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.
If they ever marry, it’s invariably to someone whose main focus is also elsewhere: either on his or her own work, or on home and family. Such spouses tend to be as inattentive to the real inner lives of their marital partners as were the sex addicts’ mothers, which is one reason the sex addict chose such a mate in the first place. Their spouses’ psyches operate on a different wavelength, or as we might say today, bandwidth, and they are able to live with a discreet sex addict with absolutely no awareness that they do. This arrangement can continue indefinitely until the sex addict’s compulsive behavior erupts into public scandal so serious that even an inattentive spouse is no longer able to ignore the truth (e.g., Hillary Clinton; Anne Sinclair, the wife of Dominique Strauss-Kahn; Elin Nordegren, former wife of Tiger Woods; and the late Elizabeth Edwards).
For a momentary glimpse into the mind of a sexual addict, one need only read last Thursday’s Telegraph to see Monsieur Strauss-Kahn’s latest legal defense: concerning his sexual relations with ten different call girls at a Parisian swingers’ club, his attorney now claims DSK didn’t know he was sleeping with prostitutes because “they were all naked at the time.” Excuse me? This is a legal defense? Only if you have DSK for a client.
Getting back to the formative years of sex addicts’ lives, as the child becomes an adolescent, he or she discovers that in the sack, he or she doesn’t have to be alone. So that becomes the place where anxiety, depression, and loneliness are assuaged. As long as sex is being pursued or experienced, the comfort-seeking sex addict is able to have his or her painful feelings quelled.
But the more sexual experiences they have, the more they want. More than one lover in a day or evening are not unusual. Lunch hour becomes yet another chance for a temporarily soothing balm.
Aye, there’s the rub: every balm is temporary. A sex addict doesn’t want a relationship, he or she wants relief from unbearable tension, anxiety, loneliness, and/or depression. Saddest of all, sex addicts don’t realize this, because they’re so absorbed, indeed so riveted by their compulsive pursuit of the ever-more-intensely rapturous orgasm beckoning, always beckoning, from just beyond the horizon.
WHY I’M DOUBTFUL THAT SEX ADDICTION IS “ON THE RISE”
As to why I’m dubious that rates of sex addiction are soaring, it’s partly because I’m leery of statements made by people with doctorates in “sexual studies” who, by an amazing coincidence, also happen to own and operate clinics for — of all people — sexual addicts. They claim, whenever interviewed by the media, that sex addiction is on the rise.
Observations that coincide with the financial interests of the speakers are less than credible for another reason: if you’ve read anything written in any century earlier than the 21st, you’ll have noticed that the phenomena the doctors of sexology note with grave concern are not exactly what you’d call new.
William Shakespeare (1564-1616), for example, was extraordinarily insightful on this subject — and he wrote the following 14 lines without so much as a master’s degree, much less a doctorate, in sexual studies:
SONNET 129 (emphasis added)
The expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action; and till action, lust
Is perjured, murderous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust,
Enjoy’d no sooner but despised straight,
Past reason hunted, and no sooner had
Past reason hated, as a swallow’d bait
On purpose laid to make the taker mad;
Mad in pursuit and in possession so;
Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;
A bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe;
Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.
All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.
We human beings, not unlike the birds and the bees, are hard-wired to enjoy sex. That’s why there are now seven billion of us. The problem of sex addiction afflicts no more than three percent of all people, even according to the “sexologists.”
IF WHILE READING THIS, YOU’VE ASKED YOURSELF, “AM I A SEX ADDICT?”
If you’re concerned enough to take an online test of whether you are, in fact, a sexual addict, beware of the website offering the test. If it’s one that also offers “treatment” for your “condition,” it’s highly likely that you’ll meet the self-dealing criteria and discover that — OMG! — you are a genuine sex addict. To you I say: caveat emptor.
These self-described experts in “sexology” have a product to sell: their own services. It’s in their interests to insist that sexual addiction is a growing menace to society, and to dream up “tests” with questions so inclusive that your five-year-old granddaughter could well qualify for their “therapy.”
Unless sex is all you crave from the moment you awaken until your last conscious thought, and unless your entire life is consumed by sexual pursuits to the exclusion of anything else except perhaps earning a living — and if even that, as well as your marriage, is in constant jeopardy because of your obsession with sex — you may not be a sex addict. If you think about sexual activity mainly in response to a stimulus — seeing, meeting, or being with someone with whom you think fleetingly, or not so fleetingly, of bedding down — you’re probably living with a far different addiction: to oxygen. What this means is that you’re still alive.
Sexual addiction is not the same as enjoying sex, including having sexual relations, fantasizing about having them, and taking matters into your own hands if the need arises when you’re alone. It means being hooked on it. If there’s only one website you can’t live without and it isn’t PJ Media, but rather a sex site, you might be a sex addict.
Sexual addiction is not based solely on what you think — unless that’s all you think — as much as on what you do and what motivates you to do it. If you think about sexual activities, but don’t compulsively act on those thoughts, you’re what’s known as human. If you’ve ever uttered the words to someone you find powerfully attractive, “You’re very appealing, but I’m happily married and I wouldn’t do that to my marriage or to my wife (or my husband),” you’re definitely not a sex addict. “No thanks” isn’t in their vocabularies.
Yes, there are sexual addicts and predators. Just ask any woman who’s been alone in a room with Dominque Strauss-Kahn. But by and large, not every flirt is a sex addict, and not every compliment you receive is intended as a prelude to ravishing you in the sack and then heading for the nearest exit before you can catch your breath.
Sometimes a compliment is just a compliment, a sigh is just a sigh, and, yes, a kiss is just a kiss.