(Some links may be NSFW)
By the time I'd gotten to the corner, the bus had already rounded the opposite corner, leaving me in a cloud of diesel smoke.
It was the early 1980's. I had left the one local coffeehouse for the bus stop 3 blocks away just a minute or so too late. The next bus would not be by for another hour. It was cold out. I decided to call a cab.
Mass-market cell phones were many years off. The coffeehouse had closed for the night. The only pay phone within easy walking distance, mounted next to the entrance of a nearby laundromat, wouldn't give me a dial tone or even accept coins.
I bit the proverbial bullet and started going from house to house in the block I was on.
I was lucky. I found a house with some of its lights still on. I knocked on the door once and an affable gentleman opened it and invited me in. I explained my situation and he allowed me to call a local cab company on his phone. The dispatcher told me they'd be sending a cab to that address in about 20 minutes. My host very graciously let me wait in his living room.
The phone was in the kitchen, in the back of the house. My host and I had to walk through the living room and dining room to get to it. On the way, I saw something which I'll probably never forget. In the living room was a 27-inch color TV (a big deal in those days) with several family members planted in front of it, watching one of the then-new cable channels. On one side of the dining room was a smaller set with a few kids watching it. And opposite that were two grandparents, eyes fixed on a portable black-and-white set with two VCRs (the analogue-era equivalent of the modern DVR) underneath it. I think I counted three or four VCR's between all of the TV's. VCR's were not cheap back then. Even a basic model would set you back a few hundred early-1980s dollars.
Now, the question is, was I looking at an extended family of for-real television addicts? Or did these good people just love to watch TV?
Similarly, how do you tell if someone who has a lot of sexual encounters has a genuine personality or behavior disorder, or just really likes to knock boots? More about that later.
Newsweek magazine reaffirmed with its December 5, 2011 print issue that it has not forgotten the magazine industry's holy mantra: When you have a slow news week, you run a cover story about sex. But wait, you can't run stories about the sex lives of happily-married, sexually satisfied couples. Interviews with people who now enjoy happy, healthy sexual relationships because their parents taught them about sex factually and positively when they were kids are also out. For one thing those subjects are about as titillating as an episode of Leave It To Beaver. No, if you're going to use sex as a marketing tool, it needs to be titillating, but at the same time it also needs to not offend sexually-backward but well-monied segments of the population.
So what do you do? You run a lurid feature article on a sexual disorder which is difficult to diagnose but is suitably controversial. Sex combined with controversy. Now, that's what sells papers! If you can't run a story about a prominent professional golfer who got caught using his wood at the wrong hole, you've got to take that whole cloth and run up something else on your own. Hence, sexual addiction, assassin of youth!
Check out this excerpt:
“Some 1,500 sex therapists treating compulsive behavior are practicing today, up from fewer than 100 a decade ago, say several researchers and clinicians, while dozens of rehabilitation centers now advertise treatment programs, up from just five or six in the same period.”
Is this a sign of an emerging crisis, a previously-unknown one, or are certain categories of professionals simply trying to drum up extra business? Just how easy is it to get credentialed as a sex-addiction specialist these days?
The Newsweek story continues: “Where it used to be 40- to 50-year-old men seeking treatment, now there are more females, adolescents, and senior citizens,” says Tami VerHelst, vice president of the International Institute for Trauma and Addiction Professionals.
Is there an epidemic of sexual dysfunction that's at long last receiving the attention it warrants? Or is this a sign of an impending moral panic? Moral panics traditionally are fomented to keep the masses obsessing about something relatively trivial while more serious things – say, a severe economic crisis – are occurring. Get the talking heads on the tube saying the right buzz-phrases and put a splashy, titillating cover story on a major publication and the desired effect is well on its way to being achieved.
“...Grandfathers getting caught with porn on their computers by grandkids....”
Are people over age 50 really more susceptible to addictive or compulsive sexual behavior, or is this yet another manifestation of the frustration and loneliness these age groups all too frequently suffer, a side effect of the fallacious but deeply-entrenched belief that older people aren't supposed to have sex lives (or lives, period)? And if it just so happens that grandma wants to watch a little high-grade smut with grandpa, where's the harm in that?
