"This Is An Intimacy Disorder": Changing The Language Of Sex Addiction

Tiger Woods's public apology Monday has thrown a spotlightyet again — on sex addiction, and it's time for us to change how we talk about it.

Making fun of the concept of sex addiction is pretty passé at this point — the New York Times's Donald G. McNeil Jr. notes that mention of the disorder "inevitably leads to chuckles and jokes." But the fact that sex rehab, at least in Woods's case, seems more like image rehab is just one reason it's hard to take seriously. Another is the hand-wringey tone with which the media often discuss sex and porn. Regan McMahon of the SF Chronicle pegs her piece on porn addiction to Woods's predicament, and opens with a variety of apparently real, though anonymized, scenarios. Here's one:

A married couple view pornographic movies together as part of their loving relationship, but the husband starts spending more time watching and less time with his wife, who feels left behind and rejected.

This does indeed sound like a problem, but it's hard not to snicker at the wording. What were this Ozzie and Harriet viewing as part of their "loving relationship?" Anal Fisting 6?

San Francisco marriage and family therapist Julian Redwood, who specializes in treating patients with pornography addiction, says the biggest problem is that there is a physiologically addictive nature to porn and all sexually addictive behavior. People build up a tolerance and need more and more stimulation to achieve the same high. "So someone might start by looking at images of a normal heterosexual couple having sex and then move on to watching bestiality or sex with children. People push their edge."

Again, yes, looking at child porn is a problem. But Redwood's example of gateway porn is pretty much the definition of heteronormativity. And "normal heterosexual sex" comments aside, the truth is that porn is for many people a way to "push their edge" and experiment with taboos. This can be damaging if it results in the exploitation of minors or the destruction of relationships, but is the solution a totally sanitized view of sex? Is there a way to talk about — or to treat — sexual addictions while still acknowledging that the thrill of the forbidden is often a part of arousal?

Of Wood's rehab, McNeil writes,

It would [...] have included interviews probing for childhood trauma or abandonment, several daily rounds of group therapy, art therapy - in which he would draw stories about himself - and "a tremendous amount of writing his sexual history," including his first memories of sexual arousal and his first encounter with pornography, all the way up through the present. Mavis Humes Baird, another therapist familiar with Gentle Path, said Woods would have been separated from family contact for weeks and forbidden masturbation, pornography, contact with female fans or anything else that might engage his sex drive.

The reference to abandonment issues is interesting, but what's not much mentioned is Woods's relationship with his wife, or whatever rationalizations allowed him to violate it. Will his therapy address what drove him to enter into a monogamous relationship and then repeatedly break his commitment to it? What part of Woods's actions come from sex addiction, and what part from just being a jerk?

I'm aware that many addictions can make people behave thoughtlessly, but because sex so deeply involves how we relate to others, it seems especially apt here. Psychologist Brigitte Lank tells McMahon that for porn addiction "the treatment goal is not abstinence; the goal is healthy sexuality. This is an intimacy disorder as well as an addiction." Perhaps the focus when we talk about such problems should be how the sufferer treats others. After all, a "healthy sexuality" looks different to everyone — it may not be "normal heterosexual sex" or even "a loving relationship." And for many people, sex involves a certain measure of darkness, darkness that shouldn't necessarily be washed away. The problem comes when an appetite for transgression makes someone feel entitled to harm other people — and it seems like any successful therapy would have to address not just the appetite but the entitlement as well. When Jessica Grose wrote about sex addiction back in 2008, she said, "whether or not you believe sex addiction exists, it probably doesn't hurt for people who think about no one but themselves to go through a treatment that makes them realize other people are affected by their actions." That's a lesson I hope Woods is learning, and one we'd all do well to take to heart.

Porn Addiction Destroys Relationships, Lives [SF Chronicle, via Seattle Post-Intelligencer]
An Apology With Echoes Of 12 Steps [NYT]