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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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Sex gone sitcom

 

So, like I wrote before, I’m writing about sex. Or rather, I just got done writing about sex, only there keeps being more to say about it, kinda like there will ever be more sex to be had not long after sex is done. Sex never stops. It never really goes away.

So I invited a friend of mine, Joe Farley, a fellow therapist and “Mastersonian” (more on that…I don’t know, sometime), to write a book with me, about sex addiction (SA). I’d written about this subject before, allusively, in a novel entitled Venus Looks Down On A Prairie Vole. Not many read it so it won’t matter too much if I repeat myself, though now the context will be non-fiction, and the very non-fictional context that is my private practice work. I asked Joe to join me on this project because a year ago, as I was finishing up the Tommy book that would later win the hearts of Kirkus reviewers, he seemed to be thinking and talking a lot about how couples in his practice weren’t getting along—I mean, really not getting along: about how women were too angry and men were too detached and wounded or something. Much of this comment was tangential to the subject of sex addiction treatment, which Joe and I have a foot in the door of, sort of, and which I had been planning to write more about for some time. Neither of us are specialists in this area, which doesn’t mean we don’t know much about sex addiction, or even that we don’t know as much as anyone else in the field of psychotherapy, necessarily. It means that we don’t have the certificate one gets if taking a few CEUs pertaining to the concept of SA, which means learning some facts about widespread the problem is, plus a few strategies on how to address the matter with afflicted individuals and the loved ones that are impacted by it all—basically, how to be nicer than society generally is about the matter of sex addiction but still not nice enough so as to inform would be sex addicts how their behaviors are actually not very nice in a destructive way, and especially not nice for their long-suffering partners.

Please excuse my flippancy. Know that I’m at least sincerely flippant. My year-long toil on this project has left me feeling a bit like Stanley Kubrick as he prepared to film Dr. Strangelove: as seriously as I take this subject, I can’t stop laughing. Joe and I bring our respective attitudes to our writing, which included thinking that most of the literature we’d read over the last decade about sex addiction was dull, officiously directive, and simple-minded. Moved to draw upon our not inconsiderable experience and to offer a perspective from the psychodynamic road less traveled (at least, when addiction is being talked about, anyway), we set about the task of assembling vignettes, explications of theory that were actually represented in typical sex addiction treatment models, only they weren’t being properly credited in our view. As the sex addiction concept and label is quite controversial, we’d write from within its framework and around it, describing people who didn’t necessarily identify as sex addicts, and situations that weren’t plainly circumscribed by the sex addiction idea. I further found that the more I researched, reviewed cases, and wrote, the more I thought that the issues to be confronted were polarized around gender.

The following is a stereotypical presentation immortalized in popular culture, and after twenty years, roughly, of treating couples, I think I understand its infamy.

In this scenario we have on the one hand what I think is a woman preoccupied in her attachment style: she is clinging, fretful in relationships, and sometimes distancing in bursts. She is prone to sudden break-ups with men, dramatized by diatribes that are embroidered by quasi-feminist cant: she is “empowered” as she gets rid of the jerk who keeps hurting her feelings, whether he intends to or not. Along with him, she evacuates her feelings with the dirty bathwater, and announces an end to an affair. Only it’s not an end. It’s a time-out. Or, it’s a rupture that the unwitting partner is meant to repair. Either way, it’s simply an event within continuity, and the relationship, which hasn’t really ended as a result of this turmoil, is the thing.

The ever shrugging, baffled male partner will soon be making his stolid counter-point, re-enacting an iconic sit-com moment with the line, “We were on a break!” or the expanded incredulity of “She broke with me!” To explain away an alleged infidelity, he is uber rationalist, committed to logic and order—the common sense of his sense, that relationships end and therefore people move on. *Cue the bit where the woman responds by casting this aloof, freedom-privileging stance as that of a trauma-inducing, Gaslighting partner—a rebuke coached by her sex addiction specialist therapist. As for the man, all his commander Spock-like affectation might seem real if it wasn’t punctuated with impulsive or pleasure-seeking behaviors: clandestine hook-ups carelessly referenced on social media; altered states of intoxication, and destructive displays of temper. Ordinarily, as in by the light of day, his inner experience—his uncertainty—is concealed beneath his affectless front. It is suggested by the likelihood that aspects of his pleasure seeking, like flirting or engaging sexually with women other than his preoccupied mate began sometime before the “break up” that subsequently justified that same behavior.

In our forthcoming book, Getting Real About Sex Addiction, scenarios like these are mostly discussed in the context of addiction, and not so much the broader, protean world of sexual mores that authors like Esther Perel are commenting upon and thus stirring the modern pot. But there are passages in our text where the space opens in the treatment plan, and the conversation drifts from orthodoxy to what’s happening between people who are in intimate relationships but do not understand one another. In our view, the sex addiction concept complicates but sometimes narrows the discussion around sexual conflict, framing an issue so that sides are chosen rather than problems understood.

 

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