I read a card on Postsecret a few years ago, from a woman who said that occasionally she'd call in sick for work and spend the day having solo sex. She'd come back to work the next day refreshed and presumably more productive. Perhaps economists ought to stop and consider how sexual satisfaction could be a productivity enhancer.
Hollywood, as always, has to have a piece of the action: [O]n Dec. 2, the acclaimed psychosexual drama Shame arrives in theaters. The movie follows Brandon (portrayed by Irish actor Michael Fassbender in a career-defining performance), a New Yorker with a libido the size of the Empire State Building. [my emphasis]
Now, how's that for a Freudian slip?
Director Steve McQueen adds: “This movie has as much to do with sex as alcoholism has to do with being thirsty. It's just an outlet. We drink or do drugs or have sex as a distraction. That's because it's hard to be a human being. Anything to numb the pain, that's what we do.” While Mr. McQueen's hit the target, I think his aim is just a little off-center. Not all of us distract ourselves with theatrically compulsive or destructive behavior. Those of us who genuinely need it get therapy. Some of us build computer operating systems, play music or make art. Or write blog postings. Furthermore, it's been proven that people who are sexually repressed obsess more about sex, and are more likely to act this out in destructive or even antisocial ways.
“[T]hough watching porn isn't the same as seeking out real live sex, experts say the former can be kind of a gateway drug to the latter”
Was the baby formula or mother's milk we were raised on simply a gateway drug for the sugary fast-food milkshakes we would consume many years later?
For every person who uses adult porn in an unhealthy way there are many others who know where what's on the page or the screen ends and reality begins. And how many of us pre-Internet babies came of age gawking at centerfolds, reading the juicy parts of novels or watching movies like Behind The Green Door? While porn users got called lots of unflattering things back in the day, I don't recall “sex addict” being among them. And I believe it's safe to say that a lot of us turned out more or less whole, at least eventually.
In my opinion, Newsweek committed a breach of journalistic ethics by giving multiple mentions (or should that be “plugs”?) to an evangelical ministry apparently trying to pass itself off as an impartial, professional solution for sexual disorders, real or imagined. (It seems to be more like one of those ministries which promise to turn that gay uncle or son straight, or none of your money back). XXXChurch.com, like other such ministries, is primarily about “saving” people (the money and political power that comes with new converts being just a happy coincidence of course). A lot of them tend to seduce teens who haven't yet come to terms with the tsunami of hormones roiling across their brains (and who aren't getting very much help from “abstinence-ed”). Or adults in loveless, sexless marriages. These people are very likely to misdiagnose themselves as sex addicts, making them unfair game for this and other such purveyors of spiritual snake-oil. (As an aside, this particular ministry has events titled “Porn Sunday”, “Porn and Pancakes” and “Porn and Pastries”. If I didn't know better...)
Is Bad Sex meant to be instructional, or is it merely engineered to keep as many TV viewers gawking at their screens as possible to build up ratings? The disclaimer at the end of the show states that the therapeutic information given by the social worker to each subject is exclusively for the subject's benefit and is presented for entertainment purposes only.
I think I'll take the producers of this program at their word.
Ultimately, what distinguishes someone with a bona fide problem from someone who well, just likes sex (or beer, or chocolate, or video games, etc.) a lot? Alcoholics Anonymous publishes a list of 20 questions for someone who suspects they might have a drinking problem. With all due respect to that respectable organization, I'll boil it down here to a pop quiz: are you doing or using something because you love it, or are you doing it because if you don't, you'll feel like a 3-pack-a-day smoker who can't get cigarettes and has to get some, by hook or by crook?
In the end, an official diagnosis of addiction, whatever its nature, must be made by someone with the training, experience and certification to make it. And as the venerable Stanton Peele points out in his 1976 article Addiction Is A Social Disease, the real solutions to the addiction problem as a whole “...[A]re to bring people into contact with themselves, with other people, with their environment, and with their work so as to eliminate the need for artificial involvements in which people immerse themselves because they see no alternative. ...”
While the mass-media bombard us with sexual imagery every day in order to sell, say, magazines, too many of us never receive factual instruction in sex and sexuality. Or as a commenter on The Daily Beast/Newsweek web site where the article appears put it:
“The problem isn't that we are addicts. The problem is that in the face of being bombarded with sexual content and sexuality, we aren't getting enough real sex.”
This article is Creative Commons 2012 The Fuddler. Non-comm., attrib., no derivs.