Are You a "Sex Addict?"

By Rachel Kramer Bussel

Kevin Federline accused Britney Spears of being one, Gerald Ford thought Bill Clinton was one (and Clinton has had counseling for it), British comedian Russell Brand just came out as one, and Halle Berry's ex-husband Eric Benet sought treatment for it. But who's really a sex addict, and does it matter?

Sex addiction can be a real problem, but it can also be a way to hide from responsibility for one's actions, while blaming sex and sexual expression for the ills of society, including your own behavior. That's too easy of a scapegoat. Michael Leahy, who claims that pornography "ruined his marriage," has now found a new career preaching his anti-porn gospel to college students. A recent article states:

"I cheated on my wife, I broke my kid's hearts, I lied pathologically for years," Leahy said. "I knew what it meant to say you're a sinner."

For this reason, Leahy said he feels the call to talk to students, because anywhere from 6 to 8 percent of them might be in the same position he was, and he wants them to know they are not alone.

"Sex is front and center in our world today," Leahy said. "What you feed grows and what you starve dies."

I'm not sure how Leahy goes from eluding responsibility to then blaming sex itself. He even coins the phrase "sex syndrome" to "describe weakness sometimes brought on by the hyper-sexed media and pornography." This is a dangerous, alarming, and problematic way of thinking which is insulting to men, reducing them to mere automatons ready to lap up any message sent to them, unable to separate fantasy from reality.

The confusion over the line between healthy sexuality and sex "addiction" is crystal clear from the Sex Addiction Screening Test (SAST). According to the site, it was "[d]eveloped in cooperation with hospitals, treatment programs, private therapists, and community groups, the SAST provides a profile of responses which help to discriminate between addictive and non-addictive behavior." Questions range from "Have you regularly purchased romantic novels or sexually explicit magazines?" and "Have you regularly engaged in sadomasochistic behavior?" to "Have you traded sex for money or gifts?" and ends with "Have you been paid for sex?" The 45 questions are all over the map, probing intense issues with yes or no answers as well as other relatively common activities which are cast in a negative tone by dint of their inclusion (watching porn, BDSM).

Let's take the ridiculously vague question, "Do you hide some of your sexual behaviors from others?" I'd bet that anyone answering honestly would say a big, fat yes to that one. Even those of us who are somewhat exhibitionistic likely do not tell everyone we meet how we last got laid. Or what about "Have you used the internet to make romantic or erotic connections with people online?" Who knew that online dating was a precursor to sex addiction?

As it turns out, I don't meet the criteria for sex addiction, but as a person who cares about the state of human sexuality, I'm appalled at the sex-negative tone of this supposedly scientific, doctor-approved quiz. (If you're curious, I answered "yes" to questions 3, 5, 28, 36, 37, and 39). If you're looking to label anyone who consumes sexual media, hasn't always been interested in monogamy, has done any form of sex work, or, at some point, might have found sex anything but perfect, then by all means, use this assessment. But sex addiction is not something that can be simply or easily codified. Someone might have sex with a different partner every week (or more frequently) and not be a sex addict, but simply someone who enjoys sexual variety. Likewise, if you're locked in your basement 24/7 and don't seek any other sexual outlet aside from pornography, you may be (but are not necessarily) a sex addict, even though you're celibate. But who's making these judgments? MSNBC's Brian Alexander rightly points out that the these questions are hopelessly vague, and could potentially snare anyone in their net, as well as the fact that sex addiction is not recognized in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders).

Sex Addicts Anonymous, a "spiritual program" modeled on Alcoholics Anonymous, offers resources to those who need help, including a 12-question test that's at least a little more focused than the SAST (Sample questions: "Do you frequently want to get away from a sex partner after having sex? Do you frequently feel remorse, shame, or guilt after a sexual encounter?").

Sex addiction is also being seen in books and pop culture, where hopefully it'll get a more nuanced treatment than it tends to in news reports, where typically the self-proclaimed addict is intent on issuing multiple mea culpas, rather than exploring the complexity of the topic. I'm looking forward to reading Go West Young F*cked-Up Chick author Rachel Resnick's memoir Love Junkie, coming out next year from Bloomsbury. It tells "the story of one woman's dangerous addiction to sex and love. Rachel was a writer living in LA but put her creative energy into romantic obsessions, which almost destroyed her life." Popular erotic author Zane's novel Addicted, about a married woman who seeks counseling for sex addiction, is being made into a film by Lion's Gate, while Chuck Palahniuk's Choke, about a sex addict con man, is in post-production and will hit theaters in 2008.

To be fair, there are people who truly do need help with addictions of all kinds, including sex. But is it right to blame our more sexually open world for these addictions? I don't think so. If that were the case, then these addicts were still addicts back before porn became so widespread, but perhaps on the level of a "dry drunk," ones who simply didn't indulge their addictions.

I'm not a doctor, but I personally don't believe sex addiction or pathology can be measured merely in numbers. Some people have higher libidos or are simply more sexual than others. Conversely, I don't think those with low libidos, like memoirist Joan Sewell, author of I'd Rather Eat Chocolate, should be made to feel sexually incompetent, nor should those with bigger libidos be punished or made to feel like freaks. This isn't about sexual appetite so much as feeling in control of your sexuality, however you choose to exert that control. If sex controls you, most of the professionals seem to agree, then you could very well be a sex addict.

But there is a huge leap from watching porn and enjoying healthy sexual fantasies (which, by the way, can be shared with a partner as well) to cheating on someone you've pledged to be monogamous with. I'm with Marty Klein, who tells Alexander that the overblown hype about sex addiction is nothing more than fearmongering, and calls those intent on thrusting the label into the public consciousness part of the "sexual disaster industry."

If you do think you're a sex addict and you've got cash to spare, there is some good news. For just $5,400, you can spend six weeks making sure you go without sex or erotica, thanks to a program put on by Steve Gallagher, who believes that "No Christian should be looking at that stuff in the first place," he said. "If I'm looking at pictures of naked women, my life is not right with God." By that logic, I imagine anyone who's ever conjured up a fantasy about someone outside their relationship is guilty.

According to a Slate article entitled "How to Cure a Sex Addict," the purpose of such treatments is not to remove sex from one's life entirely (thank goodness!) but to put it in its proper place, which, I'd argue, is going to differ vastly for everyone. "The goal isn't to eliminate sex from your life--although temporary periods of abstinence may be necessary. Some therapists describe it as the difference between alcoholism and social drinking--you're healthy when you can handle moderate amounts in nondestructive ways."

To summarize, just because you think about sex, have sex, use pornography, and fantasize about people other than your partner doesn't make you a sex addict in any way. If you are truly concerned about your own sexual history and think you may need treatment, by all means, seek out a qualified therapist. In the meantime, let's separate our prudish judgments about other people's sex lives from a true problem.

Rachel Kramer Bussel is an author and editor of over a dozen erotic anthologies, most recently Hide and Seek and Crossdressing. She hosts In The Flesh Erotic Reading Series and is a former sex columnist for The Village Voice.