The idea of sex addiction as a legitimate condition has been controversial since day one. Despite ever-growing evidence to support the idea, many people are still sceptical and hesitant to embrace it as a real condition. There are a number of reasons for this, from a supposed lack of scientific evidence, to the moral issues it may pose if it became an officially recognised condition. Here we’ll be looking primarily at the latter.
People may reject the validity of sex addiction on the assumption that those who support it hold conservative sexual views and therefore cannot accept any sexual behaviour that does not fit within their moral parameters. Sex addiction believers may be seen as sex-hating prudes who are incapable of embracing sexual freedom and diversity. On the other hand, many see the label of sex addiction as an excuse for promiscuity and infidelity. Not surprisingly, some are afraid that if sex addiction becomes a widely recognised and accepted condition, every Tom, Dick and Harry (or Kate, Mary or Susan for that matter) will cry “sex addiction” when confronted with questionable or hurtful sexual behaviour. Regrettably, this kind of scepticism is not a surprise to me and the causes are perhaps clear. However, if we can change these fundamental, yet simple misunderstandings, we may be able to silence this fear once and for all.
First and foremost, one of the greatest reasons why many consider sex addiction an excuse for bad behaviour lies in the misunderstandings of some so-called professionals. Regrettably, many professionals continue to lack a full grasp of what sex addiction really is and therefore misdiagnose clients. And it certainly doesn’t help that whenever we open a newspaper these days we see ‘sex addict’” in the headline above images of some notoriously unfaithful celebrity parading around with various glamorous partners. Not only are there misunderstandings and misdiagnoses in consulting rooms, they are also staring us in the face in the media. And this is hugely destructive when trying to understand the nature of sex addiction and what it really is. Additionally, it does a huge disservice to those who are genuinely struggling with the addiction and want help to live a life without it.
Another reason for the idea that sex addiction is an excuse is more private and personal. Unfortunately the term sex addiction is often first presented in some people’s life, after a painful revelation of a partner’s infidelity. So before they’ve ever heard the term, there are already deep feelings of betrayal. When a person has been hurt by someone else, the last thing they want to hear is something that sounds like an excuse. Understandably and quite rightly, they are feeling betrayed and they should not be immediately burdened with the idea that they are not allowed to feel what they are feeling.
However, all of this is rooted in the misguided belief that if you are an addict, you don’t have to accept responsibility – past, present or future. Quite frankly, this is simply not true. When an alcoholic goes out on a bender and ends up driving down the wrong way on a motorway and causes an accident, we do not shrug it off because “they couldn’t help it.” Absolutely not. They will be held accountable like anybody else and have to accept the consequences. Addiction is not the opposite of choice. But it is also important to understand that those choices have been driven by something much deeper and more powerful than willpower. The fundamental difference is that due to the neurochemistry of addiction and the unconscious psychological causes, the ability to make informed, healthy decisions is deeply impacted. It is like having the power of a rocket-ship engine but the brakes of an old bicycle. And for a person to re-learn how to make good decisions, all of this needs to be deconstructed and repaired. It’s true that you may not be responsible for having the addiction but you are responsible for the consequences and ultimately, taking that responsibility is key to recovery.
The myth that addicts have no choice in their behaviour can also stem from a misunderstanding of the well-renowned 12-step groups and their methods. Step 1 declares that one should admit their powerlessness over their addiction. Step 2 then encourages handing it over to some form of “higher power.” Not surprisingly, this can look like a complete cop-out. Here is a person who has, for whatever reason, developed an addiction, undoubtedly done some bad things and they are urged to simply chuck over the burden of responsibility to something intangible. However, this really does not represent the spirit of the 12-steps. In reality, the purpose of the steps is to encourage people to stop trying to handle their addiction on their own and seek help and support from professionals and peers. In this sense, the steps can be incredibly empowering as they provide a strategy within the support of community and encourage achieving full control over not only their addiction, but their entire lives.
When it comes to addictions of any kind, there will always be a question, rightly or wrongly, on the potential moral failures of the addict. However the questions seem much more commonly widespread when it comes to sex addiction. For example, society does not judge heavy-drinking nearly as harshly as it treats those who have a lot of sex. Indeed some may look down on those who get drunk on a regular basis but many put it down to youth culture and shrug it off as a phase that they will eventually grow out of. It is not nearly as much of a taboo topic. However, it is very different for sex addiction. Obviously there are the religious implications as nearly every sacred text applies strict rules and criteria to sex. Whilst on the other hand, some professionals object to the notion of sex addiction as they think it pathologises something that can be deemed as normal sexual behaviour. Ultimately, it is not the object of the addiction that is the problem, nor is it the type or the quantity involved, it is simply the dependency. Some people enjoy lots of sex whilst some don’t. Some enjoy experimenting and have a variety of sexual tastes whilst some prefer the “good old fashioned way”. Any of these preferences are perfectly fine if they are enjoyed in a healthy way that does not damage their relationships and control their lives.
Sex addiction is not really about sex, it is about addiction. And like any other addiction, those who are addicted need to accept full responsibility for their behaviour and simultaneously be given help for the problem. If we can fully understand and accept what that means and sympathise, perhaps we can leave behind our own moral objections in favour of becoming part of the solution.