The Slippery Slope of Sex Addiction

Sex addiction is a slippery slope, but perhaps not in the way you might think I mean. One of the big difficulties we have in talking about sex addiction is the lack of clarity around what we’re talking about.

People get into habits or get hooked on all kinds of things: shopping, food, drugs, sex, football, video games, or facebook. If you’ve ever gone on a Law and Order binge (or maybe Battlestar Galactica is your preferred drug show), you know what it’s like when it’s hard to say no.

While I don’t usually get hooked on TV shows, I do find that sugar is a really steep, slippery slope for me. I’m pre-diabetic and my body simply doesn’t handle sugar all that well. When I eat it, I get a big rush, followed by a crash and 3-5 days of sugar cravings. In general, I avoid it because it’s not worth the effects. But every now and then, I fall off the wagon and then, it can be really hard to get back on.

In part, that’s because the sugar cravings make it feel like eating more sugar will make me feel better, but all it does is make the cycles worse. It makes me anxious, cranky, and generally unpleasant. Every so often, my partner bakes harm reduction cookies or I’ll decide that a particular dessert is worth a couple of days of cravings (like a dark chocolate torte…) but for the most part, it’s simply easiest to stay away from the temptation.

If I went back and substituted sex or porn for sugar in the last two paragraphs, I’m sure that some people would say that I have an addiction. I don’t see it that way, but I do see the similarities. Two that stand out to me are that sugar dysregulates my body, and that it feels like having more sugar will help, even though it makes things worse. Both of these are common experiences among many of the addicts I’ve spoken with.

These kinds of patterns show up in a lot of ways- food, gambling, sex, drugs, work, exercise, etc. There’s nothing really new about the idea that people get caught up in self-perpetuating negative cycles. Personally, I think there’s a difference between ingesting a substance and engaging in an experience like exercise, sex, or shopping, in order to create a change in our bodily state, but that seems to be a debatable point.

For some people, the slippery slope of sex stems from their desire to soothe their emotional or mental discomfort through the distractions and/or the pleasures of sex. When they’re done and their problems are still there, they’re often tempted to fall back into the cycle. After all, when something almost works, it’s harder to let go of it than when it fails miserably. Even worse, when the sex they’re having fuels their problems, it becomes a really tough cycle to break out of. Feeling bad because of your sexual behaviors and then trying to distract yourself from that emotion by having sex is a recipe for an out-of-control spiral. Learning to lean into the discomfort isn’t easy, but it’s often the only way out.

But does something being a slippery slope necessarily make it an addiction? And given that lots of people can engage in the very same activities without dysregulating or causing harm to themselves or others, what do we do with the fact that it’s a slippery slope for one person and not another?

The only real way to know is to explore the relationship someone has with their activity or substance of choice. What are they trying to get out of their experiences? How do they deal with it if they aren’t getting that? Do their experiences bring them joy and pleasure? Or do they feel pain, guilt and shame? How does it affect the people around them, and their relationships with others? Unless you know the answers to those questions, labeling someone a sex addict says more about your attitude than theirs, in my experience.

So yes, I see how sex can be a slippery slope for some people, in a variety of ways and for a lot of different reasons. But the concept of sex addiction is also a slippery slope and as a sex educator, I see it in action quite often. It has become much too easy to throw the term around.

In many relationships, one partner wants more sex or wants a different kind of sex than the other. Is sex therapy-speak, it’s called “desire discrepancy.” When that causes friction, sometimes the partner with lower desire or more “mainstream” preferences will blame and shame the one with higher desire or more unusual fantasies by calling them a sex addict. This is an issue that a lot of therapists see, and although it can certainly come up when couples are arguing over shopping, alcohol use, or video game playing, it seems especially easy for people to use the notion of sex addiction to shame their partners.

I can think of a few reasons for that. After all, sex is a volatile issue in a lot of relationships, in part because our sexual patterns with our partners often reflect the different challenges and issues that get in our way. Everything in our relationships affects the sexual dynamic, especially anger and resentment. Instead of putting those feelings on the table and working through them, some people will emotionally and sexually withdraw and then use the label of sex addiction to avoid talking about the real problem.

