Monthly Archives: January 2020

Epater Le Patriarchie*

 

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”.

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The Shadow of Esther Perel

 

One of the peripheral yet significant influences upon Getting Real About Sex Addiction has been the writing of Esther Perel. Actually, to be honest, though I have been aware of her work for years, I didn’t get around to reading her latest, State Of Affairs: rethinking infidelity, until the period wherein I was writing my own book. Reading Perel’s now best-selling non-fiction was not central to my preparation because my research focused less on social commentary than on resources more directly relevant to our title and subject: the body of literature under the heading of sex addiction or sex addiction treatment, and because of mine and Joe Farley’s interest in psychodynamic approaches, the wider body of psychoanalytic literature that is the true antecedent of that sex addiction literature anyway. Nonetheless, I picked up Perel’s book alongside my own writing, thinking it would stir supplementary ideas (which it did) about sex and society, which I decided I wanted to comment upon after all, and still further because I’d once listened to a TED talk of Perel’s. Though I don’t quote her particularly in my chapters, much less borrow from her impressive range of commentary, I was surprised by my reactions when reading her work. I was surprised at the level of envy that her writing evoked in me—envy of a certain freedom from orthodoxy with which she practices, and that I imagine has made her writing so compelling for so many.

For a therapist who has worked with many self-identified sex addicts, practicing within a non-conformist nook aside the treatment field’s contrived standards, this has meant the following: Perel seems to exist on the periphery of sex addiction treatment, and she responds to broader range of sexual contexts than are covered via mine and my co-author’s heteronormative client base. Though a variety of sexual acting out behaviors, some habitual, are profiled in her book, the concept of addiction barely gets mentioned in it. In one passage, she lists a number of diagnoses that might possibly be assigned to someone repeatedly engaged in affair-seeking behavior, only to lightly dismiss them in favor of more sympathetic assessment language. In another, she cheekily refers to sex addiction as the “malady du jour”, implying a distrust of the term’s reductionistic meaning. How very French, or Belgian, her turn of phrase. In her view, firstly, prose is duller than poetry, and more pertinently, what may otherwise be called sexual acting out or sexually addictive behavior is more often cast as acts of self-discovery (for women especially), with betrayal serving as a secondary phenomenon, more relevant to a non-acting out but committed partner, of course. A multi-lingual practitioner with a cross-cultural perspective, Perel explores the dialectic between human needs for closeness and freedom, and how that conflict unfolds within a public debate about monogamy; she argues that western society looks upon affairs with a “no fault” attitude—indeed, this position is codified into divorce law, though she does not comment upon that angle per se. However, she observes that this is rarely the case when an infidelity is discussed in her therapy office, and in my experience, this certainly is not the case when the pretext of mental health treatment is sex addiction. In fact, in mine and Joe Farley’s book, I argue that part of the point of the addiction framework, from a non-acting out partner’s perspective—actually, what may even be attractive to non-acting out partners—is that this framework strips away the “no fault” narrative by placing singular blame for infidelities at the acting out person’s feet.

Perel goes on to espouse other ideas that sex addiction specialists would likely bristle at but which speak to ever changing mores governing ever altering configurations of intimate relationships. Among others things, she suggests that sexual ethics have been profoundly impacted by rates of divorce over recent generations, and that social media and protean technology have revolutionized dating norms. Contrary to prostitution, affair-seeking has never before seemed so widespread, so easy, and perhaps, she dares to suggest, so acceptable. Amid this backdrop and regarding the secrets that affair-seekers keep, she doesn’t necessarily recommend honest disclosure, full or not, to impacted partners, thinking that such confessionals, while potentially healing for those partners, invariably shift and even constrict dialogues between couples. Discussions of betrayal take over from those of meaning—what was the meaning of the affairs, for example. I agree with Perel’s critique. Breaking from ethical standards that influence the practice of couples therapy, at least in The United States, Perel also suggests that therapists might keep secrets of individual partners within couples therapy, as long as a couple agrees ahead of time to this prospect. Perel argues that this can allow a therapist to hear of a secret from one partner and explore its meaning with that person separately, while simultaneously working with the other partner, and possibly hearing secrets from that person also. This is a compelling divergence from American psychotherapeutic orthodoxy even though I am not quite persuaded to abandon my own adherent practice in this area. Finally, and perhaps most controversially, Perel further suggests that the currently popular focus upon impacted partners’ trauma with respect to infidelity obscures an older and more salient (her view) discussion of good old-fashioned jealousy.

