The ontology of addiction has been the central controversy in the sex addiction treatment industry for quite some time, alongside the quieter issue of whether upward interpretations (those that pre-suppose capacity) are appropriately directed at the habitually acting out. But neither of these should be the most controversial topics in this field anymore. What should be? Well, the clues are in the demographics of who presents for treatment; who typically presents as the impacted others, and thirdly, who are the treating professionals holding the protean sexual ethics that gird the treatment process. In communities with a diverse client base, those ethics reflect progressive values that obviate the casual pathologizing of sex, but in my suburban neck of the woods, a curious blend of traditional biases and menu-feminism continues to dominate discussions. More often than not, women presenting as betrayed partners exhibit authority with respect to intimate relationships; they are the standard bearers of what constitutes emotional maturity. This is a real problem in our profession: women who enter individual therapy, or couples therapy, or who direct their hapless male partners into therapy having read pop psychology literature that teaches that they have more empathy; that they have bigger limbic systems or thicker Corpus Callosums connecting their right and left hemispheres, thus enabling greater sensitivity to blah, blah, blah…ya know, that BS. Read feminist author Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender, one of several books profiled in mine and Joe Farley’s forthcoming book, Getting Real About Sex Addiction, plus one or two recent studies we quote, to obtain a proper debunking of such femicentric myths.
And the myths extend to sex addiction treatment, skewing conceptions of male and female sex addiction, leading to diagnoses as well as intervention strategies with essentialist biases. I wouldn’t suggest that practitioners do not hold their male patients in high regard—that they do not sympathize with their lives or wish them well. I don’t mean anything as caviling or facile as that. However, I do suggest that our professional models of care, with their catalogues of nomenclature, jargon and assumptions now privileges feminine perspectives in psychotherapy because A) that’s now the dominant consumer base for psychotherapy in The United States, and B) Women represent the majority of practitioners in mental health care. I know it’s not like this from the female perspective. I’m sure my female colleagues would report that many domineering men enter therapy, including couples therapy, making their wives’ lack of sexual appetite the identified problem of treatment; overbearing fathers who assert that “lack of discipline” is the prevailing problem of all systems. But at least such clients are publicly and professionally decried, whereas the analogous excesses of our feminine client population are not. It’s becoming more common, for example, to read articles or hear of workshops that draw attention to negative patriarchal attitudes, masculine narcissism; the problem of “difficult men”. Do we read about or hear of ways to combat the problem of matriarchal attitudes? Female narcissism? Would our profession’s proletariat tolerate a workshop—especially one taught by a male therapist—entitled, “How to work with difficult women?”
The word is out upon patriarchy: heavyhanded parenting, sexual entitlement, and while many men do bring their passive Stepford wives to female therapists for a corrective talking-to, I think the example of women directing men to a redeemer class of men is more common these days. Thus, the worst offenders on this matter of skewed approaches may be male therapists. I’m speaking of a certain type of male therapist: he’s a rock star type—knows how to patronize feminine needs, advocate for them; be that man who will show other men how to be men in the 21st century. Ugh! I can conjure this hero in a couples’ session: he sits forward, talks straight, emphasizes action over words, patronizing the bias that thinking or the expression of it is overrated, and stares “man-to-man” into the eyes of his adversary, that “narcissistic” guy who won’t show his vulnerability, but instead terrorizes the women in his life, plus his kids, with his bad temper, his selfish entitlement. This rock star therapist will set him straight, and some women will love this guy, privately wishing he could replace the dinosaur that’s the subject of intervention. And can you imagine how this scenario is exacerbated when the context of treatment is that dinosaur’s sexual acting out? His mooted sex addiction?
The skewed approaches are grounded in a plethora of orthodoxy about how men and women are raised and therefore what shapes their development; and though careful women therapists may leave to those rock stars the harder foot work of confronting angry, hypersexualized men, the marching orders they carry out still reflect a feminine hegemony. Even popular figures like Esther Perel, admired perhaps for her paradoxically challenging neutrality, betray bias in how case illustrations are conceptualized. For example, in State of Affairs: rethinking infidelity, she rightly challenges, in my opinion, the common supposition that women’s sex drive is inherently weaker, only to then imply that the feminine drive is imbued with more imagination and relational intensity. Now, in keeping with the spirit of my last entry, I’m not one to pull the science card and say, where is the evidence for that theory? At the same time I think, where’s that opinion coming from? Who decided that it was a given, that it needn’t be substantiated? Next, in comparing (I think anecdotal) accounts of men and women’s regrets upon having affairs, she reports that women say things like, “I lost myself”, while men are more prone to say, “I lost my woman”. In descriptions like these, Perel accentuates the theme of self-determination in the meaning of women’s affairs, and while a traditional interpretation of the “I lost (her)” expression may assign romantic longing to the grief-ridden man, I think Perel is attaching a proprietorial connotation to the male figure’s experience. By doing so she suggests a lesser sympathy for him, instead joining the progressive critique of masculine possessiveness that is so fashionable in contemporary psychotherapy.
