She spoke haughtily, which has a peculiar effect on me: I start questioning my right to think. “You’re speaking of men who acted out with their sexuality, and society is pushing back against that kind of privilege.”
“Acting out? Wait, are we now talking about something different than when you spoke of female sex addiction?”
“The men you indicated are compulsive philanderers, porn addicts, acting upon an exaggerated sense of entitlement. Women are no longer willing to tolerate that.”
“Whereas female sex addiction is…different?”
“Women are stigmatized for simply having sex before marriage. Men aren’t!”
“Okay, but women are not being assessed as sex addicts for simply having sex before marriage.”
She waved her hand in an expansive fashion. “No, but that’s part of the context, that generally lesser tolerance for their sexual freedom. It just makes it harder for women who do have problems to come forward and get help.”
I tilted my head, affecting skepticism.
“I can see you’re having a hard time accepting this.”
“You say ‘accepting this’ like you’ve already landed a truism, and I’m like a holocaust denier or something.”
“Seriously, you don’t think society has traditionally been harsher, more devaluing of women’s sexual behavior than men’s.”
“Traditionally is a key word there. Time’s change. Not sure I accept the conclusion based upon your premise.”
She shook her head. “You lost me,” she said.
“So let’s go back to the earlier point. You say that women feel a greater stigma around their sexuality than men, right? And this stigma, which is a societal phenomenon, is internalized by women, causing extra layers of shame?”
“Correct,” my colleague said cautiously.
“Well, consciousness leads to change. That’s the basic promise of our profession, after all. Now again, we’ve had at least two generations since the so-called sexual revolution, which sought to liberate men and women from sexually repressive values. I think many women now externalize the problem of that stigma you reference. They resent society’s traditionalist constraint of their sexuality, and therefore push back against institutions, including schools of thought like sex addiction treatment models, that would pathologize that newfound sexual freedom. It’s like when political outcasts used to get diagnosed with schizophrenia and other mental illness labels: I think some people think the term sex addiction is a sex police invention, and I think it at least one alternative reason why women especially, as well as the gay community, might reject sex addiction treatment.”
My colleague offered a soft utterance, one aimed at neither agreement nor concession, but merely diffused conflict. I think she wasn’t sure if we were saying different things.
“Interesting,” she said neutrally. “Still, I think the women that I see and talk to retain that traditional internalization, and they hold other women to the standard they believe in.”
“With respect, most of the women you speak to are over fifty, and their husbands are John Wayne-types.”
“Maybe. But I just don’t think men judge each other about sexual misbehavior as women judge other women who act out.”
I sort of rolled my neck, like I was straining to take this in.
“You don’t agree? You don’t think men encourage other men, even boys, implicitly or not, to be sexually active, to have as many partners as possible?”
“I’m not sure that matters with respect to the issue at hand. If women, traditionally or presently, stigmatize men for their sexual misbehavior, and you aren’t disputing that—merely justifying it, sort of—then men will have problems in relationships. Period. It doesn’t matter what the ‘patriarchy’ thinks today. If I cheat on my wife, for example, it’s not like I can say, ‘but my buddy Jay says it’s cool’ and expect everything to be all good with her. And that’s what matters to the men who seek treatment, who are mandated into treatment: they want to fix things with their partners.”
She shrugged coolly, apparently more at home debating this issue amid tangents.
“Seems to me it’s the same for women, only I think history and tradition lingers more than you believe it does. But if, as you suggest, it doesn’t matter so much—this matter of stigma, whether it’s directed by the same sex or not—then what’s this discussion about?” She shrugged again, this time presaging finality. Suddenly, she sounded weary, not so much curious, only I wasn’t done.
“Because it seems important, this question of why people go into treatment and why they don’t—why women don’t seek treatment, which is what you said today, only your bias suggests that women are being under-served, which implies women would choose sex addiction treatment if they were offered it. Like I said, it’s 2016. I think many, perhaps most women are shedding terms like ‘slut’ and ‘whore’, or trying to, anyway—and that places the problem in society, not in individuals. Meanwhile, I think men are internalizing what’s happening to some of their fellow alpha males. That lesser judgement, or entitlement, that you perceive? It has a flip side, one that’s center-stage now. Justly or not, the men I talk to take on board labels like ‘horndog’, accepting their comparison to animals, their compliant exile to the ‘doghouses’ when they’ve ‘strayed’. Then they sit with me, feeling incompetent and saying, ‘I was never raised to share my feelings’, having internalized that feminine critique also.
Joanne averted her eyes, like she wanted out of this conversation; it’s ambiguous agenda and questioning of trends. What would she do with this, I could hear her thinking. She finished her coffee, asked a passing waitress where the bathroom was. The epicene worker whom she stopped had an untroubled, these-matters-are-not-on-my-radar look about her. She (I think) wordlessly pointed to a door just beyond our table, concealed by a disorganized gathering. It was a tiny room, this bathroom—not big enough for the café’s throngs, and amongst customers, unbeknownst to café owners, it was controversially unisex.