It’s a strange thing to say. I know. But, the older I get the more convinced I am that I’m a gender denier. Traditional gender categories of masculinity and femininity are nothing more than arbitrary containers fashioned to impose order on a chaotic world.
To discuss gender properly, we first have to distinguish it from a person’s sex. A man or woman’s sex refers to biological and anatomical differences that are determined by whether one contains a male or female chromosomal structure. As such, ‘sex’ is nature not nurture.
Gender belongs to nurture, or environment, and typically refers to the list of attributes given to the categories of male and female by social convention.
In the 1900’s it was accepted with little challenge that to be a man in the ideal meant one was aggressive, athletic, a father (or with aspirations of being one), employed, and relatively unemotional. Women were proscribed by society as deferential, demure, maternal, and emotional in their ideal form.
Much has changed since the 1900’s, expedited by the feminism of the 1960’s and ’70’s, to shake up these dated notions of the masculine and feminine, but the categories remain influential within our psychology. Women bricklayers and male homemakers are still viewed with a raised eyebrow by many.
The current debate on sex addiction often makes use of these categories in a problematic, polarized way. As an example, let’s look at the dysfunctional family triangle that rests at the base of the sex addict’s psychology.
It is not uncommon for sex addicts to come from families in which there is a father who is present within the family structure but often unreliable and unemotional. The father in question might be a ‘hard worker’ who works long hours or who disappears for days or weeks at a time because of his travel schedule.
Alternatively, he might be serially unfaithful to his partner and, thus, largely absent showing his child that one deals with relationship difficulties and emotional conflict by vacating instead of working through the issues at hand. The sex addict as a child looks to the father for validation and a rich emotional response but instead receives at a best a tepid, ephemeral, physical-only presence.
This two-dimensional father is often accompanied by a mother who is more than happy to take up the space within the household left open by the father’s absences. Contrary to expectations of demureness and a maternal nature, the prototypical mother of the sex addict does not respect her child’s boundaries. She is the type of mother who aggressively enters the child’s bedroom without knocking and is unable to hear the child’s lament because she is depressed or perhaps too concerned with her own travails. She says she loves her child greatly, and the child (as both a child an adult) would agree.
The truth, however, is that she loves her child both too much and too little at the same time – too much because boundaries are not respected, too little because the child’s emotional and developmental needs are neglected.
What does all of this have to do with gender? Gender definitions that define men as aggressive creatures completely miss the passive response to family intimacy that the fathers of male sex addicts often exhibit through the above examples of overwork and infidelity. This passive response might have many explanations.
Perhaps, the mother is strongly aggressive and retreat is viewed by the father as an easier option than matching her aggression. Alternatively, the mother’s greater profile within the family may be in response to a passivity caused by personality or a paternal depression that is too easily missed within a social structure that views depression as a feminine condition.
Because this paternal male passivity is missed, it becomes easy to argue that male sex addiction, as an example, results solely from male aggression towards women confirming existing gender definitions. One must view this socially concordant aggression in tandem with the passivity of the father’s retreat from the home, or the complexity of men’s varied styles of relating to women is missed.
Likewise, the heterosexual sex addict’s aggressive use of pornography or escorts is likely a passive retreat from his difficulty in remaining intimate with his partner. Of course, this behavior mimics the earlier defensive move away from the mother that the sex addict would have made as a child due to her lack of respect for boundaries.
Women of course behave in ways that are equally complex. In the above example, the mother’s aggression through overstepping boundaries is balanced by her passivity through depression.
Gender categories are often incomplete and, by definition, biased towards social convention. A full understanding of sex addiction requires that we resist contemporary gender categories. Instead, we must look at the specific complexity of the relational patterns of the addict involved and his or her social environment, including family.