• Frank Furedi
  • Frank Furedi
  • Sociologist, commentator and author
Article

Abandon all responsibility ye who are hooked on sex addiction

Manchester United star Ryan Giggs is a brilliant footballer. But now we also know that he has cheated on his wife Stacey and allegedly has had other affairs. There was a time when Giggs’s bedroom adventures would have been described as promiscuous.

Today, they are likelier to be represented as a marker for a disease. “Ryan has an illness and he needs my help” is the reported verdict of Giggs’s wife. And the illness? It is sex addiction. It is reported that Giggs will seek “treatment” for his “condition” so that he will be “cured” of this ailment.

The rebranding of promiscuity as sex addiction is not confined to Britain. Throughout Europe and the US the numbers of sex addicts is said to be on the rise, and recently it was reported that Australia is also experiencing a growth in the number of patients seeking treatment for their affliction.

Michelle Thomson, who runs Life Resolutions, a counselling service in Melbourne, says referrals for sex addiction have increased from one every two months to about 24 a month.

Lust, infidelity, betrayal and the drive for sexual domination have always presented a challenge to a society’s grammar of morality. However, the present confusion of a bad habit with a medical problem is symptomatic of the difficulty that contemporary Western societies have in making moral judgments about human behaviour. Sometimes even people who profess to possess religious convictions find it difficult to ascribe guilt to immoral behaviour. That is why behaviour that was once denounced as sinful is today discussed through the language of therapy rather than the language of morality.

The old deadly sins tend to be looked on as personality disorders that require treatment rather than transgressions that deserve punishment. Take the case of Peter Madden, the moralising Christian Democrat politician who promises to clean up Kings Cross in Sydney. While he is happy to denounce the participants of the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras as being “sexually immoral”, he prefers to use a more neutral-sounding, medical language to account for his own behaviour. Apparently he is an “ex-sex addict” who has struggled with his pornography addiction.

At its worst even a violent crime such as rape can be represented as a consequence of sex addiction. Recently a court in Adelaide was told that a man who committed a series of rapes there and in Western Australia had sought treatment for his sexual addiction and, according to a psychological report, was now a “different person”.

But the problem with the recycling of bad habits and degrading behaviour as medical problems is not simply that of failing to hold people to account for the consequences of their actions. Yes, a lot of people - including celebrities such as Keith Urban, Tiger Woods, Michael Douglas, Lindsay Lohan - can represent themselves as victims of addiction rather than as lecherous and self-regarding individuals.

The real problem is the message that the diseasing of human behaviour sends to all of us. The fashionable label of an addictive personality encourages people to fatalistically acquiesce to their worst instincts. Addicts are portrayed as victims of circumstances beyond their control: they are literally counselled to accept powerlessness as the defining feature of their existence. Sexaholics Anonymous Australia mimics the 12-step approach of Alcoholics Anonymous. The first step that a sex addict takes on the road to sexual sobriety is to admit that “we were powerless over lust”.

The promotion of the myth of human powerlessness has fostered a climate where addiction has become normalised. The American Association on Sexual Problems estimates that more than 15 per cent of the US population is addicted to sex.

Throughout the Western world, clinics and self-help groups devoted to treating the recently discovered epidemic of sex addiction are flourishing. Their growth is underwritten by fashionable cultural norms that are receptive to the medicalising of people’s bad habits. It is worth noting that any bad habit can be recast as an addiction. Through the years, society has become accustomed to use terms such as internet addiction syndrome, workaholism, shopaholism, cybersex addiction, addiction to love, compulsive helping, exercise addiction or mobile phone addiction. The inability of individuals to control their lives assumes the character of a self-evident truth in the narrative of addiction.

Addiction plays the role of a cultural fetish through which society calls into question people’s potential to exercise moral independence. The normalisation of this status of dependence is continually reinforced by constant exhortation to seek professional support. As a result, a new culture of dependency is constantly upheld and promoted.

In this context the term “irresponsible” has undergone a radical transformation. People who cheat on their partners cannot be held accountable for their addiction.

The only grounds for condemning them as irresponsible is if they refuse to seek professional support. Perversely, those who attempt to deal with their problems through the exercise of self-control are castigated as being in denial and criticised for failing to come to terms with the gravity of their illness. Seeking help is mandatory, not an option, for those diagnosed as sex addicts.

Western society has become so hooked on addiction because it finds it difficult to imagine that people can be authors of their destiny. It is therefore drawn towards a fatalistic interpretation of human behaviour. The idea that people “can’t help it” or are “victims of their emotions” represents an abandonment of the standard of accountability associated with the Enlightenment idea of human choice. Through its devaluation of the idea of moral independence, the medicalisation of bad habits diminishes the human capacity for self-determination.

The good news is that people can overcome their bad habits if they choose to do so. People who in one stage in their life became far too distracted by sex can learn to value and cultivate a durable intimate relationship.

People regularly quit smoking, lose weight, substantially reduce their drinking and even get bored with gaping at dirty magazines. It is amazing just how far an act of will can take you.

Read this article in the Australian here.

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