“In the books, they say, rather wistfully, that men want to put their faces there. Return to mother, Keith. But I don’t agree. I don’t think men want to put their faces there.”
“Let me tell you what women want. They all want to be in it. Whatever it is. Among themselves they all want to be bigger-breasted, browner, better in bed—all that. But they want a piece of everything. They want in. They all want to be in it. They all want to be the bitch in the book.”
—from London Fields, by Martin Amis
So we come to the topic of female sex addicts and the social/political undercurrents that shape the treatment of them. Nowhere in the realm of sex addiction treatment is the specter of gender bias more apparent than in this supposedly lesser studied area. As we might say in our book (and we don’t typically, to avoid cheesiness), let’s get real about something: the average therapist in this country, and certainly in California, is not a patriarchy-imposing old white male with a bow tie dispensing turgid interpretations with an air of aloofness. It (or, excuse me, she) is a white female, educated at varying points over the last 50 years, who talks a lot about “systems”, aims words like boundaries, empowerment at women especially, which is code for go for that position on that soccer team, go for that job or promotion, make sure you’re making as much money as men, and only have sex when you really want to. With male patients that tactical stance shifts. With men the tendentious terms are vulnerability, intimacy, comprising a code that says go home, help with the domestic chores, cook a meal or two, pick up that daughter from soccer practice, and with respect to sex, “hey, have you thought about what she thinks is sexy?”
See, the problem mainstream society has with Freud is not just that he told women they have penis envy, or that men are superior to women (actually, he thought the reverse in some ways), or that he told some women that their sexual victimizations were all in their heads, reflecting their desirous fantasies, not the revulsion contained in their symptoms (we only know that because he copped to this, in a famous case called Dora). It’s that he and his followers continued to follow Superego guidelines which instruct boys to identify with fathers, separate from mothers, and more or less adapt to and follow a traditionalist path versus the noble trail of social revolution. Therefore, latter day progressives, if they are inclined towards psychoanalysis or the exploration of the unconscious, tend to prefer the likes of Jung or Winnicott, or modern inter-subjectivists who instruct men to fem up, support the levelling of fields, do the equality thing, which means surrendering to inequality in some contexts, which is what the field leveling alludes to. Well, as mine and Joe Farley’s book and this blog often imply, it’s problematic if understandable to treat individuals not as individuals but rather as group representatives. Our book is more about helping individuals, not systems, which paradoxically meant devoting considerable print to how sex addiction treatment programs subtly background individuals within a systemic framework. The stories of individuals are richer, if diluted by generalities, the intrusions of groupthink. As for helping, as I consider that task in itself, our book isn’t necessarily “helpful” in the conventional sense of healing anyone or anything, much less a non-leveled system, with anything except thought. As much as anything, we just wanna say how things are.
Years before writing Getting Real About Sex Addiction, I’d talk with female therapists who either specialized in sex addiction or else worked with individuals and couples whose lives were impacted by this much-debated, is-this-a-thing condition. If a patient in question was a partner of an identified sex addict, they’d be called an impacted partner, or sometimes a betrayed partner; once they were called co-addicts—not so much anymore. Female sex addicts were and are another breed of client, lesser spotted in treatment circles, or lesser identified as such, anyway. Called Love addicts, maybe, which sounds nicer: you love, not so much lust. As for their partners, they’d be called…well, I’m not sure what they’d be called, actually, especially if they are male. Angry, unforgiving, abusive or potentially abusive men, if the decrees of my female colleagues were to be accepted—not “betrayed” partners. See, female sex addiction is a relatively rare bird. Not much has been written on the subject. Supposedly not much research has been done, and our text only references one book that is entirely devoted to it: Marnie Ferree’s edited 2013 volume, Making Advances: a comprehensive guide for treating female sex and love addicts. Therefore, despite the widespread understanding that sex addiction is a “pathologizing” label, the paucity of study about female sex addicts is cast as systemic neglect of women. As a system we are denying help borne of stigmatizing labels. Reminds me of the reductio ad absurdum from Dr. Strangelove: “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here, this is the war room!”