Perel’s avoidance of the addiction paradigm in favor of the old infidelity model may signal a reactionary trend. Has sex addiction had its day as a concept? Has the zeitgeist past, at least? Perhaps too many people look at pornography on a regular basis these days, or “hook-up” with multiple partners on a regular basis, or have so-called emotional affairs or clandestine connections via social media with old girl or boyfriends. Maybe they want and can effect threesomes or foursomes with their neighbors; want to engage in “kink” behaviors, or more plainly, want aggression in their sex lives as long as it’s consensual, however that’s arranged. If this abundance of options coupled with altered rules is the new norm then addiction—a concept meant to denote that which is out of the norm—won’t apply to those who are habituated to these norms and not inclined to self-criticism. Novelty-seeking and excess are in the eyes of beholders who don’t expect novelty; who think limits, and even sacrifice of pleasure-seeking, are normal by-products of a healthy and mature life. So Esther Perel may be right to avoid labels that represent standards that are out-of-date for many—however scary that may seem to some. She has the privilege, it seems, of not being bound by a sex addiction paradigm: to not practice, say, amongst strident peers or unctuous pundits who assert protocols of intervention, or who proclaim standards of assessment upon which subsequent interventions are predicated. She has no doubt earned her voice of independence, but imagine what would be different were she a relative novice training at a sex addiction treatment clinic. She might be tight-lipped with words like “reductionist”, which critiques diagnostic thinking, but find traction with the term “agency”, which indicates empowerment. Or, she might absorb words or terms like “paradigm” or “paradigm shift”, which are popular with those who like to think they’re starting revolutions in care standards. She’d likely adhere to an approach that posits addiction as a behavioral disorder whose deeper or subtler meaning is of secondary importance to managing crises that tend to be cyclic, and perpetual. When treating partners, she’d likely be schooled into an understanding of their trauma or induced trauma, and be cautioned against pathology-insinuating or “victim-blaming” suggestions of jealousy. Lastly—and this is a viewpoint I shall privilege in my next entry—in a field that has hitherto dominantly aimed its labels of addiction and narcissism at heterosexual men, she might further adopt the condescending, anti-male bias that sex addiction treatment quite pervasively represents.

 

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The long and the short of it: a dialogue

 

So, the zeitgeist in sex addiction for so long has been to question whether sex addiction is an excuse—ya know, something that lets creepy, no-good scoundrels (heterosexual men, basically) off the hook, absolving them of…whatever the assessment of addiction is meant to let them off the hook from. Punishment, presumably: punishment from courts, employers, wives and girlfriends. Wives and girlfriends mostly. If a man has a sex addiction then he has a disease. He has an affliction, merits compassion and support, not judgement. Cue the next bit wherein someone says it’s understandable that betrayed partners would launch into a volley of judgement upon discovery of secretive behavior. They’ve been traumatized, after all, and not just by the addictive behaviors, the obsessive use of porn and prostitutes, plus those sleazy hook-ups and online affairs. Beyond that, these partners have been lied to incessantly; subjected to years of obfuscation, counter-accusations of paranoia, controlling behavior. Now the cat’s out of the bag he wants compassion, cries this beleaguered figure! Seriously? After years of being told I’m crazy I’m supposed to just accept his abject apology and then go along with this crap about addiction, while thinking what? Oh, poor thing, he just can’t help it. Let me tell you something, I’m…

Okay, I don’t hear that so much—that I’m-about-to-march-out-of-this-office diatribe. But I do hear of it from those who have previously been to therapists who tread a little close to the door marked GIVING ADVICE. Their “educational” comments carry an inflection of sympathy—too much sympathy for the angry person who is looking for someone to be angry with them, sort of. Yes, tsk tsk, exudes the right-minded listener instead, regarding that misbehaving other. What may follow next is a flurry of suppositions: how pervasively has this behavior, plus the secrecy, affected your life? How many conversations, potential intimate moments have gone awry because he was elsewhere emotionally, not truly present with you? What about the diminishing of romance, of your sex life, even? How many times have you been denied sex because he was with someone else, or thinking of someone else, taking care of himself, forgetting about you? How many times did he come home late from work? Now you know what that was about. And think about all the money that’s been spent, or the time that’s been wasted. No wonder his career has stalled, and how has that affected you, burdened you, given that you work also, plus you do the lion’s share of stuff for the kids. Treatment? For him? The person who really needs compassion and support is YOU.

