Ley, David J. The Myth of Sex Addiction. Rowan and Littlefield, 2012 Amazon
Sex scandals are so prevalent that the publishers of The Myth of Sex Addiction by David J. Ley could reasonably expect that one would be in the news when the book launched. David Petraeus, former commander of US forces in Afghanistan and former director of the CIA, stepped up and performed adequately, but there were plenty of others waiting in the wings. His affair with his biographer was revealed when his mistress sent harassing emails to a female friend of the family, leading to an FBI investigation and ultimately his resignation. Predictably, people have applied the sex addiction label to the Petraeus affair.
Sex addiction has become our all-purpose rubric for sexual deviance, whether qualitative or quantitative, harmless or horrifying. Infidelity, porn use, homosexuality, masturbation, rape, fetishes, pedophilia, are all seem as symptoms of sex addiction. For a condition that is not recognized by many major medical and psychiatric organizations, sex addiction has amazing cultural currency, whether one views it as a moral failing or an illness.
Delve into the histories of those slapped with the sex addiction label, says Ley, and we will find a host of other problems: low impulse control, mood disorders, poor socialization, relationships between people with incompatible desires, etc. You find a guy crippled with guilt and shame because he masturbates twice a month. Examined closely, sex addiction dissolves into other conditions that are better known and more treatable.
Ley says sex addiction was largely created by Patrick Carnes, a prison psychologist, in the early 1980s with his book Out of the Shadows . Carnes applied twelve-step model of Alcoholics Anonymous (which is also lacking in solid scientific support) to his clients and their sexual excess. Carnes’ diagnostic criteria was SAFE: “…if the behaviour is Secret, Abusive (harmful), used to avoid painful Feelings, and if it is Empty (outside of a caring, committed relationship, then a sexual behaviour is likely to be addictive…” (Pg.13)
Three of these criteria have problems. Most people keep their sexual activities secret, often from justified fears of reprisals from homophobia or transphobia, or just because they don’t want their relatives to know what they’re doing. Most people use sex to manage feelings at some time. And not all sex needs to be in the service of a committed caring relationship.
The fourth, abusive, sounds okay, but it includes BDSM activities.
According to Carnes, abusive or harmful sex includes behaviors such as bondage and discipline and sadomasochistic behaviors. In Don’t Call It Love, Carnes describes this type of sexual behavior in the following way:
The giving or receiving of pain, also known as sadomasochism or S&M, is a type of sexually addictive behaviour in which pain is associated with sexual pleasure. There is a blatant imbalance of power between the giver and the receiver, although both partners may be consenting…. Victims may perceive their feelings towards their torturer as loving, but there is no genuine trust or intimacy when a relationship is based on hurting one another.
In contrast to Carnes’ blanket pathologizing of this sexual practice, research shows that sadomasochistic behaviors as a part of sex are extremely common and do not indicate the presence of mental illness.
BDSM is just one of a host of behaviours that are supposedly risky and potentially addictive. Others are anonymous sex, group sex, cruising, use of pornography, having multiple partners, voyeurism, exhibitionism, sexual harassment, prostitution, compulsive masturbation, etc. (Pg.16-17) Since many of these actions are part of many people’s sexual lives, does this mean all of these people are or will become sex addicts? The usual explanation is that there is some amount or degree that is excessive, but how to determine that is highly subjective. The sex addiction movement seems to be operating from a very narrow, heteronormative and monogamy-normative idea of what sex should be, in part inherited from the religious underpinnings of the twelve-step movement.
Sex is not always “nice.” Sexual fantasy and behavior reflects the complexity of humans, within the complexity of their social, historical, and physical environments. To attempt to force people to only have “nice” acceptable sexual behaviors and fantasies robs humans of a rich, wide, and varied sexuality.
