Sex Addiction 101
PJM's advice columnist on the Chinese food syndrome of loveless sex: no sooner satisfied, than feeling empty again.
January 14, 2012 - 11:26 pm
Now that I have your attention, I’d like to say that I don’t believe that headline, which recently appeared online. At least I don’t believe that sex addiction among any group is “growing.” I do believe, however, that some women — and some men – are genuinely addicted to sex.
First, let’s address sexual addiction and then, I’ll end by saying why I don’t think the incidence of this addiction is “growing.” The latter is a somewhat less intriguing topic and if I wrote it about it first, you might stop reading now.
According to one description:
“Insatiable sexual hunger is not really a desire — an act of will — but rather a desperate need, a compulsion that is experienced as a craving. The need is pursued like a drug. Although sex addicts are enslaved to sex, it is far from their goal. Rather, the pursuit of sex is in service of a different goal — to dispel feelings of inadequacy, depression, anxiety, rage or other feelings that the sex addict experiences as unbearable.
“Like a drug addict or alcoholic, the sex addict relentlessly seeks satisfaction from an external source to palliate an internal pain. Modern technology, such as the internet, provides a new external source that sex addicts use in their quest for sex partners.”
Drugs, alcohol, food, and sexual activity all stimulate the dopamine receptors in the brain — the sites of memory and, more to the point, pleasure. The problem is that these receptors are insatiable little tykes. The more pleasure they get, the more they want. Leave them alone for a while and they’ll calm down, but stimulate the heck out of them and their response is, “I want more, much more, and I want it now.”
This poses an obvious problem for the possessor of these dopamine receptors
To cope with depression and anxiety, we humans have our techniques: those that we consider wholesome or relatively harmless such as tennis, hiking, playing Chopin on the piano for 12 consecutive hours, or reading a multitude of books aren’t deemed addictions. They’re called, neutrally, “coping mechanisms,” or, more positively, “hobbies,” or, even admiringly, “passions.”
WHEN COPING MECHANISMS TURN TO ADDICTIONS
By contrast, when people consume copious quantities of liquor, food, or drugs to numb their feelings of despair, fear, anxiety, and loneliness, these responses are called addictions. And for those of us who have powerful sex drives on an average day, at times of increased despondency, there’s nothing quite as distracting as a good — or better still, a great — orgasm.
As you’ve doubtless noticed, when you’re in the throes of sexual passion, you’re unlikely to become immersed in thoughts about making that next mortgage payment, getting into college, or whether Romney or Obama will be president in 2014. All those concerns recede into nothingness. During sex all that matters is the intensity of the exquisite ecstasy you’re feeling and giving, and the glorious burst of climax.
Alas, if you’re a sex addict, you don’t settle into a state of blissed-out exhaustion afterward. No such luck. Edward Mendelson, literary critic and editor of W.H. Auden’s works, analyzed the post-orgasmic melancholia described in the 1847 novel, Jane Eyre, in his book, The Things That Matter: What Seven Classic Novels Have To Say About the Stages of Life, as follows:
Charlotte Brontë understood that an unequal sexual relation between adults is necessarily an unloving one; she also seems to have sensed that sex is experienced differently—that is, produces different physical and emotional feelings—in unloving relations and loving ones. … Post coitum homo tristis —“After sex the human is sad”—is far truer about unloving relations than loving ones; if the union between two partners is limited to the sexual act, then loneliness inevitably follows it.
And that’s exactly the vortex of dejection and despair that envelop the psyche of the helpless sex addict. No sooner satisfied than empty. It’s the Chinese take-out syndrome of loveless sex. And sexual addiction is by definition loveless because it allows no time for love to develop. It allows no time for anything to develop except the bare essentials necessary for sexual intercourse.
It might appear that two sex addicts together would form the ideal couple. What could possibly go wrong? Only everything. Such erotic duos generate emotional conflagrations so intense that the Chicago fire of 1871, which killed at least 200, appears, by comparison, as trifling as the flicker of a single kitchen match. Unions of sex addicts are psychological tinderboxes destined to consume them in mutually assured destructive infernos. They’re fated to part, lest their lives descend into nothing beyond the simultaneously tantalizing and terrifying bonfires they never fail to ignite in each other, regardless of age. Hence such titles as Les Liaisons Dangereuses and Fatal Attraction.
The chase and the conquest are part of the addiction: while the pursuit is hot, the addict is distracted from cares and woes. But once the conquest climaxes in orgasm, the chase begins anew. The sexual addict will attach to anyone, from the postman to the butcher to the physician, to his or her nurse, to a friend, to anyone with the necessary physical equipment. If the answer is no (which it rarely is, because sex addicts invariably possess a bat-like radar for identifying willing accomplices) the addict moves on to greener pastures in search of — to mix a metaphor — fresh meat.
THEY’RE NOT JUST LURKING IN DARK ALLEYWAYS AND SEAMY HOTEL LOBBIES
The sex addict, whom you may imagine cruising bars or lounging about in seamy hotel lobbies, can and will turn any environment into his or her personal boudoir, from a church service to a birthday party to the Oval Office to a tennis court to a library to a walk in the park. Compulsive flirtation and suggestive double-entendres are always in play.
The sex addict isn’t interested in you, but in him- or herself and his or her single-minded effort not to feel the pain. You are to the sex addict what a fifth of whiskey is to an alcoholic: a means to an end. The sex addict has no more heartless attitude toward you than does the alcoholic toward his or her bottle: yes, your feelings will be trampled, but only because you’ve failed to recognize that you were in the grips of a sex addict. One way to know is if he or she tries to maneuver you into bed immediately after first meeting you.
You may actually think that the sex addict has found the love of his or her life. You’ll certainly be treated as if you were — that is, until the chase, the conquest, and the climax are over. Then, dear reader, you are as meaningful to the sex addict as that overflowing condom he’s just thrown in the trash, or the toilet paper she’s just flushed away with your heart.
A SEX ADDICT’S LOT IS NOT A HAPPY ONE
But as depressing as it is to have been used and discarded by a sex addict, it’s five gazillion times more demoralizing and anxiety-producing to be one. A sex addict’s life is one with virtually no introspection, no wish to face squarely and deal directly with the painful emotions the addiction is intended to numb — and which, by the way, all human beings feel. It’s the agony of the long-distance addict, criss-crossing the room, the office, the party, the town, the country, and the world in pursuit of the next conquest and the ever-more-stunningly penetrating orgasm.
Why do they do it? The large body of research tells us that a sex addict had — you know it’s coming — an emotionally distant, inattentive mother who was unable to focus on the emotional needs of her infant. The baby was never comforted when he or she cried or felt lonely, and so never heard such soothing words as, “You’re going to be fine.” Thus such children never learn to comfort themselves. When stressed and depressed, they’re unable to calm themselves from within and so they turn outward to others.