There’s a subtext to such counsel, one that is rarely made explicit because that would render the message ironic. The task is to insinuate the potential for revenge while maintaining the position of victim/survivor. So, that subtext, stripped of its artifice, goes something like this: ya know, there’s a silver lining to all of this. If you’re honest, this relationship has had problems for years and until now you weren’t sure how much the problem was him versus you. You thought he had fallen out of love with you, thought you were a B, like what your last boyfriend thought, plus what your sister used to say about you. Anyway, do you have any idea how this could be used to your advantage? Do you have any idea how much this lets YOU off the hook? From now on being difficult is no longer your problem. You being difficult becomes your entitlement. Yes, I know you didn’t want this. I get that this was your worst nightmare, besides something terrible happening to your kids, of course. And I know that thinking he’s out of control will keep you up at night, worrying where he’s at when he’s traveling—who is he with, and whether he’d leave you high and dry. But think about it: this addiction thing can be the punctuation of all arguments for the forseeable future, and you can leverage his guilt. Believe me, sister, you may have the pain, but now he’ll get the blame at last.

             In most niche fields in psychotherapy, this kind of subtext, as well as the manifest content would be tagged as scapegoating. In psychiatry we have the term identified patient to in fact direct clinical attention to a systemic problem versus a “one-body”, internal or intrapsychic disorder, as it may be termed within a psychodynamic framework. In sex addiction treatment, however, the singular focus upon the acting out person’s “problem” is a virtual orthodoxy, reflecting an alliance of social and professional forces: on the one hand, the mores of social justice, which counter-privileges the perspective of underprivileged populations, especially women; on the other hand, a traditionalist objection that posits sexual betrayal as the most sensitive of personal offenses—an offense that clears the table of mutuality, allowing for an old-fashioned script of who’s been good and who’s been bad. Yes, says the offended partner, “I am no angel”. Translation: that’s all we’re going to say on that subject for a very long time, maybe ever. That’s the flip side of the “excuse” phenomenon. Reductionism, short term interventions, simplify and thus remove not only ambiguity, but also responsibility that might otherwise be dispersed; the addiction treatment stratagem, peopled by professionals with first-responder heroism encoded within their approaches, makes supportive gestures easier, confrontation of problem behavior more, shall we say, economical. Whoa, wait a minute, hold the phone, says a sex addiction specialist. Oh, I see. A dialogue:

Specialist: Are you saying that’s what a therapist would say to a non-acting out partner? We don’t give those kind of messages to non-acting out partners. Well, okay, we might say some of those things but not to encourage revenge, and you have to remember that most partners in these situations have been gaslighted and then traumatized by their discoveries. After all, do you have any idea what it’s like to pick up your partner’s phone, and by accident (maybe) read a thread between him and some other woman that is obviously sexualized, and know in your gut that it’s been going on for years. So of course we hold the acting out person’s feet to the fire. Of course we encourage polygraph tests, full disclosure. That’s necessary and fair for the partner so she can begin to heal…with the truth, the full truth of his past and present behavior. But anyway, we do counsel the women that the issue may be complex and that at some point it would be important to address in couples therapy some of the long-standing communication issues within the couple relationship.

Me: Really? At what point would you begin that?

Specialist: Well, we wouldn’t. Our program’s only two weeks long, so we’re more about offering support and education—getting them started, teaching them about addiction and coaching boundaries, that sort of thing.

Me: Ah yes, getting them started. Reminds me of the “let’s get ‘em in the door” ethos of drug treatment; the “let’s fill some beds” mantra that program administrators used to utter to intake coordinators. It’s familiar to me, that get-them-started-then-forget-em-when-they’re-gone thing.