Humor. My deflection, my coping with absurdity, revealing yet also distancing, because humor reveals what is out of synch—that I am out of synch with the times. Like Italian cinema of the early sixties (yeah, I know—not exactly trending), I leave the surfaces of earnest realism (*my bicycle has been stolen!), and spend time with interior lives, the contemplation of what’s happening on the inside. Humor draws attention to the contradictions, presenting a surprise, which shames, embarrasses, causes us to cover our mouths, our eyes. We laugh. We laugh it off. I have tried to laugh off contradiction and absurdity, being out of synch with the times, the zeitgeist that psychotherapists like to think they’re in front of. Stigma. That’s the reason women don’t enter therapy for the treatment of sex addiction. That’s an opinion I’ve heard numerous times from my fellow therapists—women mostly. The likelihood that most SAs enter treatment under duress having been “discovered” (thus rendering the prospect of “choosing treatment” moot) is ignored by the former argument. Anyway, the argument persists: to identify as a female sex addict is to risk hearing epithets like “slut” or “nymphomaniac”. From whom would they hear this in sex addiction treatment? Scores of slut-shaming, patriarchy-imposing male therapists who dominate our field in 2022 while feminist-leaning women struggle to achieve a foothold in the profession? Hmm…regardless, I’m sure men have it way easier: they only have to put up with terms like “pig”, “dog”, “pervert”, “gender violence perpetrator” or “asshole” from their relatively forgiving, not-as-angry, traumatized and sympathetic partners, and maybe the labels sex addict and narcissistic personality disorder from therapists who have so worked through their countertransference issues and wouldn’t dream of using clinical language to disguise ad hominem attacks.
Sarcasm. Yes I know. Very declasse of me. Anyway, back to the narratives: female sex addicts are continuously neglected by a pathologizing sex addiction treatment industry, and—let’s not forget—also by impacted male partners who somehow neglect to employ that mythical plurality of patriarchy-imposing male clinicians. Or, unlike girlfriends and wives, they simply overlook the option of mandating their female partners into treatment with relational ultimatums, or polygraph exams or uber-dignified “full disclosure” exercises to elicit honesty, hold accountable the assh—sorry, the empathy-deserving afflicted. When will women be granted the kind of celebratory, loving attention that Tiger Woods publicly received, or that Anthony Weiner once enjoyed to the benefit of his political career, or that jettisoned Pee Wee Herman into a career strato…wait, what happened to him?
Okay, stop it now
The men who take part in my therapy groups have gotten the updated memos. They’ve been told they are privileged so their sexually addictive behaviors will be excused by a society that simultaneously deems their behavior objectifying and indecent, unlike female sex addiction which is more relational, part of a misguided yet somehow less abusive repertoire of self-discovery. Well, they’re not paying for it, you see. Notwithstanding virtue-signaling terms like “self-discovery”, which attaches so-called problem behaviors to the cause of sexual freedom, or capitalist hypocrisy (some things we shouldn’t pay for. Really? I can think of worse things than sex that we contentedly pay for, regularly), or the thin tissue of horseshit that our profession pathologizes female sexuality more than it does that of men, those who proclaim that sex addiction is an excuse think that what constitutes an “excuse” is any response to sexually deviant or acting out behavior that is anything less than punitive action—ostracism, incarceration, castration, etc.—and is tantamount to an unjust act of clemency towards those who act with exploitative and objectifying intent, especially towards women. Given how disproportionately the term sex addiction is aimed at men versus women, it’s transparent that the concept of sex addiction lends women a 21st century narrative via which they can derogate male sexuality: in particular, male partners whose frequency of desire outstrips their own, or whose non-monogamist thinking, at least, may be religiously or irreligiously impugned.
Which prompts a return to female sex addicts, whom we still neglect with our helpful-if-pathologizing sex addict labels, even in an essay that was meant to be about them: in Making Advances, the authors argue, “women are different than men. Their brains are different, socialization is different”. Further, they assert that women do best when a therapist is sensitive to their attachment histories, injuries and attachment needs. Now, do they mean to imply that men’s needs are not governed by trauma and attachment needs, or less so? Perhaps not, but given that these recommendations were delivered in the same passage as the “women are different” platitudes, one would think an inference along those lines could be made. Imagine if books, pundits, podcast-pontificators started calling out misandry the way they call out the misogyny of male sex addicts. Imagine if they knew the word misandry. Imagine if they started calling what female sex addicts do hate, not trauma; misandry instead of the tendentiously circular “internalized misogyny”; “toxic femininity” instead of sexual empowerment; sex addiction instead of its ennobling synonym, love addiction. Would their treatment still be condemned as “slut-shaming”? Recently, I’ve been hearing of men and women leaving marriages, seeking divorce because a partner won’t accept transition to a polyamorous lifestyle. Is that not a betrayal of a contract? is it a form of sexual entitlement, of “gender-based violence”? I’d bet that a woman leaving a marriage under that pretext is hearing from a progressively-minded therapist, someone who otherwise espouses betrayal trauma something like, “well, you’re exploring different sides of yourself for the first time”—said with airs of sympathy.
