I hate the label “sex addict”. “Alcoholic” seems far kinder. With alcoholism, one can imagine the disease creeping up with the increased pressures of life or perhaps being inherited. Wikipedia has a page devoted to famous people who died of alcoholism or alcohol poisoning and it includes respected writers, poets, cartoonist, composers, politicians, and even a former President of the United States (Franklin Pierce).
“Drug addict” isn’t a great label, but it still cannot compete with the stigma of “sex addict”. One can imagine drug addiction beginning by accident during the breezy, experimental days of youth. Or maybe a person became addicted because of the need to blot out pain and suffering during wartime as was the case with some Vietnam veterans who returned home addicted to heroin.
In the case of an alcoholic or a drug addict, one imagines a person with a problem—maybe a very serious problem. But “sex addict” sounds like someone who, at his or her very core, is unbalanced and predatory, even dangerous. There is an understandable assumption that sex addicts only became so because their debauchery got lodged into their psyche and they became so entrenched in their shameful behaviour, they could not stop. It is difficult to imagine a man of otherwise good character, who is a good father, who loves his family, who tries his best, could be a sex addict.
Like many wives, I want to protect my husband from being ridiculed or attacked or fired from his job. In the light of the work he has put into recovery and the many people he has helped do the same, I feel the label “sex addict” and all it implies to the uneducated ear is reductive and unforgiving. I only use it myself because he insists that he is a sex addict, that he will always be a sex addict, even though he’s been sober for over a year.
Most people are uncertain if sex addiction is a “real addiction.” They think it is a character flaw, a lifestyle choice, or an excuse.
Few people understand that sex addiction isn’t really about sex, but about the compulsive, overwhelming need for some individuals to change the state of their emotions and anxiety levels. The method through which they achieve this is through sexual thoughts, images or encounters.
Little is ever said about the fact most sex addicts experienced trauma early in their lives. Many were sexually and/or emotionally and physically abused as children. In common with all addicts, they share a sense of isolation and alienation from others. Many are anxious or depressed or both.
Every sex addict I have met has wanted to quit his addiction. This is because I usually only talk with sex addicts who are already in the process of a recovery programme of some kind. I know there are sex addicts who are unwilling to acknowledge their problem or even proud that they are so into sex. Oddly enough, the stigma of sex addiction can turn into a source of pride in some. They think it’s great that they have so many partners, that they are “sexually free”, that they can experiment. “Yeah, I’m a sex addict!” they say enthusiastically. They don’t even know they are in the throws of an illness.
I had a Twitter exchange with a young man last month who didn’t think he had a problem.
So I asked him, “Can you quit? I’m not saying you should quit but if you had to do so because you fell in love and wanted to stay faithful or wanted a family, could you do it?”
He wrote back, “I don’t know. After a few days I think I’d get jittery.”
Yes, he would. Because he’s an addict. He has a problem. He isn’t a bad guy, just a guy who needs help. But he’s sex-positive, right? He’s sexy and virile and just doing what he wants, isn’t that okay? Not really. He’s kidding himself. And from what I can tell, he’s beginning to understand that he is kidding himself.