Thursday, June 16, 2011

On Sex Addiction and Compulsive Sexual Behavior

A recent discussion on The Good Men Project with Tom Matlack and Amanda Marcotte caught my attention. In the wake of the so-called scandal around Anthony Weiner, Matlack and Marcotte give their ideas regarding some pertinent questions. Among other questions, they are asked:

Is rehab appropriate or just a way to gloss over the crime?
Seems to me that this question promotes a false dichotomy--it may very well be that rehab can help Weiner shift his behavior, but at the same time it could also be a delaying tactic, distracting all of us from the shiny object of the scandal. The way the question is posed, there is a not-so-subtle implication that either Weiner needs rehab, and is therefore somehow less culpable, or he doesn't need rehab, in which case we can more easily hold him accountable.  Whether or not one agrees with that framework, it's better to have it explicitly laid out, rather than in the background, in part because both Matlack and Marcotte are working within this framework. Matlack answers the question:

Tom: I do believe sex addiction is a real disease, not different from reliance on drugs or alcohol. It involves a complete lack of honesty and being willing to put sexual interactions above all else in your life with no regard to reason or self-preservation. I would think that Weiner fits that definition. I have no idea if rehab is the answer but the way he has been living his life sure doesn’t look like it is working out so well right now.
Why the concern about whether or not sex addiction is "a real disease"? Again, I think the implication is this: If it is somehow a real disease, then we can less easily judge Weiner for his actions, or we should at least keep in mind that there is some sense in which we might mitigate his responsibility because some of the factors regarding it are deeply physiological, and therefore very difficult for him to control. We see this sort of reasoning regarding addictions like alcohol:  Our culture has a different take on alcoholism (at times) than it did 100 years ago--we still hold drunk drivers responsible for what harm they cause while driving drunk, but we now see alcoholism as a deeper physiological problem, not simply a result of a "weak will" (at least, many of us see it that way).

I think it's good to spell some of this stuff out, even though it's probably ridiculous on some level for any of us to guess whether or not Weiner needs professional help. Matlack thinks it's clear from Weiner's poor risk assessment that he needs some sort of professional help, and I'm inclined to agree, with the caveat that it's difficult to tell.

Marcotte's take on this is more troublesome, for me. She begins her answer with:

Amanda: I don’t believe sex addiction is a real disease. I think some people might need psychological interventions for compulsive sexual behavior, but characterizing sex as addictive troubles me.
What does Marcotte's distinction between "sex addiction" and "compulsive sexual behavior" amount to? If Weiner's behavior is the result of compulsive sexual behavior, and not sex addiction, what does that mean for how we judge his behavior? What does it mean for what sort of treatment he may or may not need? Turns out, in professional circles, the jury is still very out on the whole addiction/compulsion question. Some folks think all addictions are based in compulsion, some think that there are similar mechanisms in the brain for both, and some folks think they're very different. But why is Marcotte troubled by labeling behavior as a result of addiction, rather than compulsion? She goes on to say:
Will we start calling overeaters “food addicts”? People who sleep in on Sundays “sleep addicts”?
 Well, it turns out that overeaters may well be food addicts, or at least some scientists think it's worth investigating whether or not "addiction" could be a framework for overeating.  Here's part of an abstract from a scientific paper that comes from a cursory google search:

Is it more than a linguistic accident that the same term, craving, is used to describe intense desires for both foods and for a variety of drugs of abuse? There is strong evidence for common pathways that are affected by most addictive drugs. As the other contributors to this volume will indicate, a strong case can also be made for some shared substrates for food and drug rewards in animals. There has been less explicit work on this topic in humans but many lines of evidence support the common mechanism view: Opioid peptides seem to influence food palatability for humans.

As for "sleep addiction" and "sleeping in on Sundays"--it would seem laughable to call somebody who sleeps in on Sundays a sleep addict, but what's going on in the brain of a person who sleeps 12 hours a day? How would, say, depression and anxiety relate to that person--and how is depression similar to and/or different from addiction? How is it different from or similar to compulsion? My point is that, while Marcotte's "sleeping in on Sunday" idea is made to point out the possible slippery slope of calling anything an addiction, it's also ignoring the complexities that underlie our behavior.

She continues:
At what point are we willing to say that someone is having “too many” orgasms? 
Of course, sexual addiction and/or compulsion isn't about having too many orgasms--though one can imagine, in our sex-negative culture, using the addiction/compulsion models in order to call somebody out as "sick" simply because they are having more orgasms than somebody else is comfortable with! But sexual compulsion/addiction has to do with privileging sexual arousal in a way such that the rest of one's life suffers, as Matlack notes, not about how many orgasms one has. And implying that sexual addiction/compulsion is just about having "too many orgasms" is pretty dismissive of the many folks who feel they are struggling with something serious, as well as folks who feel they have suffered because of the sexual compulsions and addictions of others.

On another point I agree a bit more with Marcotte, however.  She says:
It seems to me that we’re overrating Weiner’s willingness to put his sex life above other things. He didn’t actually have sex with these women. He mostly seemed to be sexting with them to amuse himself while working and traveling, and if he hadn’t slipped up, it seems like he would have gotten away with it.
Leaving aside for a moment the idea that sexting isn't sex (is phone sex sex? is mutual masturbation in the same bed as a partner sex? Seems to me a continuum conception is more helpful here than a binary conception), it seems possible to me that Weiner was simply doing something that lots of people do, amusing (and arousing) himself (and, possibly, others).  Leaving aside any infidelity for a moment, he may have just been having a bit of fun. I'm suspicious of that framing, however, because it ignores that Weiner was taking great risks in order to have a bit of fun, given that he is (was?) a high-profile politician. And it could be that he simply didn't think enough about the technology he was using (once you put a picture out there, it's out there forever, and traceable), but it seems more likely that he was engaging in what even he would have called risky behavior, given his job. If somebody shares my naughty sexting with the world, I might suffer for it, but most people wouldn't care. Seems to me that Weiner had to have known that this was a possible outcome, and did it anyway, which is how addictive and compulsive behaviors work, sometimes. But again: It's hard to tell, from this distance.

Finally, Marcotte notes:

 If that’s addiction, then our nation should be deeply worried about the epidemic of Angry Birds addiction.
 Well, yes. Some people are!

I would like also to note that Marcotte has a great article on Pandagon about (among other things) how condemning Weiner, in some ways, is really a kind of conservative, sex-negative, "schoolmarm" approach to sex and gender, and I agree with her wholeheartedly.  She says:
But still, this entire piece bothered me because once again it upholds an extremely conservative view of gender, where men are naughty little boys with overactive libidos and women are scolding schoolmarms whose trustworthiness is assured because we're practically asexual.  )
So: What does all of this have to do with feminism, exactly, and pro-feminist men? Well, a lot, because it is through feminist lenses that men can examine their sexuality, and hopefully develop a more positive male sexuality--one that includes all of the intricacies of our complex human sexuality, which also includes a framework for better understanding sexual addiction and/or sexual compulsion.  I think that Matlack and Marcotte's quick analysis leaves so much to the side in this regard so as to be more harmful than not offering up an opinion on Weiner at all. And I think if we go with some feminist traditions of avoiding dichotomies and examining closely the grey areas, we get a lot more insight into all of this than we do by simply guessing whether or not Weiner is a sex addict.
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