It’s three in the morning and I’m lying in bed talking to my husband about the sex life of a guy I’ve never met and who he barely knows.
The guy we were talking about “visited” a prostitute. This is how it is always described: “visited”, as though all that happened was someone kindly stopped by for a cup of tea. I’ll hear it said, “I used to visit prostitutes” or “He visited a prostitute.”
On the one hand, there is this stark, shocking world of prostitution. On the other, the neighbourly language of visiting that softens its impact. This is just one example of how an addict will talk about his behaviour in terms that are so forgiving that it is difficult to grasp just how much hurt has been inflicted all around. You might also hear, “He engaged with a sex worker”, which sanitises the encounter so thoroughly that it all but washes it away.
The reasons for the euphemisms is simple. First, it is important that whatever language is used does not sound lurid or sexually arrouse the addict or anyone listening. Second, addicts often can’t face what they’ve done and what they might do again, so they use language that is particularly forgiving.
Partners often don’t know about these transgressions, or don’t know the extent of them. If they knew that by “visited”, their husband means brought a gift as well as a lot of cash to a woman he’d been fantasizing about for a day or two (or three) and whose photographs has been planted in his mind ever since he first found them on his phone, she might not be so forgiving.
Not that forgiveness is on the cards yet. The wife’s response is usually either total hysteria and a speedy exit, or total hysteria followed by a beautiful, sad, noble (maybe misguided) attempt to stand by a man they love in hope that the addiction can be resolved.
The addiction can be resolved, but only if it is faced head-on, which is why at three in the morning I’m making the case to my husband that this guy–whoever he is–has to stop saying he “visited” a prostitute and use a more direct word. He has to see it for what it is and name it. The most infuriating aspect of sugar-coating the addict’s behaviour is how it is usually paired with miserable impatience toward the partner (in this case a wife) who isn’t so quick to forgive and forget. “Why can’t she let go?” you’ll hear an addict say. Or else, they’ll agree that there is no reason for the partner to forgive but expect it anyway.
I don’t have an answer to how to talk about “acting out” (read: having sex with), or how best to describe in in 12-step meetings. Perhaps in the context of a meeting it is important to use every euphemism available in order prevent sharing from sounding like a dreadful, erotic novel. But somewhere along the way, the addict needs to remove the cloak of polite language and see what he has done clearly, without excuses.
I say this not because I wish to punish an addict–they punish themselves pretty badly all the time–but because recovery is impossible without a complete confession, if only to the self. As long as we are only “visiting” prostitutes, an addict can imagine he doesn’t really have much of a problem. It is easy for an addict to imagine the real problem is not his actions, but his wife who will not be patient with him, will not forgive him, “holds it over him” or any of the other justifications I’ve heard for blaming her.
Wives of addicts are victims. they don’t have to remain victims forever, but they are victims in the first instance. It is possible for a marriage to survive sex addiction, but only if it is clear between the couple that she is not to blame. You’d think this point didn’t need to be made–of course she is not to blame. Even so, I find myself having to make the case over and again.
She is the victim. He didn’t just “visit” the prostitute. Addiction is a disease, yes. Let’s call it by name. But let’s call everything else by name, too. It seems only fair.