2 October 2002

Lots and Lots of Sex

Équipe -Pose ta question!-

When I was asked to write a column looking at sexual addiction, my first thought was, “How can I do this without pissing some people off?” I quickly realized that the answer is, “I can't.” For the majority of the people in this country, sex is an issue that carries with it huge emotional baggage. Things like erotic pleasure and guilt. In our community, the importance we place on sex is staggering. I was recently reading a book about gay history from the forties to today. One common thread through that whole time span was how we have used sex and sexuality to define who we were as g/l/b/t people. Either we were trying hard to hide our same-sex inclinations, or we wore our sexuality as an out and proud badge of honor. It's only been in the last ten to fifteen years that we have been aggressively looking at other ways of defining ourselves as queer folk. However, we still hold our sexuality very close to the core of how we look at ourselves. So, having someone tell us that our sex is the thing that's ruining our lives is a little hard to deal with. We often don't want to look at the issue of sexual addiction.

As a community, we are at odds on dealing with sexual addiction. We all have our own beliefs about sex, which makes it difficult to look at the issue in a non-judgmental way. We do better (not great, but better) at facing our communities' substance abuse issues than we do at facing sexual addiction. Substance abuse makes more sense to us. We can more easily see its devastating effects and we've seen enough of it to understand that some people can't manage it. Even so, we still have a tendency to want to blame the substance for the problem. It's easier to say, “alcohol causes drunk driving accidents” than saying that people who drink and drive cause them. There is nothing inherently wrong with alcohol, or drugs for that matter; it's what people do with them that causes the problem. And, just like there is nothing inherently wrong with alcohol yet some people become addicted to it, some people get addicted to sex.

Even in the clinical community, we can't seem to agree on this issue. While most of us agree it is a problem, what kind of problem is it? Is it a problem in its own right, or part of another, larger problem, like drug abuse or relationship issues? Is it an addiction or a compulsion? Is it a sexual disorder or an impulse-control disorder? In my work, and for the purpose of this column, I look at this issue from the addiction standpoint. It makes most sense to me to apply a standard and widely accepted set of criteria to diagnose the problem, thus keeping my own judgments out of it. It is important to challenge the judgments that we hold about sexual addiction in order to see it in a clearer light.

One judgment about sexual addiction to confront is the idea that sex addicts are people who have lots and lots of sex. While this may be true for some sex addicts, that alone is not enough to declare someone a sex addict. Porn stars and other people who get paid to have sex aren't necessarily sex addicts; it's their job. On the other hand, look at someone like our former president. Here is someone who, allegedly, had several relationships outside of his primary, presumably mutually-agreed-upon monogamous relationship. His behavior jeopardized not only that relationship, but also his entire political and professional career. He may not have had lots of sex, but the sex he did have was very risky and had lots of consequences. Sometimes, it's not even about sex with other people. Patrick Carnes, one of the leaders of sexual addiction treatment, breaks sexual addiction into several categories. One of these categories involves the use of fantasy, like pornography, in an addictive manner. An example of this would be the person whose main focus is on his or her porn collection, to the point where they don't seek out or avoid intimate relationships with others. This person might spend hundreds of dollars, which they don't have, on their pornography collection. Or they may spend hours surfing the pornography web sites. Hours they were supposed to be working on a paper for school, or going out with their partner, or sleeping. Remember, sexual addiction is not so much about how much sex you have, but the effect that the behavior has on your life.

Another judgment is that sex addicts are “living the life” party boys who aren't aware that there is a problem and, if they were, could care less. While denial is certainly a hallmark of any addictive disorder, many of the clients that I see are very unhappy with the way their lives are turning out and wish something would happen to make it better. For these people, sex is an escape — a way to momentarily take away the pain and feel good. That is the cycle of addiction. Your behavior is making your life unbearable, but the only way you can think of to feel good is that same behavior. After a while, the person needs more of it to get that same feeling. This is just as true with sex as it is with any substance. This is where the “lots and lots of sex” part comes in. You need more to get the same result. Also, your life starts to revolve around how you're going to get it. A great deal of time is spent in the planning for sex. People start to have a hard time focusing on work, friends and relationships because they are too busy trying to, or thinking about, “getting off.” You give up important social, occupational or recreational activities because it interferes with your sexual behavior. Probably the worst of all these effects of sexual addiction is, after realizing that this behavior is messing up your life, you can't seem to stop. You keep going, full in the knowledge that this may have a negative or even devastating effect on your life. Sexual addiction, in a word, is miserable.

Also, we have to look at the judgment that people who treat, or support the treatment of sexual addiction in our community are anti-sex. Also known, in some circles, as a sex-nazi. On that note, let me just say that I think sex is great. Sex is a wonderful, fantastic, electrifying, joyous expression of who you are and whom you choose to be with. Unfortunately, as we have learned, it can also make your life miserable, unmanageable, and downright unlivable. As a clinician, I have seen very good therapists be perfectly non-judgmental about various behaviors that their clients engage in (drinking, using drugs, gambling) and then lose it completely around sexual issues. The reason is we all have sex. Since we all do it, it's harder to be non-judgmental about it. The trick here is to try to take away your judgments about sex. Easier said than done.

Letting go of these judgments is difficult. Any time someone challenges how we think, it's uncomfortable. That doesn't necessarily mean that it's wrong or bad or discriminatory. Change is always uncomfortable. But, if it's one thing our community is good at, it's change. We are constantly re-evaluating what it means to be who we are, love who we love and act how we act. I happen to think that this puts us one step further than other groups who have the ability, or unbending desire, to just stay exactly how they are. Those kinds of people don't grow and mature. Our community is continually growing, maturing and evolving. And I, for one, think it's great.