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Apr. 23 2010 - 4:55 pm | 2,000 views | 2 recommendations | 24 comments

‘Sex addiction’ more demeaning of women than Tiger Woods or Jesse James


Image by Getty Images via Daylife

It looks like Sandra Bullock’s marital woes are once again getting some press attention. Michelle “Bombshell” McGee, the original paramour to come forward with allegations of Jesse James’ shenanigans, apparently wants to have some “girl talk.”

As the nightmare continues for Sandra Bullock, Michelle “Bombshell” McGee tells Life & Style she wants to meet the Oscar-winning actress in person. “I would like to sit down with Sandra and speak one-on-one,” she says. “I’d let her ask me questions, and I would be honest and open with her about the affair. If that would help her heal, I would do it.”

via Michelle ‘Bombshell’ McGee Invites Sandra Bullock To Meet With Her.

Good idea? Bad idea? Yet another callous publicity stunt? Would she try and explain that Jesse James was or was not a “sex addict?” Who knows what McGee is up to, but she is indeed up to something—and always has been. So too with all the women linked to Tiger Woods. They too were up to something, however wrong or misguided their plans may have been.

But these women were not merely addictive substances waiting around to ensnare susceptible men into degrading lives as “sex addicts,” “addicts” who would then have to cruise the social scene for their next fix.  I don’t want to overstate the obvious but, instead, these women were just people; intentional subjects who can’t be reduced to being nothing more than a passive object or alluring vessel. And once you see women as people (doh!) the whole concept of “sex addiction” falls apart into a tired cliche of male dominance and privilege.

It’s all about whether addiction is going to be an inclusive metaphor for all problems with compulsive behavior and irresistible impulses, or whether is is going to remain a rather specialized concept covering things like drug addiction. Clearly, I’m in favor of the later. So too is a neuroeconomist named Don Ross who has a new book chapter titled “Economic Models of Pathological Gambling.” In it he makes a compelling case for us to think about pathological gambling as a genuine and not metaphorical addiction. At the same time he contrasts how sex with other people, even when done to a compulsive extreme, is not an addiction (which is not to say it is not a problem—it can be—just that it is not an addiction). He says,

“Sex has a number of crucial disanalogies with targets of addiction. One of these is that the fine manipulation of the reward contingency is not under the individual’s own control”

via What Is Addiction? Edited by Don Ross, Harold Kincaid, David Spurrett and Peter Collins, MIT Press

In other words, an addict controls the jolt of surprise from the slot machine, the bender in the bottle, the high in the needle.  That is how the “targets of addiction” gain control over a person’s motivational systems. But that “fine manipulation of the reward contingency” is not present for sexual pleasures with another person because, well, they are another person. To call Tiger or Jesse a “sex addict” is to say that the women they were with had no say in the matter, no part in constructing the experience. And that is just not a good thing to do.


So, keep in mind that every time you go along with calling Tiger or Jesse a “sex addict,” or doing the same with someone in you life who can’t keep it zipped, you are complicit in erasing the women who also participated, complicit in denying the choices we all need to make about what to do with our desires.


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  1. collapse expand

    I am not sure that I understand what you are saying. Surely, in the case of James or Woods, the women were not commiting the sin, it was the men, who were married. The women were not breaking their vows, they were taking the opportunity sleep with famous and wealthy men. Truth be told, if Sandra stops by tonight, I am not sure that I could resist, but I am not married.

    To some extent, power fame and wealth can be manipulative factors shifting the balance of power in a relationship, no?

    But even to the claim that in the given instances, manipulation was not possible because, as you say, the women had a part in constructing the experience, is it not important to acknowledge that the parties were probably enjoying very different experiences? A woman (porn stars excluded) shacking up with Tiger Woods probably views the experience differently than a married man views the experience of being with just another in a long line of women.

