests or other forms of nonparaphilic sexual addiction, involving a succession of people who exist only as things to be used.” In the DSM-IV, the entry was removed due to a lack of data. All that remained was an unnamed reference to “[d]istress about a pattern of repeated sexual relationships involving a succession of lovers who are experienced by the individual as only things to be used.” It is bookended by distress about inability to conform to gender roles and distress about sexual orientation.

for the wanna-be sex addict?

The revision (and renaming) of this set of shifting symptoms marks some significant changes in thinking. The term “addiction,” after all, carries with it notions of powerlessness, consumption, dependence, withdrawal, and escalating need. It also implicitly proposes a mode of self-treatment through a modified twelve-step recovery program, individual therapy, or pharmacological intervention. Hypersexuality (literally: over/above/excessive + sexuality), on the other hand, only amplifies what is normal human activity. When it comes to sexuality, this term might imply, too much is not never enough. The term shifts attention from the more complex emotional qualities of addiction to the biological. Finally, the notion of harm to self and others has replaced the more judgmental assumption that a sexual addict (or player, or swinger, or casual dater) only uses people without actually recognizing their humanity. Being a cold-hearted snake no longer means you’re a sex addict; harmful excess might.

Before “sexual addiction” was removed from the DSM, there was some question about whether it named and described behavior that we might otherwise consider thoughtless, cruel, selfish, or sexist. After all, this diagnosis coincided with the third wave of feminism as well as the so-called sex wars.  How could it not be informed by debates about pleasure and danger, porn and sex work, BDSM and other “non-normative” sexual and romantic activities? So, I imagine, people probably wondered: Does a cheating husband really have a mental disorder, or is he just a jerk? Is a man who thinks he’s entitled to look at porn, go to strip clubs, and purchase sex a male chauvinist pig, or is he suffering from a compulsion? Is a woman who sleeps around a slut or a sex addict? Is a serial monogamist just looking for love in all the wrong places, or is that person addicted to love? 

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Michael Jackson’s Addiction Problem

Murder weapon?
Murder Weapon?

On 25 June, 2009, Michael Jackson died of a propofol (and possibly lorazepam and midazolam) overdose. Soon after, his personal doctor, Conrad Murray, was charged in the singer’s death. Although Murray claimed his job was to “keep surveillance” on the health of Jackson and his children and to make sure that everyone “washed [their] hands” and ate right, it was clear that his most important job was to enable the singer to sleep with the help of a pharmacopeia of drugs. On 7 November, 2011, Murray was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter.

Portrait of the Addict as a Young Man

Murray chose not to testify at his trial, but in the media circus that accompanied the proceedings, he more than made up for his silence on the stand. In particular, he participated in a BBC documentary (The Man who Killed Michael Jackson – a name I’m sure he did not choose), which was eventually sold to MSNBC and renamed Michael Jackson and the Doctor: A Fatal Friendship. The film covered the months leading up to the trial and a small portion of the trial itself. A few days before the verdict, Murray granted an interview to the Today show. His arguments in the court of public opinion hinge on what strikes me as an interesting red herring: was Michael Jackson an addict?

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