Not a good thing, we’re told, especially in the context of addiction. Isolation: has a negative connotation, don’t you think? Not like the word “alone”. In Getting Read About Sex Addiction, Joe Farley and I make several references to aloneness, isolation, or else we spin polemics about the pros and cons of doing things by oneself. Sex addiction seems like a loner’s pastime. Porn addicts do it alone, then keep what they do secret, which furthers the aloneness. Affair-seekers probably boast more about sexual conquests, just as they always have, but they’re even more secretive, or glib about their habits, for they have even more trouble to avert; more to lose, it often seems. Isolation. More than most addictions (excepting that of food, maybe), sex addiction happens in isolation, and is talked about in peer circles the least, hence the solution of groups, and of disparaging isolation, if not quite aloneness, within the milieus that treat this still-mooted condition.
The ways to be alone, let us count the ways: well, first of all, those who wear labels like sex addiction absorb the pathology of a system. Within a family, and especially a dyad, as in a couple, the addict holds the “badness” of a relational problem. He or she is the problem, which is isolating. Our book critiques the habit of splitting as it manifests in many forms, and offers that sex addiction, while useful as a signifier of phenomena, ought to be carefully, not impulsively assigned. Furthermore, we cast doubt on terms like “perpetrator” and “victim”, which split matters into good and bad, right and wrong, which renders problems facile; histories reduced to recent events, not dense, developmental histories. Otherwise, we refer to isolation in several other contexts, applying nuanced meanings: referring to the “incipient shame” of the addict, suggesting an early development dimension to their affective leanings; that an addict or “acting out person” isolates his or her affect, which means directing feelings towards action, not thought or feeling, which cues the therapeutic solution: let’s talk. The associated institution of 12 step recovery echoes the ethos that self-expression within a nurturing environment is an antidote to an isolationist pattern.
Not everything that happens alone is pathologized in our writing. To be that rigid in our thinking would exhibit splitting; it would suggest a paucity of thinking. Thinking. We tend to think it happens alone, away from the noise of a crowd, but we extol its practice in collaboration. Collaboration: now there’s a loaded word, another term that casts a shadow upon aloneness. Be a team player. Don’t go it alone. Well, okay, but this paragraph is meant to represent another view, the virtues of being alone. In our first chapter, I refer to the “mischief” of breaking rules, of testing boundaries that represent authority, the group, society—all because…well, because there’s something good, something irresistible and actually worthy about going it alone. So, we thumb our noses, do our own thing at times, practice what I term (not unique to me) anodyne sexuality, like flirting, which hangs perilously close to an abyss of verboten sex, depending upon who is doing the flirting and in what context. We might agree about the new rules, or as society extols paradoxically, we might think for ourselves, do our thinking alone.
The habit of going alone while stepping on others’ toes (Freudians take note) has been given another pathologizing label: narcissism. In sex addiction treatment, this aged construct has been co-opted by practitioners and lay observers alike, and now has the status of corollary to a sex addiction assessment. Pity, for its another saturated concept that has been reduced in the service of splitting arguments, the outrage of the betrayed or the plainly envious. It’s not that the condition doesn’t exist. Yes, narcissism is a thing. But its offhand attribution, the shoot-from-the-hip assignment to patients in sex addiction treatment bristles against conscience. I suppose Freud pathologized the condition also, by implication. Originally, as in 1914, he wrote that infants exhibit primary narcissism, a state of auto-erotic being before cathecting their sexuality to caregivers (dubbed objects, hence object relations theory), and upon resolution of Oedipal taboos, towards genital sexuality and the selection of post-pubertal partners. From this notion of auto-eroticism, many presume immaturity and pathology to the alone state, thinking it a slippery slope towards inflatedness, arrogance, and lack of empathy for others—the familiar catalogue of narcissistic traits.
While Heinz Kohut gets much credit for having carved out a space for so-called “healthy” narcissism since the 1970s, the term has hardly left the closet of weaponized terms, thus narcissist and sex addict have become virtual synonyms in the 21st century. And remember, in the sex addiction lexicon you’re a narcissist whether you’re a habitual masturbator (being alone) or exploiting others, using others’ bodies as masturbation tools instead of practicing sexuality with an air of presence, consideration for the other, with generous attention to foreplay, emotional nurturing, passionate interplay, play of a sexual kind—all the virtues that someone has decided represents non-addictive, non-isolationist, sexual health. In this model, masturbation generally gets a bad rap, being the pastime of the anti-social if, perhaps, the socially undesirable. But not all famous theorists have denigrated the masturbatory, go-it-alone tradition. By implication, at least, psychoanalytic hero D.W. Winnicott was perhaps a champion of what he won’t have called self-abuse. Read “The capacity to be alone” from 1958. Yes, that’s right: the fifties. Not exactly the era of sexual revolution. In this paper, Winnicott writes of the capacity be alone as a developmental triumph, not a pathology. It is a signal of maturity, of what others might term secure attachment, to accept being alone, even in the presence of the other. And he was writing of a child’s experience. What’s a later version? Think for yourself while listening to others. That’s one example. Do some things by yourself. Have fantasies, even those of the so-called primal scene, by yourself, because to share on that is TMI. Even do it by yourself.