Why are we surprised that years of demonising the sex industry and pushing ‘sex addiction’ as a problem that is caused by outside forces is resulting in violence, abuse and discrimination?
Sex addiction raised its ugly head as a concept again last week, when one of America’s latest mass shooters – there has, of course, already been another one since – blamed it for his massacre at an Atlanta massage parlour. While commentators had been quick to assign a racial motivation to the crime – understandable in these heightened times, given that six of the women who died in the attack were Asian-American – the evidence has increasingly pointed towards sex phobia as a reason – not just the shooter’s own words, but the fact that he was apparently planning to move on to a sex shop to carry on his assault. It seems increasingly clear that he was motivated by sexual hatred and guilt, rather than racism (we don’t discount the possibility that race also played a part, of course).
This has put the press and the authorities – not just in America – in a bit of a quandary, because they have spent years not only pushing the idea of sex addiction (which, for brevity, we’ll include porn addiction as part of) as a real thing and portraying pornographers, strip clubs, sex workers and even sex-positive academics as evil, corrupt enemies of the state, traffickers and the wreckers of civilisation. It doesn’t feel like an exaggeration to say that they are complicit in crimes like this (and this case is, sadly, notably for the number of people targeted, not who they are). Their constant demonisation of consensual sex between adults – and their cynical blurring of the lines between consensual sex and actual abuse – has stoked the fires of hysteria, anger, social shaming and violent retribution.
Sex addiction has been pushed as though there is hard evidence not only that it exists, but that it is a major problem for society. But sex addiction, invented by members of religious group Alcoholics Anonymous in the 1970s and popularised when used as a handy excuse for philandering by Hollywood celebrities in the 1990s, has no basis in reality – even the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which has expanded hugely over recent decades, doesn’t acknowledge sex addiction as an actual thing that people can suffer from. Nevertheless, a very profitable industry has grown amongst therapists who have a vested interest in pushing sex addiction as though it exists, and for many patients, it has become a handy way of not taking responsibility for their own actions. For both serial adulterers and religious believers, the idea of a sexual addiction that exists beyond their control is a very convenient way of dealing with the guilt and shame over sexual desire.
Believers in sex addiction point to increased dopamine levels in the ‘addict’ while making love, watching porn or otherwise participating in sexual activity of any sort. But of course that happens – when we engage in pleasurable activity, our dopamine levels increase – that’s the whole point of them. Believers also point to the way an individual’s life becomes dominated by sex – ‘porn addicts’ who spend every day furtively searching the internet, people who are driven to seek out casual sex and so on. And certainly, there is the possibility that sex, like anything else, can take on excessive importance for some people and become a compulsion. But is this addiction? Not really. And why is such behaviour only related to things that we (as a society) have decided are ‘bad’?
Why, for instance, don’t we talk about Sports Addiction? I imagine we all know people for whom sport is the be-all and end-all of their existence. People who subscribe to multiple sports channels, attend live matches every week, travelling across the country and the world to attend sporting events and watch sport – any sport – every night on TV, who turn to the back pages of their newspaper before reading anything else, who spend more money than might be considered sensible on sporting events, talk of little else, dress in the uniform of their chosen team and identify themselves wholly as part of that team. People who become despondent, angry and aggressive beyond any sensible point when their teams lose and who will become twitchy and withdrawn if sport is taken away from them. I imagine their dopamine levels are off the chart when their team wins a game. Is this not addiction? Apparently not.
I’m not even singling out sport – we can say this about pretty much any interest. I imagine several of you could be defined as blu-ray, book or record addicts if we used the same definitions given to sex addiction. We could say that some people are addicted to self-righteousness, to their political identities, to tidying the house, to anything really. But we don’t.
And yet people who behave far less obsessively over sex are labelled addicts, simply because we disapprove of people who enjoy sex outside of society’s carefully defined boundaries, which usually means with one person as part of a long-term relationship, and definitely not involving anything too strange or too often. We might have moved on from thinking that anything but the missionary position is beyond the pale – but I suspect that we haven’t really moved all that far.
If sex addiction as a concept existed only as a way for opportunist psychiatrists to make money and horny celebrities to excuse their unfaithfulness, then it might be a harmless distraction. But as recent events have tragically shown, it seeps into the real world. For many people – often, though certainly not exclusively, religious – sexual desire comes with an unhealthy side-dish of shame and guilt as it is, and when the secular media and politicians start to add to that with highly questionable claims about the negative effects of porn on society, things become much worse. Is it surprising that we see people transferring their shame into resentment, of shifting responsibility for their desires from themselves to others? If there is one thing more powerful than shame, it is the need to find someone else to blame. So of course, men who visit sex workers or masturbate to porn and then feel disgust afterwards are going to hold the sex workers and pornographers responsible, because it deflects blame from themselves – they are simply victims of a sexualised society. It’s not their fault.
Often, this transferred disgust and unwillingness to accept responsibility for sexual desire shifts into campaigning against the sex industry – the desperate hope that if you can make it go away, the feelings that it arouses will disappear with it. We see this in assorted anti-porn, NoFap, incel and rescue movements, dominated by very angry and aggressive men who want to punish women (and men) for giving them erections. Are we surprised that some people are taking this anger beyond online rape and death threats and into the real world? Yet these people have been indulged, encouraged and supported by politicians and the media – their campaigns and claims have been eagerly taken up, with no questions asked about just who is behind them or how legitimate their claims are. Set yourself up as anti-porn, anti-trafficking or anti-sexualisation, and you can pretty much say whatever you like without having to provide evidence, while your aggressive and exploitative responses to anyone who questions you will be glossed over. Sexual pleasure in general and porn in particular are not fashionable causes to support on either side of the political divide – even the usually vocal free speech proponents tend to be very silent when it comes to the silencing and cancelling of porn.
We are often told of the harm done to sex workers, as if it is both inherently and uniquely damaging. Yet much of the danger involved in sex work comes from the clandestine nature of it, and from the way society treats the workers. It’s astonishing that the same people who want to ‘rescue’ sex workers are all too often the same ones who would demand that a teacher be fired if they turned out to have had a previous porn career. Yes, working in the sex industry can ruin lives – but only because we allow the prudes, the moralisers and the hypocrites to shame people for their pasts. Again, the double standards at play are astonishing – we positively celebrate sports that leave boxers brain damaged and bodies shattered. Our bodies, our choices – except when it comes to sex.
You might think that the murder of eight sex workers would make people pause and think, but it seems not – instead, people have just disregarded what is patently evident and are even suggesting that we can’t trust the killer’s own admissions, not when he is saying something that we don’t want to hear. Mass murders like this ought to be a wake-up call over the way sex work has been demonised and – let’s not beat around the bush here – outright lied about for decades. Yet in its wake, a Labour MP is once again trying to push through the infamous Nordic Model approach to prostitution, despite all the evidence that it puts sex workers at greater risk of violence and does nothing to decrease demand. The Nordic Model claims to be a feminist law, a way of decriminalising women while criminalising the men who ‘buy’ their bodies, but ultimately it’s just more sex-shaming – if society really wanted to protect people from dangerous and exploitative jobs that take an unhealthy physical toll, it would need to go a lot further than sex work.
If we want to really help sex workers, we need to stop pushing dangerous ideas about sex addiction, stop moralising, stop exploiting them as victims and them demonising them as pariahs and cut the crap about unproven – or, increasingly, disproven – claims of harm caused by sexual entertainment. The sooner that we accept sex as something that people should feel no guilt about enjoying and stop blaming other people for our own marital and moral failings, the happier society will be. Until then, I fear more people will die for the crimes of arousing inadequate and ashamed men.
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