Specialist: It’s not like that. We give them referrals to couples therapists, people who truly know about sex addiction and understand about the traumatic impacts upon partners

Me: So, that “complexity” you spoke of—is that a euphemism for shared responsibility for a bad relationship, or do you imagine or hope that follow-up support groups and couples’ therapy will fossilize the dichotomous roles of victims and perpetrator?

No answer. Or none that isn’t a glib reiteration of previous points, anyway. So much for dialogue. I’ll just cast my mind back to those scores of books and academic papers, or that conference or two where revered figures in our profession were asked before an earnest crowd, what are the most significant factors in a positive therapeutic outcome? The therapeutic relationship, a gnomic elder would reply. I know, because I’ve heard that response more than once, and I’ve watched intently as heads nod in acknowledgement of the word. The therapeutic relationship. It seems to say everything and nothing, doesn’t it? Maybe it sounds like an offhand remark, or a platitude, and perhaps it is, though it’s not quite the oldest idea in modern psychology. Freud took a while, I think, to come upon the idea of the transference-love phenomenon in analysis—or the transference-hate equivalent. Before this, he’d traversed failed experiments in hypnosis, techniques like the talking cure, even the more resilient practice of free association, until discovering that a patient’s resistance to care, based upon feelings transferred from prior experience and relationships, is the most important hurdle to surpass if treatment is to succeed. I think our profession’s truest elders still think this the key to positive outcomes. Free association, as in a stream of unfettered thought, doesn’t come easily, yet that outcome is more important than most people think. And a clinician’s countertransference is part of the equation: he or she uses their internal experience and reflects something back that points to something missing in the patient–a lost self experience, as many have written of it. It’s a slow process, one that may take months or even years.

There are many who enter a psychotherapy episode, or who provide care, who simply do not understand this mysterious exchange. Some may think the magic happens in moments of inspiration—change on a relative dime because of a divine taking in. Yes, you work through that conflict with that person whom you had to endure for a spell and later, when they’re gone and no longer stirring your resistance, you reflect upon how they really helped you, and so maybe you’ll go back one day and tell them how they changed your life by telling you a blunt truth days before never having to see you again. Yes, that’s how that happens. Do they last, these prescriptive plans, these outlines of change that many leave therapy with. Do those galvanizing confrontations that didn’t stick before stick ever after? We like to think so. If we’re honest, we think not.

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Money thinks

 

Stemming from the Latin addictio, meaning giving over or surrender, the term addiction has come to denote a provocative concept in modern mental health, stirring associations with significant behavioral disorders with a medical underpinning: the activation of a brain’s reward system, connected by neuronal pathways, leading to patterns of reinforced pleasure-seeking behavior despite the continuation of negative personal consequences connected with said behavior. In psychodynamic terms, addiction is perhaps a shorthand for another kind of unconscious yet unrepressed phenomena. No, I’m not referring to social prejudice—yet—but rather to what is broadly termed acting out: that is, acting out feelings versus being aware of and expressing them. “I’m not doing it on purpose”, says a relapsing, self-identified addict (and the listener wonders). “Not consciously,” I have sometimes responded, eliciting quizzical looks. What’s the difference, the eyes ask? These are meandering thoughts yet still brevities, offered for menu-style perusal in mine and Joe Farley’s book, Getting Real About Sex Addiction, which of course focuses on pleasure-seeking as it relates to sex, plus the fallout that typically ensues. This tends to include estrangement from committed partners (the most common pretext for treatment described in out book), which may or may not have existed prior to the onset of addictive behaviors, which lends itself to a sinewy and fascinating treatment process, minus the dirty details—the real stories, for the most part. Besides the medical/behavioral elements, moralism and ontological philosophy do hegemonic battle on this topic, with advocates for variably impacted groups offering views that privilege the groups they represent. It seems to my co-author and I that a mini-culture war pits intimate partners, genders, and even sexual minorities against one another, and it may be that neither the theorists, the psychiatrists, the partners’ advocates, the LGBTQ advocates, nor the 12-step confidantes have all the bases covered. In terms of who is getting closest to the truth, as in the dirty details and the real story of addiction, I’d vote for the satirists.

