Monday, December 28, 2009

Addictions, Sex and Drugs

A recent article in Salon asks the burning question: “Is sex addiction real?”: it seems a number of experts don’t consider it to be a “real” addiction. There are, of course, people with compulsive sexual behaviors, usually as the result of some trauma, but it sounds as if this is held to be different from “addiction”, which is seen more as a quasi-medical condition. In a similar vein, Susie Bright pokes entertaining fun on her audio program at the idea that Tiger Woods is a "sex addict".

To be honest, but I’m a bit uncomfortable with the addiction-as-disease model anyway. While it certainly has helped plenty of people, it strikes me as more than a bit specious.

To establish some common first principles, we do know that certain substances produce chemical dependencies: frequent users of alcohol, nicotine, caffeine, and the opiates will have trouble breaking with the pattern of use, and this trouble is chemical- their body needs the chemicals supplied by the drug. The same could well be true of sex, incidentally.

Right now, I'm trying to kick my ridiculous Pepsi abuse. I generally drink about four bottles a day of the stuff and actually can't remember a day in the last two decades that I went without. I have not had any since this morning, however. But it is now 2 am and I can't sleep. So, there you go.

Secondly, there are definitely people who have what could be called an addictive personality. They tend to patterns of compulsive behavior. If they’re not abusing drugs, they’re abusing alcohol; if it’s not booze it’s screwing; if it’s not sex, it’s shopping. They tend, in my experience, to be deeply unhappy people who fill a void in their life with joyless, compulsive behaviors, rather than deal with their unhappiness.

But can you take the fact of chemical dependencies and the fact of addictive personalities and decide that there is a “disease” of addiction? A disease, incidentally, which we can’t test for since it doesn’t show up in anything but behavior, and which we can’t treat through medication, but which supposedly akin to cancer or any other genetically predetermined disease. So, it acts like a mental illness, which are most often the result of trauma, but it is in fact the result of a gene that hasn’t been located as of yet. Sure, the children of addicts tend to follow the behavior that they observed growing up. However, studies of primates and separated twins don’t show the expected filial patterns of inheritance.

Okay, so if it’s not a disease, who cares? Well, honestly, I don’t see a problem with programs like A.A. that amount to group therapy for people who share a mental illness. If it works, why not? I do think, though, that the euphemism tends to obscure the real issues, which is probably why A.A. has such a lousy success rate. I’m also uncomfortable with the idea that the only “cure” for addiction is to quit cold turkey, when we’ve all known people who were basically alcoholics until they learned to drink in moderation. Lastly, I’m uncomfortable with the model of “normal functioning”, which amounts to going to work, coming home, working and producing, and coping with unhappiness. It sounds like a middle manager’s vision of life.

Getting beyond the “disease”, as far as I can tell, having observed some close relations who are addicts, what we’re talking about is the sort of deep existential dread and unhappiness that used to be called “ennui”. Addictive behavior is sort of like eating food that has no flavor and adding any number of spices, but it still has no flavor. Life, as such, strikes the addict as empty, painful, pointless, shapeless, and bland. They fill that void with any number of stimulants, but can’t escape the character of existence.

Writers used to talk about the “horror loci”, which meant that the sufferer of ennui can’t go anywhere to escape this unhappiness, but desperately want to get away from everywhere they are. In my opinion, drug abuse corresponds more closely to the horror loci, and the underlying existential dread corresponds most closely to ennui. The problem is that we don’t think in terms of philosophy anymore; but in medicalized terms. This is a spiritual problem, but we don’t believe the soul exists outside of the material body.

And perhaps it doesn’t; but the medicalized body doesn’t give us many options for understanding existence. We only understand life in terms of “healthy” and “unhealthy”. Otherwise, we’re lost. I’m not sure that past generations, with terms like “spiritually developed”, “enlightened”, or “saved”, really had a worse map of the territory than we do.

Anyway, if we’re going to talk in medical terms, why should we consider “sex addiction” to be any more specious than the “disease” of alcoholism?

I get that sex is seen as a “healthy” part of life, while seeking to escape reality is “unhealthy”. Certainly, the singer Peaches was right when she said, “Let’s face it, we all want tush”. Yes, sex is a natural part of life, and the biological sex drive is always going to be at odds with functional morality. Primates don’t spend their entire lives fucking the same monkey; but we hope to do that and be so fulfilled by it as to compensate for all the empty moments of life. None of that means that we shouldn’t live in monogamous relationships, if that’s what works. It just means that we shouldn’t expect them to provide all the meaning and fulfillment to our lives.

Moreover, we shouldn’t expect the sort of constant happiness that most people seem to expect from life, and which doesn’t actually come with the package most of the time.


Holly said...

It's probably a natural progression... sex used to be hush-hush, then it was OK for men, then it was OK for women, and eventually it was even OK to enjoy it. But wanting a LOT of it is still over the line...

In my completely opinion-based (rather than fact-based) opinion, people mis- and re- direct various mental and emotional processes in assorted ways. Misdirected anger is pretty well understood. What about mis-directed frustration, mis-directed sexuality, or mis-directed fulfillment?

It's childishly simplistic to think Sex is good, so LOTS of sex must be LOTS of good.... and adults are so, so capable of childish simplicity. That doesn't make it addiction, it just makes it emotional immaturity.

Rufus said...

That sounds about right. What I think Susie Bright was getting at was that having a high sex drive is acceptable if you're an "addict" and can't help it, but something to be guilty about if you're not.

I'm sure it can be harmful and destructive, just like anything else can be. But it does seem like you said- something misdirected instead of the problem itself.