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.