    I am very skeptical of claims of sex addiction, but I do not understand how it falls apart when you consider that the woman is fully capable of free will. First, I am not sure that in the proffered scenarios that there is a balance of power. Secondly, even assuming a balance of power, I think it may be possible for two people to be striving towards a similar experience for different reasons, both of which may be valid on their face, but may be more morally wrong for one of the people to experience.

    • collapse expand

      Thanks Craig, really appreciate the comment (and sorry for not being as clear as I could have been. I’m at a conference all week and I wrote this between meetings, old friends (and new), and martinis. Looks like I should have taken some more time … I hope you’ll give me a chance to clarify).

      While I’m inclined to avoid judgmental questions of sin and morality, I do agree with your clearly stated point that manipulation, unequal power, and different experiences were all in play—all the players are human after all! My contribution to the conversation takes off from an emerging definition of what qualifies a problematic behavior as an addiction: to be an addiction the individual needs to have a fine-grained control over the reward contingencies, “an addict controls the jolt of surprise from the slot machine, the bender in the bottle, the high in the needle.”

      Sure, excessive, compulsive sex can screw up somebody’s life .. and also not since it can also serve a transitional function for some. But sex with another person just does not qualify as an addiction except in the loosest Robert Palmer kind of metaphorical way.

      I’m saying both that other humans just don’t qualify as an addictive substance and trying to say why that is the case. And when we do say that women can be an addictive substance, we deny them their full humanity. Which is what men have traditionally done to women, especially when dealing with sex.

      I hope this makes it a bit clearer (and if not please let me know and we’ll hope that the third time will be the charm!)

      In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        Thank you for your reply. It does make your position clear. Humans are not an addictive substance, and it is truly interesting to think of the fact that the traditional gender relationship that seems to be at play is that women are a substance to be consumed. Reading your reply makes me wonder why women who are substantively similarly situated as Tiger or Jesse are considered sluts or whores, not as sex addicts, should they indulge their pleasures with a number of men. I guess for some reason we are not sociologically wired to view men as a commodity in the same way that we sometimes view women as a commodity.

        Amazing question. I would be interested to know if this is a human fallacy or a western fallacy.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
  2. collapse expand

    Well, Todd, I’ve been wondering what you might have to say about Sandra Bullock and Jesse James etc. And sure enough, you bring clarity to the storm. I recall Bill Clinton gesturing toward sex addict status as a way out of the pinch he found himself in, post-impeachment. Start a war, hint that you’re an addict, everything’s back to normal in no time. But as you say, there is such an important distinction between a substance and a woman. Meanwhile, I’ve been pondering Lewis Lapham’s argument that men should plunder it if they can get away with it.

    • collapse expand

      Thanks Jeff, looks like I need to read Lapham’s recent essays. You’ve mentioned him several times and whenever a writer/thinker of your caliber finds another writer worthy of a ponder its worth a look … although I have a hunch he’s going to give me a headache.

      Related to this issue is an amazing, heart-wrenching play in Chicago called “trust.” It’s at the Lookingglass Theater and was written by David Schwimmer and Andy Bellin (yes, Ross is a really good play-write and director). It tells the story of a sexual predator grooming then raping a 14 year old high school girl and what happens after a man uses a girl as an object to be manipulated. It’s going to be a film, but come to Chicago and see the play (bring tissues).

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  3. collapse expand

    This is idiotic. Addiction does not depend on the thing which a person is addicted to but rather the compulsive behavior the one addicted displays toward the entity to which it is addicted. It’s about positive rewards inside the addicts mind. Addiction is deviation of what society terms normal behavior. Addiction resides solely within the self.

    • collapse expand

      HHmmmm, addiction resides solely within the self AND it is defined in terms of social norms?? ? Sounds like a re-think is needed.

      Addiction does include changes within the addicts mind, from behavior to experience all the way down to motivational systems and neurochemical levels. But addiction is in the relationship between the person and the target of addiction. Also, not all compulsions are addictions (e.g., hand-washing for some who suffer from OCD).