At one time, people shamed women who wanted sex more than was thought appropriate by calling them “nymphomaniacs.” These days, “sex addict” is a more gender-neutral term, but it carries a lot of the same meanings. It’s much too easy to use the concept of sex addiction to attack our partners or other people in our lives, and the tendency of the media to jump to do so whenever a celebrity gets caught with their pants down only encourages us.

Another factor that makes it easy to throw the term sex addiction around is the deeply ingrained sexual shame that permeates our culture. People who organize their lives around knitting or football are rarely called addicts, but people who devote a lot of time to sex often are. One reason for that is the sexual shame that tells us that sex is inherently dangerous or sinful, so we often have an extra layer of judgment when we’re talking about it. Plus, there are many ways in which sexual fantasies and desires seem mysterious, and it’s sometimes easier to simply label them as sick, deviant, or addictions. If someone expects sex to be shameful or if they see it as a threat, the language of addiction seems quite obvious.

The fact that it’s an expression of their internalized fear and shame, rather than anything about sex in general or anyone’s behaviors in particular is often lost along the way. But the desire to push sex away in order to alleviate shame doesn’t actually make the shame go away. In my experience, it only makes it worse because the more we indulge the belief that sex is scary, the more shame we feel when we inevitably fail to completely disengage from it. One way that this shows up is the all-too-common pattern of homophobic people trying to distance themselves from their same-sex attraction by attacking gays (physically, verbally, politically, etc.) But there’s no reason to expect that similar patterns wouldn’t show up around other aspects of sexuality.

This is especially important to keep in mind when we look at the patterns in what kinds of sexual expression are more likely to be labeled sex addiction. If it’s perceived to be too often, or with too many people, or the wrong kinds of sex, or with the wrong kinds of people, the odds of being called an addiction are much higher. In effect, the myth of the normal makes it more likely for some sexual behaviors to be labeled as problematic than others, without any reference to the experiences of the people involved.

The difficulty is that it’s almost always easier to say “you have a problem” or “you’re an addict” than it is to say “I feel discomfort” or “I feel confused by my arousal.” And once we start blaming the other person instead of looking at our own reactions, we tend to become intransigent. It’s similar to how people throw good money after bad- we don’t want to admit we were wrong, so we become even more resistant to admitting our own feelings about it. Our tendency to blame and shame accelerates us down the slippery slope created by the concept of sex addiction, as it’s commonly understood.

What we need is more examples of how to talk about the problems people have with sex without assuming that the frequency or the kinds of sex someone has is inherently a sign of health or dysfunction. We need to be able to support people who want to change their behaviors without shaming the folks who do the same things without negative consequences. (Actually, we need to support people without shaming them, if we want them to make meaningful and lasting change, too.) We need to make room for different experiences, desires, and pleasures. We need to remember that just because one person might find a sexual practice unfamiliar or disturbing doesn’t mean that another person can’t do it in ways that are healthy.

Ultimately, we need to focus on whether the consent, pleasure, and well-being of the people involved or affected by a sexual interaction are cared for. In order to do that, we need to remember that pleasure and well-being vary tremendously, across populations and throughout the life-span of a particular individual. We also need to set aside our triggers or at least, take responsibility for them when they get in the way.

One could make the case that just as food, gambling, or drinking are slippery slopes for some people and not others, the concept of sex addiction isn’t necessarily problematic. I’ve spoken with colleagues (mostly, sex educators and therapists) who are able to talk about unhealthy, self-reinforcing patterns around sex without attaching shame to the sexual practices themselves, so I understand that the concept isn’t always misused. But unfortunately, very few people outside of the field of sexology have taken much time to examine their biases, internalized sex-negativity, triggers, and squicks, so when sexologists discuss sex addiction, they can easily be misunderstood. As a result, despite their intentions and expertise, it’s easy for their words to feed right into all of the dynamics I’ve described.

For that matter, just because someone is a sexologist, educator, or therapist doesn’t mean that they can make the distinction between the sexual behavior and the relationship someone has with it. Plenty of so-called experts make that mistake, which has an even bigger impact because of their professional status.

So I think we’d do much better to find better ways to talk about these topics that don’t depend on the language of sex addiction. Despite the attempts to create greater conceptual clarity, I find that it only confuses the issue and accelerates people down the slippery slope of sex-negativity.

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