The group’s the thing

It’s a familiar routine. Someone calls a center, a “program”, which is comprised of therapists who will talk to the afflicted, make an appointment, perhaps several, about what will variously be termed “problem sexual behaviors” or “sexual acting out”, or some other euphemism for our typically chosen shorthand: sex addiction. That’s the term that’s gained a foothold in mental health even if it hasn’t yet found a home in diagnostic standards manuals. But it’s established itself in 12-step circles, as Sex Addicts Anonymous, or Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous, and if the 12-step community says sex addiction exists, then for many that’s good enough. I cover that issue in another blog, so for now, enough said on the “is sex addiction real?” question.

Less stridently, or implicitly, 12-step programs assert something else: that addiction ought to be spoken of in groups of people whose privacy is protected via an anonymity principle; by extension, treatment ought to happen in a semi-public forum that is not shaming but does hold individuals accountable for their behaviors, amongst a peer group, not just professionals whose personal experience of addiction may or may not become known. What does this mean? Well, the meaning is ambiguous, but we may see illustrations of process, which we do see in vignettes presented via Getting Real About Sex Addictionhttps://rowman.com/ISBN/9781538158050/Getting-Real-about-Sex-Addiction-A-Psychodynamic-Approach-to-Treatment, mine and Joe Farley’s book, due to be published early next year. Anyway, many programs purport to treat addiction offering group therapy as its primary format. Being exposed to other struggling or “recovering” addicts: it will help newcomers not feel alone in their patterns of destructive behaviors and obsessive thinking; it will place them in the company of those who will not “judge” them for their habits, but rather help them set limits, be honest about problems, and above all, leave isolation behind and seek fellowship.

Such a support system, whether it is led by a professional therapist or not, should help provide a struggling addict with a consistent structure in which to learn about addiction, understand what “triggers” problem behavior, and offer real choices—perhaps the first real choices some will have ever felt—with respect to alternative behaviors. What else can an addict do to seek pleasure? Are there really other ways to cope with compulsion, or states of restlessness and anxiety? When a relapse-prone group member is “struggling with addiction”, which may include succumbing to rationalizations, justifying so-called “middle circle”, slippery, or even worst-case scenario actions, a support group may “call out” the so-called BS of the struggler and challenge him or her to not act upon impulse—that is, to not engage in the behavior that is explicitly aggressive or sexual.

The problem with groups is that they don’t necessarily help people think about how they are thinking. Despite what Kant once said about all meaning being group meaning—that an event or phenomena occurs because a community says it has, or Freud’s assertion that individuals find in groups avenues for identification and “fitting in”, the psychology of groups is suspect. Freud had in part based his thinking upon the work of a contemporary “crowd psychologist”, Gustave Le Bon, who wrote that crowds are intolerant, more irrational, more heartless, immoral, exaggerating, and uninhibited in its expression. A group protects itself and unites against outsiders. Bion later followed this line of thought, teaching that groups tend to blame, to follow messianic or “mystic” leadership, or to bond in cliques, especially against perceived outsiders. This is why couples groups or co-ed groups are fewer and riskier. But this is also the biggest problem of sex addict or impacted (or betrayed partner) support groups that are homogenous, thus protecting members from shame or guilt exposing experiences, but also shielding them from what may be the most insightful or incisive of peer feedback.

Fear of persecution is a constant subtext of the (typically heteronormative) male sex addict therapy groups that I lead, and members are quick to “act out” their defenses against such fears, which is problematic because it tends to blunt self-reflection, with members unaware that their reactions to one another’s sharing are often governed by assumptions and prejudice. A good example is a group session wherein one member shares about exchanges with impacted partners or an observably punitive authority figure, like a boss or a teacher. Everyone fears authority—spouses being a kind of authority. A man reports that in the aftermath of a computer porn binge he sat with his wife who asked him what he’d been doing with his time, seemingly with a suspicious air. The man reports feeling guilty but also resentful, to which I later offer a chestnut about guilt and anger being symbiotic, with resentment following guilt as readily as the reverse phenomenon that is more conventionally understood. Regardless, it’s not clear whether guilt is useful as a deterrent against acting out. Or, paradoxically, is it something that is reduced by a further instance of acting out? Another man relates a scene of being exposed at work for having used porn on an office laptop, and thereafter called into a manager’s office for an HR rebuke.

In both cases, the response of each man’s group peers did not surprise me. In both cases, there were opportunities to explore guilt—not because I or anyone thought the men in question ought to feel guilty—but rather simply because they reported feeling so, only to then move away from that feeling, largely enabled by group response. Curious listeners, those attentive to feelings that are defended against, which tends to result in acting out or “addictive” habits, might support the opening of space for guilt to breathe, be thought about. However, the “supportive” prejudice of groups tends to work against this possibility, substituting in its place a bias that supports and therefore perpetuates defensive thinking, unfortunately. See, in the cases indicated, fellow group members, identifying with the horror of being exposed in the workplace, or “grilled” by a suspicious spouse, moved quickly to denounce the intrusiveness of the impacted spouse; the humiliating, sadistic intentions of a punitive workplace. The result was a fueling of resentment, not a contemplation of guilt or even ambivalence (both crucial for the examination of motivational behavior so often obscured by impulse), and much less a responsibility-taking plan.