A few years before sex addiction was a commonly used term, an a priori disorder and a recognized thing, author Martin Amis did for sex addiction what David Foster Wallace would do for drug addicts a decade later in his encyclopedic magnum opus, Infinite Jest. Amis gave the reader a taste of the sex addict’s mind, of his manic turn of thought and phrase; of the inchoate mechanisms that generate decisions, process experience, emotion. In his novel Money, the acting out is unrepressed and rendered conscious (largely, anyway) for the reader’s voyeuristic (our acting out) or otherwise sublimated pleasure. Here, for example, is a passage about brothel economics and dissatisfaction:

That session with She-she had done me no good at all. Although I had tarried in the Happy Isles for well over an hour, the actual handjob was the work of a moment—forty-five seconds, I’d say. I had to rack my brains to remember a worse one. ‘You must have been really excited,’ said She-she quietly, as she started plucking tissues from the box. Yes and no. Between ourselves, it was one of those handjobs where you go straight from limpness to orgasm, skipping the hard-on stage. I think She-she must have activated some secret glandular gimmick, to wrap it up quickly.

Note the wry, detached voice. An astute ironist, Amis gave his protagonist, John Self (such a psychodynamic name!), an observant mind, and while Self is an ignorant slob with his fictional peers, he is literate with the reader, which gives us something to hope for. The addict thinks! Yes, he acts out: he is compulsive, ethically reprehensible; he is violent, exploitative, and shameless, yet his dignity persists because his humor, honesty and intelligence are intact, affording him a charismatic villain’s appeal. Because Self has no one to answer to except the invisible reader, he is guileless in his confidences, and also unembarrassed by the pitiful failures he shares for our pleasure. Without apology, he admits his affliction and defends it with proprietorial hunger:

Besides, pornography is habit-forming, you know. Oh yes it is. I am a pornography addict, for instance, with a three-mag-a-week and at-least-one-movie habit to sustain. That’s why I need all this money. I’ve got all these chicks to support…

Never mind the anachronisms, the essence of immersion, of relationship with anonymity, has likely not changed in the forty years since Amis’ seminal publication. Meanwhile, there is no shadow consumer, as I term long suffering, non-acting out partners in Getting Real, for this character to report back to. The imagined reader is his only judge, and while he or she may be disgusted or rendered indignant by the anti-hero’s shenanigans, there is collusion in being the reader; in being, in effect, no less a voyeur than if watching one of Self’s porn clips, plus his masturbatory routine. In a novel like Money, there is complicity alongside a critical witnessing. Author and protagonist take us on a tour of debauchery, and as a novel suggests drama, there is a crisis afoot for the reckless Self. Of course, before the written word, the reader has no responsibility beyond that of a passive confidante; unlike a therapist, he or she need not pretend to relate to or distance from the wayward behavior of the confessor. There are no goals for the reader to assert; no warnings that we have to issue, and no calamity that we have to do anything but wait for. And we don’t have to answer to a shadow consumer either.

As a result, we get more than we bargain for. More information, more insight, than we bargain for if we read a book like Money, which is about an addict and narcissist’s mind as it takes a treacherous journey. Self wonders aloud, plays with his own thought like an X-rated Richard III: What is this state, seeing the difference between the good and bad and choosing bad—or consenting to bad, okaying bad? For the struggling, recovering person who is not afraid to think his own thoughts, John Self is a learned companion in a study of pleasure and pain. And it’s not just about addiction, this book, but about the medium of porn, with its degenerate, inferior, yet truthful venture beyond repression barriers. See, it goes without saying that sex has always been in our music, our plays, films and books, yet I must say this a lot, I find, to people who don’t want to think about sex—not really. Still, we’ve insisted sex be present lest the action of art become dull and plainly unincentivized. We’ve asked only one thing across most contexts, across most societies: that sex appear artfully, perhaps subliminally, with reminders that we are more than our savage, venal and aggressive drives. Porn is therefore dangerous. It defies this traditional artifice, stripping us of our pretenses, and refusing to honor our niceties, or the institutions that require us to pretend so that civilization itself may continue. Yes, it’s that bad, porn. We hate it that much.

 

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