The mere idea of “sex addiction” gets a lot of people angry. I’m talking here about the writers who rail about the “myth” of sexual addiction and who argue that the whole idea of sex addiction is just a cop-out for the addict and a money making scam for the professionals.
The anatomy of a sex addiction denier
I prefer to see these “deniers,” as I call them, as a part of a larger societal pattern and one that is worthy of study in its own right.
Currently the opposition to the concept of sex addiction comes in two main flavors.
1. Sex addiction is really just normal behavior.
These men and women have a defensive reaction to the whole field of sex addiction treatment as an attempt to restrain normal sexual freedoms. Sometimes their blogs and online commentary seem to be jokingly, (nervously?) defending behavior around which they have some unacknowledged shame. The message is “we all do it and you just think it is ‘sick’ because you are so uptight!” This is an uninformed bias that seems to resist logic.
2. Sex addiction is really just irresponsible behavior.
This argument comes from all quarters including some in the scientific community. It minimizes the seriousness of the problem and the suffering it can cause, and the message is often “you so-called addicts are just behaving badly and you need to take responsibility and shape up!”
This second argument sometimes takes the form that “if sex can be an addiction then anything can,” or “if we let people off by calling it a disease then there’s a slippery slope which will lead to nobody ever taking any responsibility for anything.” (OMG!)
Both of these arguments have the net effect of saying that we shouldn’t medicalize the issue of sexually compulsive behavior and therefore that we shouldn’t actually do anything about it. See the New York Times Op-Ed for an excellent discussion.
We need to understand the deniers, not condemn them
“Deniers” have always existed in relation to almost every unwelcome phenomenon that has emerged throughout history. Sometimes they have taken a socially acceptable position which conforms to religious or other dogma and have acted accordingly, as in burning heretics or imprisoning the mentally ill. In other cases they have simply veered off into crazy-sounding conspiracy theories such as that the 9/11 terrorist attacks were really a government plot or that the holocaust never happened.
These are elaborate attempts to explain or deal with something that is experienced as incomprehensible or intolerable. In this regard they are all defense mechanisms and nowhere more obviously so than in the area of sexual addiction.
Sex addiction deniers are trudging a road well traveled in earlier eras by those who wished to defend themselves against a trend or theory that they found very threatening. This is especially true in recent history in the evolution of the disease model of mental health. It has been very gradually that the “deadly sins” have been recast as very human psychological afflictions.
Fear and loathing as a developmental phase
Because I believe sex addiction deniers are genuinely reacting to some unconscious fear, I think professionals cannot dismiss them but rather need to understand them. If we don’t they won’t go away and will keep confusing the public and getting in the way in much the same way that global warming deniers get in the way of protecting the biosphere.
As the superstitions and fears surrounding a social ill begin to dissipate, the issue moves through a predictable sequence in public awareness from demonization to criminalization to medicalization to reintegration. First the problem, say alcoholism, is a moral failing, then it’s a legal problem, then a medical disease, and finally a larger societal or public health issue.
Leaving aside the issue of illegal sexual behavior, this mans that society’s current approach to sexual addiction is moving beyond demonization and criminalization but has not yet reached medicalization. This transition to full medicalization will mean the evolution of awareness. This involves dispelling fears, confronting judgmental attitudes, and persuading people to suspend those judgments. It is up to us to patiently explain.