In these and other instances, I usually find it necessary to confront not just an individual’s denial, but that of a group. Among other things, I offer—okay, I come close to insisting—that “acting out” isn’t only an explicitly sexual behavior signifying a sex addiction, but rather any action or thought that supports a defensive pattern, such as deflection from feeling, the indulgence of persecutory anxiety, for example. Even the most veteran of my group members have difficulty with this notion, for despite the intentions of mine and Joe Farley’s book, my sex addiction therapy groups are not specifically framed as psychodynamic in technique. My bad, I suppose, though I may defend myself on this point: I joined this sex addiction treatment milieu/subculture years ago, knowing that psychoanalytic thought was hardly the standard brought to the field—behavioral management was and still is, mostly because of people’s fears relating to sex and intimate relationships, not anything like medical necessity. Anyway, the guys in my groups know I believe in an unconscious, and they can just about tolerate my drawing attention to it (as a concept at least) ad nauseum. But they don’t know what psychoanalysis is—not really. However, I’m no different from them in the sense that I am subject to thinking patterns, reactivity, that governs my life more than I realize. It’s just that I’m in the habit—with help, actually—of thinking about how my mind works, and where the unknowing body and conscious process will typically follow. We might offer, in principle, that a mind can take responsibility for, as in acknowledge and allow feeling about, say, binging on porn at home, or stealing time at work for the same behavior—and also have room for a little indignation for witnesses, that oppressive boss or overbearing spouse. However, some may acknowledge how they can get lost in blame: start talking about the latter phenomenon at the expense of the former; have a sort-of 90-10 split between “I shouldn’t have been doing…” versus “that was messed up that he…”.

Another example, perhaps even plainer, or certainly cruder, in its language: a man reports in group that he is dating a woman he found via a dating site (Bumble) whose rule is that women must select male partners; interested male subjects can’t “initiate”. Ostensibly, this is about protecting vulnerable women from harassment/abuse but whose implications stretch beyond that worthy purpose. On an early date, the woman (somewhat predictably) volunteers that her past dating history has been fraught with creepy men who “only want to cum on her face”. In the aftermath of that exchange, the man in my group feels stung, rejected, and has settled into what he dubs “the friend zone” thinking that sex is off the table. Now, there are several issues here, but first I’ll touch on the group’s response, which is sympathetic and sort of strategic (how to keep an open mind) but nonetheless observant of an adversarial scenario. I mean it’s implicit. So, the group offers its jargony feedback replete with questions like “well, we’re you triggered by that?” or “how did that make you feel?” about which I have no complaint. Well, I kinda do, because after all, the reason the book’s called Getting Real is that I wish the language would be a little less polite sometimes; a bit more…to the point.

So anyway, I stir a dialogue. Firstly, I point out that the woman’s expression was predictable because both the zeitgeist and the dating website implicitly decreed that it would be women’s prerogative to declare, within the dating ritual, their negative experiences of men and to serve warning to seeming nice guys that such behavior won’t be tolerated. This implicit prerogative is being imparted as early as grade school probably; is reinforced throughout the time corridors of academia, and across social media so it’s no surprise it rears its prejudicial head during a nice evening out, so men in contemporary society either have to endure this phenomenon or withdraw, simply put. If men were using the dating scene to protest against women who are typically heavier than what they show in profiles, or women who seem drawn to men who are lavish with money, then they’d be called misogynists. The analogous trend, as first described in this paragraph, might be called misandry (the analogy to misogyny) if people knew that word, but they don’t generally. People know words that are drilled into their heads by media, and less so by academia which is progressively-leaning so it doesn’t teach concepts that don’t fit agendas. It’s a big word, misandry, but more importantly, a subversive, counter-revolutionary cue. Now, you may be wondering, was I really educating my group about marginalized concepts like misandry? Was I lecturing about the zeitgeists of the 21st century that put guilty and innocent men on the proverbial witness stand? No, actually I mentally parked most of that in order to ask a more salient question: “Well, do you want to cum on her face?”

The answer and the subsequent exchange is not the point. It got a laugh. Also not surprising. It broke the ice. Yeah, we don’t notice what we don’t notice. The group, as in the microcosm of society—indeed, of democratic community, by implication—is and was meant to help us not slip into the murky abyss of isolated thought, typically a defense. Problem is, groups are people too, and as many say in psychoanalytic circles, we don’t know what we don’t know.

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