      The relationship between the person and the target of addiction key. That’s why, for example, the first step in a 12-step addiction recovery program is “We admitted we were powerless over [target of addiction such as alcohol] – that our lives had become unmanageable.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        Yes, and you should start re-thinking now.

        “It’s all about whether addiction is going to be an inclusive metaphor for all problems with compulsive behavior and irresistible impulses, or whether is is going to remain a rather specialized concept covering things like drug addiction. ”

        What if TIger was masturbating instead of having sex with women? What if his family life and career suffered because “excessive” masturbation was made public? I’m sure pictures of him “jacking off” in a men’s room at the Master’s would have had similar repurcussions.

        You’re trying to define what is socially acceptable to call an addict. The same compulsive behavior and irresistible impulses lead a heroin addict and sex addict. Do you masturbate? Have you ever compulsively stayed home to masturbate instead of going out and engaging in social activity? Have you ever been irritable and downright unbearable because you haven’t masturbated at least twice in a day? Gone through masturbation withdrawal when being abstinent? How is this uncontrollable impulse different than not being able to say no to heroin?

        Addict behavior (i.e. compulsive and irresistible impulses) does exist within the self. The society labels what is “ok” to call an addict. Regardless of your views males will continue to have impulses to spread their DNA and women will have impulses to seek powerful DNA for their offspring. It’s hard to imagine that some of the sexual impulses males have, especially alpha males, are not uncontrollable.

        It doesn’t matter if women are involved or not, sex addiction isn’t about a partner, it’s about the impulse that puts sexual activity before other activities. Take away the women and replace TIger’s sexual activity with masturbation. Then you only have a hand to dehumanize.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
        • collapse expand

          (…between connecting flights coming back from a conference so I’ll take advantage of a delay and respond…)

          I hear what you’re saying kingsleyzissou, I really do. I’m just not sure I can agree that addictions are excessive behaviors that violate social norms, even uncontrollable behaviors (what you call “compulsive and irresistible impulses”). There are lots of compulsions and impulse problems that fit that pattern but aren’t addictions, things like binge eating or superficial cutting behavior. We don’t want to say that someone suffering from Tourette’s Syndrome is addicted to tic-ing?

          More so that trying to define what is socially acceptable to call an addiction, I’m trying to make room for a specific (maybe even technical definition) so we can talk about the mysteries and complexity of the actual psychological processes involved. By calling Tiger (both the actual one and your hypothetical) an “addict” we avoid all the panic that comes from confronting the power of our passions, from seeing the gaps an conflicts in feelings about sex, from seeing how trusting one’s feelings can explode a life.

          In response to another comment. See in context »
  4. collapse expand

    I find the phrase “sex addiction” offensive to people of intelligence, and insulting to real addicts. And, yes, on top of all that, it objectifies women.

  5. collapse expand

    I don’t know. The term is equally applied — perhaps moreso — to women. No?

    That said, I don’t believe it is an addiction. “Addiction” is a term vastly overused. Actually, I don’t believe in any of the pop usages so prevalent today. If a person does not go through serious physically withdrawal symptoms, I don’t see how it can be called an addiction. Anything one person likes to do that a second person thinks they do too often can be called an addiction — using today’s rules. I don’t buy it. I don’t consider smoking an addiction: I quit when I wanted to quit. It wasn’t an addiction. It was a routine, a bad habit.

  6. collapse expand

    Hi Todd,

    Very thought-provoking post. So here’s my question: If a drug addict uses manipulation or deceit to score drugs from a person who should know better, isn’t that a case in which “fine manipulation of the reward contingency is not under the individual’s own control”? My understanding was that the trigger of an addiction is not simply the drug itself, but the brain chemistry that is activated by the stimuli. Isn’t the prospect or imagination of sex acts enough stimulus to create an addiction? Especially when you consider that another person is not necessary, technically, for the addict to ‘act out.’

