The most recent cover story of Newsweek Magazine announces that “the Sex Addiction Epidemic” has reached America. With this title alone, author Chris Lee clearly evinces his somewhat alarmist position on Sex Addiction: this is a serious compulsive sexual behavior comparable to drug addiction and alcoholism with comparable consequences. Sex addiction has ruined many lives, and cannot be stigmatized by the media’s misuse of the term to excuse philanderers such as Herman Cain and Tiger Woods.
Yet, the opponents of this school of thought—voiced in the article “Don’t Believe the Sex Addiction Hype”—believe it is actually sexuality that has been stigmatized with the label of sex addiction. Author Tracy Clark-Foley proposes that male promiscuity has been targeted as a disorder just as female sexuality was targeted as hysteria in the 19th century, and homosexuality was targeted as a disease until the 1970s. Deviant sexuality has consistently been prosecuted by conservative cultures, simply because it doesn’t fit into the agreed upon social scripts. But Clark-Foley’s argument seems dismissive of the destruction inherent in sex addiction, and shouldn’t be fully accepted anymore than Lee’s alarmist position.
So what is sex addiction? A psychological disorder or pop-psychology in disguise? The topic is contentious not only because of its controversial subject matter, but its confusion. The essential terms are left undefined.
As of right now, sex addiction has not been included in the DSM, the psychological phonebook used to diagnose mental disorders. There is no criteria to define sex addiction, hence the media’s perpetual misuse of the term. Without a diagnostic rubric, sex addiction instead defines itself through what David Ley criticizes as “valley-girl” or simile science. He claims that sex addiction builds its legitimacy through metaphor, comparing sex addiction to eating disorders or drug addiction. However, sex isn’t as intrinsically harmful as anorexia and drug abuse so it’s difficult to understand the harm of sexual addiction. In order to define destructive sexual behavior, you need to define constructive sexual behavior. But would a universal conception of sexuality really help anyone in the end?
Articles may go blow for blow in their defense and dismissal of sex addiction, but regardless if it’s chemistry or culture, its presence is undeniable in our current dialogue. Our world is now more saturated with sexuality than ever, and it is only natural that we have difficulties processing the new information and experiences accessible to us. We must be sure to negotiate new terms appropriate for our new zeitgeist, without persecuting victims, or victimizing differences.