Fishing for narratives

 

There’s a fair amount of gender stuff in this blog recently. That’s because there’s a lot of gender stuff in my forthcoming book, Getting Real About Sex Addiction. Inevitable, I think, when the dominant context in the field of treatment is heteronormative—meaning, aimed at heterosexual men. It gets tiresome reiterating this, given the zeitgeist demand for diversity. Even barely interested publishers want to know if mine and Joe Farley’s efforts would attend to the needs of sexual minorities. But sex addiction (SA) treatment’s dominant attention to the “needs” of heterosexual men is a fact in this country—one of not many facts, actually, in the field of SA treatment, but a fact nonetheless.

The demographics of treatment, plus the typical split-formats of group therapy in particular, enables a predictable positioning of men and women. These positions are girded by chestnut beliefs that permeate society, dominate pop psychology literature (at least), and thus infiltrate the offices of psychotherapists. I sometimes think that all one needs to be a therapist in the present dystopia is to have a sociology degree from university coupled with an accurate take upon what social and political beliefs reign in the community in which one practices. Thereafter, treatment models and theory is what you have to filter those beliefs, employing jargon so as to affirm whatever narrative is most palatable. Facts? Yes, there are facts, plenty of which are relevant to treatment, and depending upon the context, they may determine whether society invests money in mental health care. But make no mistake: in the absence of research that actually proves that one method, intervention, or “style” is most effective over time, our field of practice, following the dictates of consumerism, will pursue that which is quickest and cheapest, and with respect to gender issues—those narratives that are most familiar.

So, do I have specific examples of treatment-distorting narratives? Indeed I do. Take, for example, the commonly expressed view that the sex addiction construct “excuses” the behavior of afflicted individuals, in effect privileging heterosexual men unfairly. This view fits a prejudice of both progressive society and, in this context, also traditionalist observers, and so the narrative sticks. Only it’s BS. That’s right. I think wordpress allows the contraction. I’ve been treating individuals, couples, men and women who present on both sides of the acting out/non-acting out divide for nearly twenty years, and in my opinion, the opposite of the “excuse” narrative is more prevalent. The SA assessment (it’s still not a diagnostic category in this country) does not yield clemency for someone who cheats on his or her partner. Divorce or separation rates do not diminish because the specter of sex addiction has rendered conflictual couples more flexible in their mores. And as far as illegal activities are concerned, I find that courts and sex offender treatment “protocols” are largely unmoved when individuals claim that a progressive addiction is the cause of an unacceptable behavior. Crossing the line of moral horror is as much a criteria of addiction as frequency of behavior or states of craving, and the horrified—meaning the righteous onlookers—do not excuse.

Nor should they, I think, by which I simply mean that self-identified addicts shouldn’t be exempted from legal consequences that result from behaviors known to be illegal. The addict made a choice, I say, disagreeing with what some recovering addicts think. Nor do I think that impacted partners are obliged to forgive their addicted partners, especially if “forgiving” entails remaining in a relationship with a habitually slipping or relapsing addict. Still, the truer reductionism with respect to the term addict is one of scapegoating. Addiction, a concept borne as much via ontology as medical science, is often blamed for a crossection of habits that straddle behavioral, psychological, even spiritual manifestations. This is largely the influence of the 12-step community, which seeks to support individuals afflicted with what it thinks is a disease, though in personifying the problem of addiction (“my addict is telling me…”), it enables shorthand explanations that circumvent complexity, yielding facile and false narratives. As a result, potentially dynamic problems between couples are cast as the unilateral fault of “the addict”: “Typical addict. I ask him to pick up the kids after soccer practice, and of course he forgets…”

Therein lies a bridge to gender issues, which are also subject to reductionism and stereotype. Combined with the prejudices aimed at male sexuality, broader assumptions about male versus female traits deliver a hammer blow to heterosexual men in sex addiction treatment. In drawing attention to the circular logic that pervades my field, I wrote in Getting Real about the assumptions of masculine privilege that underlay interventions and imagined what eating disorder treatment might be like if corresponding biases prevailed in that context. Are women privileged in representing the majority of admissions to eating disorder treatment? Do men, by implication, find it more difficult, more stigmatizing, to admit problems related to losing or gaining weight, and does the construct of “eating disorder” shield or excuse women (mostly) from moral judgements that might otherwise be aimed at them: the imputation of greed, for example. Well, excessive eating (or the reverse, self-starvation) does induce moral judgements, but not as much as sex does, and feminists and traditionalists ally in the belief that pornography and prostitution are immoral entities, either because they promote exploitation or promiscuity.

More skewed narratives, I write in Getting Real. I don’t dispute the progressive premise, which observes exploitation of women’s sexuality, ignoring promiscuity unless there are power differentials, like someone paying or being in charge—plus someone getting paid, behaving subserviently. Unlike social conservatives, progressives object to power differentials that they deem institutionalized, though like conservatives, they are selective as to what they think exploitative, and like conservatives, they appear to sanctify sex more than any other human behavior. Ostensibly, the exploitation of violence is likewise objectionable, but close inspection suggests not. For example, in response to January’s SuperBowl event, I’ve heard numerous women—menu feminists, I call them—complain that the game’s vaunted halftime show, featuring scantily-clad Jennifer Lopez and Shakira, was yet another example of patriarchal culture objectifying women (it didn’t seem to matter that the female performers in question clearly chose their roles and likely earned a lot of money). None of these women remarked on the main event, which featured similarly well-paid gladiators, many of whom will be crippled if not brain-damaged by middle age, all for the entertainment of our Pax Romana—sorry, American—dream. They chose their roles as well, of course. Or, does anyone really choose, I hear some asking?

The professions of fisherman, electricians, roofers, and landscapers have two things in common. Firstly, they are all male-dominated professions. This fact alone would reinforce for many a belief that masculine privilege reigns in our present-day society: the term “male dominance” linked psychically with male advantage. Fact number two might muddy the waters of what is known versus what is presumed. Those same four professions are above firefighters, policemen, and apparently military personnel in a Bureau of Labor report indicating the most dangerous jobs in the United States, based upon an aggregate of workplace injuries and time off work. How privileged am I as a psychotherapist to not worry about electrocuting myself, or slipping off a roof or a high tree, or—I guess—a fishing boat? Who knew: that’s the most dangerous job of all, apparently. The French analyst Jacques Lacan wrote that mental processes issue from an intertwining—what he termed a Borromean knot—comprised of three realms: the imaginary, the symbolic, and the real. The imaginary contains proto-concepts born of imagery, our intrinsic narcissism; our earliest split-recognitions of self and other. The symbolic represents such representations via language, via laws and social structures—the unconscious organization of society. The realm of the “real” exists beyond what is known—beyond the not-quite language that brings us “addiction”, and reality-approximating words like “standards”, “protocols”—to the imperceptible. The blockage of the real exists in our repetitions, which represent our beating-our-heads-against attempts to contrive. Lacan called this our automaton behavior. The imperative of moral equivalence (a lingua favorite of progressives, I notice) gets employed to reduce discussion, cast opinion as fact, to dismiss narratives that don’t fit with an orthodox message.

Alright then, let’s compare an iconic women’s movement moment with an unrecognized as such yet contemporaneous watershed in the cause of men: the burning of the bra was about sexual and economic freedom, the former proceeding from the latter. The burning of the draft card was about not dying at the behest of authority.

We get that it is true, what Lacan taught. We get it and we don’t.

 

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