Hypersexuality, to use a less loaded term, doesn’t function like an addiction in several respects, particularly the lack of withdrawal symptoms if deprived of sex. Hypersexuality also has unpleasant historical baggage of being overdiagnosed in socially subordinate groups such as blacks, homosexuals and men with mental disabilities (see pg.114). The modern attempts to ground sex addiction scientifically, such as Dr. Judith Reisman’s supposed “erototoxins”, aren’t much better. The arguments are full of junk neuroscience.
The sex addiction movement is predicated on the idea that sex is an external, demonic force that is not native to the individual, but once the individual is introduced to it, is altered permanently, which results in inevitable escalation, from porn to rape-murder. It’s akin to the questionable “gateway drug” model of drug addiction.
Ley says that the sex drive originates within the self, and while it isn’t always easy, it can be controlled. He cites the example of basketball star Wilt Chamberlain, who claimed to have fucked 20,000 women over his life, but this did not escalate to rape or otherwise interfere with his ability to function as an athlete and media figure. A person can consciously regulate their own sexual behaviour. Some people may find this harder than others, but it is possible.
Unfortunately, in the second half of the book the author takes a sharp turn into evolutionary psychology territory, something I have a low opinion of, as you will notice from my earlier review of A Billion Wicked Thoughts by Ogas and Gaddam. Ley argues that male and female sexualities are fundamentally different,
There are moments when Ley veers uncomfortably close to an essentialist argument, that the naturally higher and polygamous male libido, the driving force of civilization, is being constrained by the female drive to mate and form monogamous families.
The sex addiction label is, at least in part, an expression of fear and anger at the fact that males naturally have different sexual desires than women. Sex addictionologists would like to put that genie in a small bottle and stopper it up tightly. Even though women in the United States consume romance novels at rates comparable to the male consumption of pornography, there is no effort to remove these novels from the shelves of convenience stores, nor to pillory women found reading such novels in the workplace. The different sexual attitudes between genders drive the fear of pornography, as well as the general fear and stigmatization of male sexuality.
One of Ley’s case studies is a man who, once he became a police officer and put on the uniform, almost immediately connected with the “badge bunnies“, a subculture of women who are basically groupies for cops and firefighters. (Pg.177)
After I read the cop’s case study, I wanted to know more about the badge bunnies. What were their stories? It’s no particular secret that society is structured to reward men of high status in particular fields with greater sexual access to women. There’s the Wilt Chamberlain example, the Clinton-Lewinsky affair, JFK, etc. Genetic evidence suggests that Ghengis Khan fathered over 1000 children. But where is women’s agency in this sex-power transaction? Badge bunnies don’t chase after a powerful man, but powerful men. This goes against the assumption of natural female passivity and monogamy. There’s an untold story, here.
In astronomy, there’s a concept called “dark matter.” There’s a discrepancy between the amount of visible matter in our galaxy and the amount of mass there must be for our galaxy to rotate the way it does and for other observed data. To explain this, astronomers postulate dark matter that we cannot detect. By some calculations, the matter we know about is only a small fraction of the matter in the universe, and the majority is dark matter. We can’t see it, but we have logically deduced it must exist, and therefore the onus is on us to improve our perceptions so that we can detect it.
I think that our inheritance of sexology has reached the point at which we have to acknowledge there is some kind of sexual “dark matter”, whole realms of women’s erotic experience that is not recognized as such. We don’t even know the right questions to ask. In A Billion Wicked Thoughts, the authors almost completely ignore lesbians (or more generally, WSW’s), apparently because they couldn’t find any porn or romance novels lesbians liked. That’s just sloppy research.
The Myth of Sex Addiction is about half of a good book. If Ley had devoted all of his text to how sex addiction was constructed, maybe make it more of a cultural studies work, then it would have been all of a good book. Ley writes with a great deal of compassion for people who would otherwise be dismissed as addicts and freaks, and he makes a good argument for acceptance of swinging, polyamory and other forms of non-monogamy as well as kink.
It’s the second half where it falls apart, with an ill-formed evolutionary psychology argument that dances on the edge of “boys will be boys” and erases sexually adventurous women as aberrations.