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Sex Addiction’s Moral Battleground

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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While in the checkout line of a local Rite Aid this weekend, I was struck by “The Sex Addiction Epidemic” cover of Newsweek. Quickly intrigued by the promise of such a lead story, I plopped down on a neighboring Coke display to read and process, where excitement quickly derailed to dismay.

As seen in the online version, this story about a serious, detrimental issue contained stock photos of sexy images, such as women in fishnet stockings, as did many an offshoot and put-down of the story. Though the ‘sexy’ stereotype is hard to overcome for such a red-hot topic, I expected something slightly more befitting the alarming nature of a compulsive, obsessive, often embarrassing and life-harming problem, the likes of which are seldom glamorous. Here, at least in photos, sex addiction seems, well, sexy.

True, Newsweek hits a couple of softer key points, though most of us likely gathered these while navigating the waters of 1999 (or have since gleaned more valuable insight from a dusty 2004 Dateline write-up):

1. Sex addiction exists.
2. It’s not just middle-aged men.
3. It can cause substantial problems in multiple realms of life.

However, once past the lace veneer comes the force and sadness of such debauchery and the real problems it poses in society, especially in terms of men and women arrested and/or incarcerated for sexual crimes.

I recently spoke to a sex therapist who posed the issue of those in prison for sex-related indictments, such as sexual assault and child pornography. Now, this is a subject that brings fire to even the most mild-mannered, but bear with me for a minute: how do we separate those with malicious intent from those with a sex addiction, who should presumably be treated as any other with a neurotransmitter imbalance? And then comes the moral dilemma: if a sex crime has been committed, should we even bother trying to separate the addicts from the non-addicts?

Perhaps the responsibility lies with the addict herself to recognize symptoms of a problem and to get help. But since when are we adept at properly identifying our own medical or mental disorders? I’m certainly no good at it. At best, we guess. And since sex is so highly popularized, it’s hard to know where the limits are. Is looking at porn daily normal? Hourly? More? Cosmo, mass-market advertising and blockbuster hits have us thinking all sex, all the time. I’ve had free condoms handed to me in a shoe store and been asked, in a professional office building, if I would star as Madonna in a porn film. Who’s to know what the ‘normal’ gauge is for sex? …We don’t claim to know, except, of course, when the line is so far crossed that it becomes dangerous.

From the Washington State Department of Corrections, here’s how prisons view sex offenses:

“Sex offending usually is a learned behavior, therefore a key pillar of the treatment is that offenders can learn to avoid sexual aggression as well as the skills they need to live responsibility in the community.”

A learned behavior, perhaps.. and upon reading on, we see that sex offenders are allowed to volunteer for treatment. So, we’re psychologically treating those with good behavior, offering it as a reward? If these people will rejoin society, isn’t it in our best interest to treat all of them, especially those that appear more deviant? Are prisons equipped with medical professionals trained to treat addiction, the likely root cause of a number of sexual depraved acts?

For some, it’s a slippery slope from general Playboy-type magazines to more vulgar online pornography to sex meet-ups to assault. The problem with sex addiction is that it, like food, is all around us and is a normal, healthy component of life. The difference from a food addiction, however, is that a sex addiction can end in causing harm to bystanders.

So, where do we as a society stand? Do we sympathize with addicts and want them to get specialized, tailored psychological help for the problem, avoiding lengthy prison time, or do we treat them as criminals who have made, perhaps, brutal, corrupt decisions? Here, I’m reminded of those with schizophrenia and mental disorders. Mainly, do we jail and judge people for violent or horrifying actions of bad brain chemistry? So far, the answer seems to be ‘yes.’

Cassie Rodenberg About the Author: I write on culture, poverty, addiction, and mental illness: I explore things we like to ignore. I also teach public school in New York City's South Bronx. Follow on Twitter @cassierodenberg.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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