In the main, I have this uncomfortable feeling when I overhear discussions about sex addiction. A quiet anger boils beneath the surface when I hear someone speak cavalierly about another’s struggle with the condition. It’s even worse when a news article lampoons a public figure for his or her problem, as if to say, ‘if you had kept your pants zipped this wouldn’t have happened.’ It wasn’t until I came across Leo Bersani’s, ‘Is the Rectum a Grave?,’ that I sorted out the reason for the depth of my anger.
In this classic, Bersani explores the callous way in which the general public and government officials responded to the emerging AIDS crisis during the ’80’s. Early casualties and sufferers were written off because somehow they deserved what happened to them. Their lifestyles were unacceptable to the mortal deities that arbitrate sexual mores as their illicit behavior trumped their status as human beings. Bersani’s persuasive essay led me to an uncomfortable truth.
We haven’t learned from our past mistakes. The humanity of the sex addict has been displaced by the need to judge behavior viewed by many as simply weak-willed or licentious.
Ignorance abounds with respect to the suffering, the damaging consequences, and the emotional trauma that underly the condition. Who in their right mind would engage in behavior that risked loss of family, job, and financial stability simply for a temporary orgasmic high?
No, it’s clear that those in their right mind would not. It’s those in a difficult mental state that behave with such recklessness and irrationality. Those who are right-minded are able to cover their tracks, limit their downside, stop when stopping makes sense.
The ignorance is all around us. It’s in the reticent health professional who is not convinced that sex addiction is a valid addiction. It’s in the aggrieved partner who is in so much pain that he/she views discovered infidelities solely as a testament to a lack of love by the sexually addicted partner. It’s also in the unsympathetic employer who makes redundant employees missing work because of a sex addiction instead of referring them for treatment as he has done alcoholic employees in the past.
The parallel with HIV/AIDS can also be seen in the way that both conditions made invisible aspects of our social fabric disruptingly visible. HIV/AIDS challenged our conception of what a gay man looked like. The stereotype of the effeminate immaculate gave way to the everyday man as our brothers, construction workers, ministers…and husbands became ill with AIDS.
The sex addict casts a similarly surprising and ubiquitous presence. The internet has unearthed the ability for every walk of man to fall prey to porn’s call. Married, single, gay, straight or bi – porn addiction is a problem. The use of sex workers, uncontrollable engagement with multiple sexual partners, and the maintenance of a life of sexual fantasy are also made much easier by the presence of the internet. Few categories of mankind have escaped a brush with uncontrollable internet sex.
As if the above weren’t enough, both HIV/AIDS and sex addiction have spawned the unfortunate diminution of the problems of the adult in favor of concern for the ‘innocent’ victims of the condition, children. There is little doubt that pediatric AIDS and access to porn for youth are serious issues that we must address as a society. But, the attention we pay to concerns for youth with these conditions should not be allowed to displace appropriate research and treatment for adults.
It’s painful to observe what’s taking place. The only silver lining is awareness that the advent of the HIV/AIDS crisis marked the nadir of homophobia in the US and the UK. When gayness became visible through death, suffering and personalization, it was no longer possible to resist empathy.
Could it be that sex addiction will mark the turning point where male emotional vulnerability and female trauma finally become understood?
Here’s to hoping so. Something good has to come from so much suffering.