Referring to the mythos of the ages, I refer in mine and Joe’s book to the legends of Uranus and Orpheus to represent the images that men hold in feminist society as rapists, seducers, opportunists…gazers. Elsewhere, I expound upon the Madonna-Whore complex, a mythopoeic term coined by Freud to denote the dichotomizing (splitting) of women by men into irreconcilable images: the ideal of the nurturing, wholesome woman versus the demeaned, sexualized “whore”, reflecting a struggle to overcome unconscious, Oedipal taboos against that which stirs sexual feelings towards anything resembling the maternal. In deference to the modern zeitgeist, I could have pointed to the Minotaur, the half-man, half Taurus who rapes and cannibalizes a hapless female virgin in The Labyrinth—the sculpted image of which caused a stir when presented by modern artist Damien Hirst. What a fuss, but also what a capturing of man’s present-day image. This conjuring precedes the man, not the woman who enters sex addiction treatment in contemporary culture, for there is little in trending or mythopoeic thought that draws attention to the ways women dichotomize men. What? You don’t even know what I’m talking about? Well, does the term Saint-Brute mean anything to you? Don’t you love a man in uniform, the guy with the snarl and the six-pack abs, and not so much that “nice guy” whom you later (like, when it’s time to “settle down”) declare is sexy because of his “acts of service”? The guy who is the “right” choice even though he’s a bit dull for you? Getting warmer? Anyway, that’s sidelined, cryptic thought, and things will remain this way until unctuous yet well-positioned thought-shapers decide that fields have been sufficiently leveled, human beings can go back to being individuals instead of group representatives, and gender commentary in our media and academic circles achieves a state of genuine parity.
So, what am I saying of my female colleagues, most of whom I don’t know closely, with respect to how they treat male versus female sex addicts? And have I truly examined my own biases when I treat men versus women? I’ll certainly admit that more men come to me with the term sex addict poised upon their lips, at least in part because the term has been directed at them. Women? Not so much. They utter the term nervously, querulously, as if performing a reconnaissance of themselves, the concept, of me as a would-be listener, and possible judge. They’ve talked to women before, you see, and they’ve felt something odd: a mix of pious adherence to the zeitgeist values of the day—that you go, girl ethos that would protect women from slut-shaming society, blended with a sense of a familiar disdain. The modern ethos can’t quite block it out, it seems, and the women I talk to still perceive it, still feel the sting of the old Superego within the post-modern “be accountable” verbiage. Me, I’ll reference the buzz words, the subscriptive jargon, but usually with an air of otherness—I’ll observe it, detach myself from advocacy, and remain credulous of something undiscovered. I’ll ask the same questions of women that I’ll ask of men. I won’t point fingers with moralistic intent, figuratively or not. I’ll ask what is the impact upon significant others rather than instruct, or educate. I’ll ask patients to think, not to substitute my thinking for an absence of it. But I won’t collude with reversed, neo-double standards that my profession pretends don’t exist**. If you’re a first-time reader of this blog, you may not know what I’m getting at. Or maybe you will. Think of it this way: it’s 2022, not 1989. Take a look around, have a listen. Note the jargon that prevails in the Psychology Today articles, the latest books by Rebecca Solnit or Terrance Real; what the bumper stickers say; what tweets get re-tweeted versus ignored or excoriated.
*an allusion to Vitorio De Sica’s 1948 film, The Bicycle Thief
**Ask an average SA specialist why fewer women than men are assessed and treated as sex addicts and they’ll likely say that there are fewer resources for women than men for the treatment of SA: this is BS in my opinion as it ignores the fact that 70% of licensed psychotherapists are women; or else it implies that practitioners must have the relatively slight Certified Sex Addiction Therapist (CSAT) credential (a referral base which may be lesser comprised of women) in order to treat SA. I think the plurality of women in the field of psychotherapy are more than capable, qualified (and certainly willing) to speak to women about their sexual behavior, whether it’s addictive or not, a problem behavior or not. BTW: SA specialists might also imply that SA is primarily a men’s issue, hence the disparity in care, though this sets up yet another circular argument within this field.