There are other subtle examples of bias in Perel’s largely admirable text, but the most egregious case of epater le patriarchie lies in her equally subtle adherence to an Oedipal Complex-derived theory of male infidelity, plus a diatribe about how female adulterers are treated worse by society than male infidels. Intrigued by a commonly-observed figure that is a decent, genteel man who nonetheless engages in affair-seeking or compulsive porn use, she paraphrases collegial psychologists who profile for such men a background of abuse at the hands of alcoholic fathers. The result is a hapless, codependent figure caught in the middle between a castrating patriarch and a downtrodden wife and mother. Subsequently, these boys become men who protect vulnerable women who are blurred in their minds with their mothers; hence, they deny their own feelings, including their libidinal impulses, which they believe are intrinsically harmful to these women—such is the distorted identification with the bad father. Sex with the mother/partner blur becomes a taboo—incest, even. The affair-seeking behavior is therefore a splitting defense: the man must keep separate his libidinal self, protecting the good, as in his image and her delicate feelings. Now, on the one hand, this is a fair interpretation of an Oedipal triangle, but one that relies upon the conscious memory of the abusive father and a bias towards blaming pathology upon that phenomenon. Robert Bly, in his then-zeitgeist writing of the nineties, observed a similar triangle between “nice” men and their enmeshed mothers and distant, angry fathers. But while also observing that such men fear their own feelings, Bly’s men’s movement slant afforded more sympathy to the exiled father, and more blame, I think, to the emotionally incestuous mother.
For the most part, Perel is not hamstrung by the need to appear “evidence-based”. Her book is riddled with pronouncements that she doesn’t feel compelled to substantiate, alongside an arbitrary few that she does feel obliged to support. For example, when asserting that infidelity is the worst thing that can happen to a marriage, according to Americans—even worse than incest of domestic violence—she cites Gallup polls indicating that people condemn cheating more than they do reckless gambling, divorce, or even suicide. Strangely, in a passage that’s only a few sentences long, she fails to give numbers supporting the claim that infidelity is deemed worse than incest or DV. That’s because that claim is unlikely, I say. Next, there’s a passage claiming that society judges more harshly “other women” than it does cheating husbands. Honestly, this complaint makes me laugh. It never seems to occur to plaintive women, whether they are feminist in sensibility or traditionalist, that this bias, which I agree does exist, is actually grounded in feminine chauvinist beliefs. This is like men complaining that they are “expected” to make more money than women. Yes, you’re expected to make more money because you do make more money. Correspondingly, the flip side of women’s relative lack of sexual freedom is an assertion of either moral superiority, superior self-control as it relates to sexual urges, or in general, a belief that women are the more mature gender, both emotionally and sexually. There. That’s my unsubstantiated, non-evidence-based pronouncement. After all, it’s women who covet and lay claim to the white dress, as there is nothing in a groom’s sartorial splendor that affords him a virtuous, as in virginal air. So yeah, I guess Beyonce was more pissed at that “other woman” than she was at her “errant” husband, as Perel asserts. But that’s a result of traditionalist assumptions. The woman lapsed to the man’s standard. That Jay-Z is a dirty dog is deemed a given. Duh!
Most subtle, however, and likely unintended, except on an unconscious level maybe, is the echo of the ancient feminine voice in the lament, “I lost myself”, that Perel attributes to women who have sought affairs. Yes, I know that thought—mine or hers—may sound a little precious, but my thought pertains to a series of passages in Getting Real About Sex Addiction that cite feminist historians’ theories of prehistorical societies. One such theory asserts that society was once matriarchal in its power structure and only became the opposite when men discovered the significance of their role in procreation and proceeded thereafter to usurp social authority. After this, the story goes that women were subjugated, their mythical images consigned to the sea, hence the ubiquity of metaphors that link womankind with water, and man with the later emerging dry land. Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, said biologists in the nineteenth century, to indicate that an embryo’s development mirrors that of a species. Freud subscribed to this principle, also. So, for each individual man, one woman, the mother, was once in charge of everything. For man as a collective, women were once in charge of everything. Then came the battle. Women lost. The battle continues, and man’s love/hate of woman manifests partially in his sexual liberty, taken to excess says one of several polemical movements taking aim at masculine privilege: sex addiction treatment.
It’s funny, but I’ve known a lot of people, clients mostly, who identify as addicts. Wait, that’s not the funny bit. What’s funny, as in strange, is that most of the addicts I’ve known will lie, blame, deflect, self-pity, act out, lie, blame, deflect, self-pity, all in a perpetual cycle, over and over again, until they die in some cases. Some of them stop. Seriously, in a manner that only addicts seem to manifest, some stop their behaviors and become hardcore acolytes of a “recovery” lifestyle: assiduous participants in treatment, therapy, 12-step meetings and general fellowship; dogmatic proselytizers of religiously inflected principles; somewhat closed-minded yet reliable stalwarts of rectified living, complete with rigorous diet plans, exercise regimes and otherwise clean habits that would put the average person to shame. In the aftermath of their active days of excess, the lying, blaming, deflecting and self-pity are not so much extinguished as muted—a stoical nod of acknowledgement and regret hides a repressed hatred of something, subdued under a remainder-of-life gag order. Of the heterosexual male sex addicts I’ve known, some betray residual resentment towards the officious women in their lives—wives and girlfriends, mostly (there’s that phrase again). Others, those “decent” men that Esther Perel writes about, have picked up the narrative of abusive fathers, sinister uncles, cousins and violating mentors, implying with ambiguous, half-formulated though not wholly misguided logic that such abuses are the root causes of both low self-esteem and the addictive behaviors that soothe. The one thing they won’t do is blame mothers. The one thing men will rarely do—not with words, because it breaks the world—is blame mothers for the bad that comes from sex.
*a play on the term epater le bourgeoisie, a rallying cry of the French decadent poets of the 19th century. The term epater means “to shock”.