The idea of sexual pleasure as a harmful addiction parallels the most perverse aspects of Western religious history.
American befuddlement over matters of sex is on the increase, in spite of the fact that one can hardly imagine the subject becoming more befuddling to the people of this country than it already is.
Sex addiction is the latest star in America’s sexual burlesque. Sex addiction has of course been a malaprop from its first usage. Addiction was originally and properly defined as a physiological dependence on a substance to which the body had grown accustomed, such as alcohol, nicotine, heroin and various other drugs. The cure was to end the dependency and abstain from further use of the substance in order to avoid a recurrence of the physiological dependency. These treatments do work and many people have been cured of their addictions and never returned to the addictive substance.
Applying such a metaphor to sexual pleasure creates a misleading and ominous innuendo. Sex is not an addictive substance. It’s a human interaction on which the survival of the species is dependent. It is also possibly the most pleasurable and sought after activity known to humankind, and arguably an experience no one should be deprived of. Most normal people consider more rather than less sexual pleasure to be a major objective in life.
Following the substance abuse mode implies that the only cure for an addiction to sexual pleasure would be a celibate or monastic life, a complete renunciation of the alleged addictive sexual pleasure.
The very idea of sexual pleasure as a harmful addiction plays precisely into the hands of one of the most perverse aspects of Western religious history, namely the teaching that sex is a work of the devil redeemed only by the act of procreation itself. Reliance on the notion of sex addiction in counseling and psychiatric treatment is ominous.
Christianity as a world religion has much to commend it on balance. Nevertheless, its posture toward sexual pleasure has been abysmal. In that respect it should be noted that Christianity, of all the major world religions, is the only one to cast sexual pleasure in such a negative light. Never mind that Christianity’s distaff side – Protestants and others – challenged such negativity toward sexual pleasure. They were eventually and unfortunately drowned out in the debate. It is no coincidence that currently the most Christian of nations, the U.S., is also the most negative toward sexual pleasure. (And at the same time the most confused sexually.) Europe as gone blessedly post-Christian.
We must suspect that the sex addiction proponents unconsciously wish to rebuild something like the medieval Christian social order where virtually every cultured and literate person was bereft of sexual pleasure for life, save for sexual pleasure in the service of procreation
Some psychiatrists are now getting into the fray, offering treatment for sex addiction. However, the Bible of psychiatry, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), is currently being prepared for its 5th edition, and is wisely declining to introduce sex addiction to its manual. It does, however, come close by introducing the category of hypersexuality as a mental disorder. This neologism is the editors’ own special, and arguably less troublesome, substitute for sex addiction. But as the saying goes, it walks like the proverbial sex addiction duck.
The pundits are now weighing in on the new DSM 5. Allan Frances in The Los Angeles Times is worried that philanderers and rapists will now be able to claim mental illness as a defense of their anti-social behavior and thereby escape punishment. George Will in The Washington Post astutely raises the problem of medicalizing the assessment of character, which he unaccountably blames on liberals. I thought I was a liberal, but I’m as concerned as Will about defining character or the lack thereof as a burden of psychiatric diagnosticians. And by extension, character as an expected outcome of proper medication.
So now according to the working version of the new DSM-5, psychiatrists will be able to assess whether one is having too much sex, or even whether one simply wants too much sex. Or too little. They will presumably have some kind of measuring rod to determine what is too much or too little.
This new project, of assessing who might be wanting or getting too much sexual pleasure, or too little, should create many more jobs for psychiatrists. We’ve been needing something to improve the job market. Maybe this will do it. Perhaps psychiatry will now join hands with the worst elements of Christianity and recreate the medieval Christian dream, a world where the only sexual pleasure allowable is that accidentally associated with the desire to procreate.
Raymond J. Lawrence is an Episcopal cleric, recently retired Director of Pastoral Care, New York Presbyterian Hospital, and author of numerous opinion pieces in newspapers in the U.S., and author of the recently published, Sexual Liberation: The Scandal of Christendom (Praeger). He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org