    Is the issue more about use of the term ’sex addict’ in popular culture. Or are you dismissing the field of sex addiction therapy, including the related 12-Step groups?

    • collapse expand

      Always good to provoke thought Michael, thanks! My understanding of Ross’s model is that the fine manipulation of the reward contingency is a bit finer than an addict’s deceit in pursuit of a fix. Addicts don’t have control over the manipulation. In fact, the control over reward contingencies is much more fine-grained, happening in the moment when they have pipe or needle in hand, or when they are about to drop the coin and pull the slot machine lever for the optimal jolt of surprise. And of course, brain chemistry is central. But addiction is a more complex relationship with the target of addiction, one that includes brain chemistry but is not uniquely defined by it. Just like withdrawal symptoms not being necessary but could be part of the complex picture,

      I don’t want “dismiss” those treatments. Lord knows, life is hard enough and if something helps, well then bravo! But being helped by a 12-Step program or a 28 day rehab does not mean that the problem was a problem with addiction. That just mens that there is a point of analogy along with all the disanalogies of sex with addiction. I just think we need to think more deeply about the problems people get into with sex and the complexity of human sexual behavior gets detrimentally dumbed down by the addiction analogy.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        That’s a good answer, Todd. Thank you.

        As you alluded to, the reason the addiction analogy is used is to get a grasp on the compulsive behavior outside of, I would argue, typical moral constructs, which don’t seem very helpful for the same ‘dumbing down’ reason you mentioned.

        It seems to me the key question is: are these men at some point rendered powerless over their compulsions?

        In response to another comment. See in context »
        • collapse expand

          Powerless over compulsions? over impulses? over passions? I think everyone makes mistakes they couldn’t not make and then regret having made. Does that qualify as powerless? Pretty complicted stuff. I just want us to be able to keep talking about it without foreclosing the conversation with premature solutions that don’t work (like addiction).

          Heard a talk at the conference this weekend by a psychologist who interviewed young Turkish women who were superficial cutters, i.e., people who cut themselves without intent to do damage for reasons like self-soothing or self-assertion. She also talked about her work with several college women who also cut. Simply saying “stop it” would not help. Under some circumstances they felt they that had to do this. The impulse to cut was uncontrollable. So then, the question becomes how to understand the impulse? And with these men I think the same question needs to be asked. But we don’t because we afraid of the answer. Namely, that the socially sanctioned image of “having it all” is not always enough. We’re afraid to discover that our psychology does not fit very comfortably with our social norms.

          (…now I gotta go run and catch a plane…)

          In response to another comment. See in context »
  7. collapse expand

    As a healthy and capable man I am appalled that the lack of personal morals and integrity is being given a label that could be construed to excuse morally bankrupt behavior. All men have primal urges. Whether it is to punch out the driver who refused to respect your right of way or have sex with every attractive female who even seems to be potentially available are thoughts that cross every man’s mind. To act on them is a choice which reflects one’s civility and integrity. Men in positions of power, authority, influence and fame have always had women interested in a connection of one sort or another. As a man, if you’re single and the interest is mutual that is one thing. But if you’re committed then you are a liar and a cheat, nothing more. The sense of power and entitlement for those with the aforementioned characteristics is legendary; from JFK to Tommy Lee. Great and talented or not, they were common philanderers. To try and mitigate their personal failings as an addiction is a travesty, no better than the purchasing of indulgences from the church.

  8. collapse expand

    Until I die no one will ever be able to convince me that there is such a thing as “sex addiction”….I will (re)believe in Santa first. Men and the Medical Establishment have joined forces to lengthen not only the size of the Penis but Male Adolescents.

  9. collapse expand

    Well I for one do believe in sex addiction and that it destroys people. “Erotic Intelligence” by Alexandra Katehakis
    gives assists with creating a safe and healthy way to release the pain of the negative story that sex addicts and their partners carry into early recovery.

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