A sex therapist dispels some damning myths.
The term sexual addiction is used frequently and often incorrectly. It's important to understand that being diagnosed with any kind of addiction is serious business and warrants major behavioral changes. Before you sentence a loved one to a lifetime of abstinence, 12-step programs, and costly rehabs, take a realistic look at the causation of sexual behavior. While there is validity to the diagnosis of sexual addiction, be mindful of the need to take all factors into consideration before making a final diagnosis.
Here are some common myths regarding sex addiction that should be dispelled. ASAP.
Myth #1: Chronic masturbators are sex addicts.
Everyone has a love/hate relationship with masturbation. It's undeniably an enjoyable activity but it can be accompanied—both consciously and not—by deep-set feelings of shame. By the tender age of 2 or 3, toddlers naturally discover their genital region and the ensuing pleasure. Unfortunately, that joy is often swiftly smacked away by frightened, sex-phobic parents. And as a result, those folks get an all-too-clear message about themselves and their bodies. Many of us have learned to repress, become secretive, and feel shame.
Even the most enlightened and educated adults are misinformed about masturbation. Many people believe that masturbation has no place within the context of a marital relationship, for example. Getting married means that there is—arguably—an unlimited supply of sex. Often this equates to thoughts along the lines of: "Once that wedding band hits my finger, I shouldn't masturbate and neither should my partner." Ironically, these partners trigger the opposite behavior through their negativity. Because their complaints trigger feelings of self-doubt and shame, their masturbating partners will often masturbate even more because they feel bad about themselves. A viscous cycle then begins. Since masturbation provides momentary feelings of relief, there's more yanking and less screwing. Excuse my French.
There is no definitive answer as to how much or how little one should be masturbating. Generally speaking, masturbation will not impinge on a relationship. In fact, it's just the opposite. Masturbation is strictly about release, while sexual intercourse is about getting close. Couples who have "no masturbation" policies often times use each other like a masturbation machine.
Is "a quickie" really that much more honorable than squeezing one off in the shower? Both acts provide the same result. It's all in how you perceive it.
Myth #2: Pornography-watchers are sex addicts.
Pornography has been in our society for thousands of years. Why? Because everyone is curious. Sex is a very private activity and universally difficult to talk about. Pornography gives us the opportunity to watch others at play. Observation is educational. It offers a peek into the world of human sexuality. Adult material is very helpful for those who want to learn technique and get new ideas. It's helpful for men, women, and couples who want to expand their sexual horizons.
Pornography is especially helpful for people who have sexual tastes outside of "the norm." It's validating to find out that we aren't alone. Pornography literally saves lives because people who have unusual sexual fantasies feel incredibly guilty and ashamed. It helps to know that others have a taste for similar acts. It's also enjoyable to see fantasies captured on screen by other consenting adults.
For those who advocate the concept that smut can create sex addiction, pornography is seen as "the gateway drug." It's the marijuana of drug addiction. Counselors, twelve-steppers, and religious zealots all have a rigid belief about the "evils" of porn. They believe that there's nothing good or redemptive about porn. They believe pornography provides an unrealistic portrayal of sexual activity and threatens marriages.
In truth, everything in life needs to be moderated. Too much of anything can be problematic. But viewing adult images for the purpose of relaxation, arousal, and education is just fine. We need to be very careful about using that all-encompassing term "sex addiction" when describing someone who simply enjoys going online and watching a limited amount of porn.
Myth #3: Oglers are sex addicts.
Most of us have an idea that once we are married, our partners should only be interested in us. That means they should not look, talk, or engage with anyone of the opposite sex. If we notice them doing it too much, we can now assume they have a problem. And maybe that problem is sex addiction...
As sexual beings, it's in our nature to notice beauty in the world. We'd never be concerned about anyone commenting on the beauty of nature. "What a gorgeous flower." "How pretty the sky looks." Yet if he says "OMG did you see that ass?" all of a sudden we're bent out of shape.
Please consider this: We have to let our partners look without badgering. If you really want to be extra cool, you can look together. That way there are no secrets. That way no one feels censored.
The fact is, looking has never hurt anyone. If you are of the belief that it's rude for him to look or comment when he's with you, consider this: He's commenting because he doesn't feel the need to be secretive. He looks with or without you, so it's better to be upfront about it. Remember, no real contact is being made and your relationship is not being compromised. I say let him look. Remain rational and remember to look at the facts.
Myth #4: Cheaters are sex addicts.
Think of the idea of sexual contact outside a relationship as being on a spectrum. On one end, there are casual indiscretions like online chats and meaningless phone sex. Middle of the spectrum would be things like one-night stands. On the far end are connections with old flames on Facebook and full-blown affairs in the traditional sense of the word. Yet, many couples never make a distinction. They think that any kind of contact outside the marriage is catastrophic and the cheater is labeled as an addict. But not everyone who cheats is a sex addict. Sometimes they're just what you think: an inconsiderate, dishonest ______ (you fill it in).
Each case of straying has to be considered on its own merit. Is a lap dance the same as a one-night stand? Is a flirtatious text as damaging as a dinner date? Is a one-time kiss the same as repeated trysts in a hotel room? While most monogamous couples do not tolerate any physical contact with members of the opposite sex, there are indiscretions and then there are deal breakers. Facts need to be considered before labeling the behavior as sex addiction.
Cheating is, more often than not, the result of deep-seated pain that's been festering for years. Going outside the marriage is the symptom, rather than the cause, of relationship discord.
Myth #5: Fetishists are sex addicts.
A sexual fetish means that one sexualizes objects, acts, and fantasies that are outside the norm. The fetish can involve the use of nonliving objects such as stiletto heels, leather, or furry materials. Fetish can also be about ritualistic behaviors that include diapering, cross-dressing, or costuming.
Sexual fetishes are powerful and never go away; they are formed very early in life. Current research supports the fact that there is a genetic predisposition toward fetish. This goes hand in hand with the idea that people are born gay, lesbian, or transgender. When it comes to fetish, the genetic predilection is triggered by environmental stimuli.
Unfortunately most people in the therapeutic community do not understand the difference between fetish and sexual addiction. They advocate the concept of absolution: thought-stopping, blocking websites, and never engaging in the fetishistic behavior. In other words, they treat the fetish in the same way they treat a sexual addiction. However, a sexual fetish is not interchangeable with disordered sexual behaviors.
In fact, a fetish in and of itself has absolutely nothing to do with sexual addiction.
No one chooses to have a sexual fetish. Most people I have worked with would gladly swallow a pill that would quickly erase their fetish. Unfortunately that pill doesn't exist and there's no treatment available that will erase a deep-seated sexual fetish. Just like no one can "turn" a gay person straight, no one can make a fetish go away. People can buy into a program that promises those kinds of results. But then again, people also buy snake oil and ridiculous exercise devices.
We are who we are and we need to find self acceptance.
This article was written for and appears on Ravishly.
© 2015 Jackie A Castro, MA, LMFT