The causes, cures, and prevention of sexual addiction.
Leaving aside the matter of definitions, for the moment, and examining our innermost feelings on the subject, we all "know" that:
If you examined your feelings honestly, and can truthly say that you disagreed with those points, then congratulations: You are one in 10 million who has escaped the conditioning of your environment. But if you examined your innermost feelings honestly, and you agreed with these statements, then you are reflecting the view of the society that conditioned you.
As I am an English-speaking person in the Western world, "you" represents a member of an English-speaking, western society. If you are a member of a different culture, this article may not make any sense at all. One can only hope...
My point here is that our society is sexually repressive even with respect to the most normal, natural, and "healthy" sex we can imagine. And that's where the trouble starts.
If you want to create an addict, how do you do it? It's simple, really. You provide a substance that gives great pleasure -- one which enhances the sense of well-being while at the same time destroying the actual capacity for it, so the addictive substance becomes a requirement. That's all there is to it. That's how tobacco works, how heroin works, and how sexual addiction works.
Once addicted, a person has little choice but to return to the act that produces satisfaction -- and relief -- time and time again. What we consider "healthy sex" is a positive addiction, like exercise and a healthy diet, that leads to love, family, and positive social values. What we consider "unhealthy" is most anything else.
A sexual addiction is a practice that produces great pleasure, but which impedes the ability to create and maintain a "healthy" sex life. Like heroin, it "gets into your system", stimulating the pleasure pathways that are part of your biology, but without satiating the real need that lies deep within all of us for the comfort and security of love, of family.
Sex is so pleasurable that, even after the unimaginable pain of childbirth, women continue to desire sex. Even when there is no way to suppress that pain, children keep getting born. That's how powerful it is.
So we have an enormously powerful drive that is part of our very nature. We wouldn't consider telling people "don't breathe", "don't eat", or "don't walk". We know that these things are built into our nature. But somehow, we (as a society) seem to think that sex isn't. We act as though it is a suit of clothes we can put on and take off, instead of a deeply innate part of our being, like breathing.
The bottom line is that, with the exception of a few notable ascetics, we're going to eperience sex, one way or another. It's a given.
So how you do create "unhealthy" sexual addiction?
It all starts with repression.
Puritan repression was the worst. Even expresssions of sexuality that are considered "good" by any reasonable standard were considered evil by the puritans. Many of our laws and social mores derive from that heritage, as well as the dictates of doctrines from other churches.
Much of that repression is being relaxed in today's culture, which is largely good news -- except for the fact that what could reasonably be considered "unhealthy" sexual practices are surfacing at the same time. It's unfortunate, but it's probably a necessary part of the healing process, like cleaning pus out of a wound. To put it bluntly, bible-thumping do-gooders were largely responsible for creating the problem, so if their sensibilities are offended during the healing process, I'm somewhat less than sympathetic.
With truly effective repression, you convince youngsters to repress themselves. Guilt is especially effective for this purpose. Tht repression eliminates every possible avenue for expressing this powerful drive-- the healthy avenues along with the unhealthy ones -- because after all, they're just kids, or they're not married, or whatever.
To complete the process, you don't talk about sex at all. You don't explain it, and generally make it impossible to find out anything at all about it.
Then you surround the person with a world full of titillating hints at "forbidden" subjects. Advertising, comedians, gossip, songs, and the jokes we tell one another -- all alude to the very subjects that are most repressed, because those are the areas that are exciting.
And our children are a lot more connected than we imagine. They understand more than we think. As a child, I remember hearing the adults joking about a neighbor, saying that "he probably took comic books to bed". I laughed, too. Even though I didn't know what they were supposed to be doing, exactly, I knew for sure that it didn't involve reading comic books.
So out of that random assemblage of influences, sooner or later one "connects" in a way that the person finds exciting. To the degree that all other avenues of sexuality are closed, the only path to that excitement we are inherently bound to pursue is in the form of that stimulus, whatever it happens to be. All to often, that excitement leads to sexual addiction, instead of healthy sexuality.
In other words, sexual inclinations represent learned behavior -- not "learned" as in, "behavior that someone teaches you", as though there were some intentional volition on the part of teache and student, but rather "learned" in the sense of "conditioned by forces that kept our species evolving for millions of years" -- forces so powerful that you have no ability whatsover to deny them totaly.
What happens when an irresistible force meets and immovable object? The force is redirected, and it achieves its ends in other ways.
It all starts when we're extremely young -- even before we've achieved the verbal consciousness to express ourselves, or even the ability to form memories.
I remember playing a "kissing game" at age 8, when I had no idea why I wanted to kiss anyone. I remember playing sexually-oriented games with my upstairs neighbor at age 5 or 6. I remember being excited and interested in "exploring", but I have no memory whatever of the stimulus that prompted the games we played.
When the results of the conditioning begin that early, it's easy to feel that we were "born that way".
I suppose it's possible that we are. Maybe our proclivities are wired into our DNA. But I really don't believe it is. I believe our DNA wires us with a particularlly powerful drive, and that the way that drive manifests is a matter of the environment we experience.
Then there is the "reincarnation" theory. But I believe that theory also stems from the fact that our behaviorial choices are set so early that it frequently occurs before we are consciously aware that it is happening. When the mind searches for an explanation, "nature" or "reincarnation" is chosen, partly for lack of anything better, and partly because it excuses us from responsibility, becaiuse it is something we have no control over.
But while we do have some control, we generally have much less control than we'd like. And as we'll see, society's mores not only cause the problem, but society tends to blindly thwart serious attempts to solve the problem, as well.
The trouble starts when our inborn sexual nature meets society's repression. There are no healthy avenues for a young person to explore their sexuality in this culture. As a result, each child has to explore for themselves. In the process, they find things that make them excited, and those things form the basis of their sexual needs for most of their lives. And, once exposed to some less-than-healthy influence, children have no way to replace them with better, more healthy outlets for their sexual drives. So the influences fester. For years.
There are some subcultures for which that statement is not true, to at least some degree. In some respects, each is an oasis of sanity. But since they are largely composed of people who were first conditioned by the external society, they are often overly permissive, in the sense that every sex act is considered permissible, because repression itself is seen as bad.
From the forgoing, it should be clear that it is up to society.to prevent sexual addiction. Only a society in which healthy sexuality is unrepressed can possibly hope to be free of it.
As it happens, there is a model for just such a society. Studies of societies on the islands of the South Pacific show a culture with a free and open attitude towards sex. Before the arrival of the missionaries, their culture was extremely healthy in many ways. (James Michener's Hawaii did an excellent job of illustrating the point.)
In Polynesian society, a child thought of every adult in the village as a caregiver. If children was hungry, hurt, or had to go to the bathroom, they went to the nearest home for comfort, and invariably got it. An acquaintance once remarked that a South Sea Islander she knew was the most "totally serene, confident, and secure person she had ever met". With such an upbringing, it's no wonder.
In that society, boys and girls playing together and expressing themselves sexually was considered normal and natural. There was no "taboo". And there was no sexual perversion, either. There was no need for it. There may well have been some bisexuality or homosexuality. But there was never the huge subculture of "forbidden sex" that we take for granted in our cities, because people grew up with enough freedom to learn how to express themselves in healthy ways.
But, given where our society is today, it's impossible to suggest that a commitment to being totally free and open would prove to be a viable solution. There is simply too much pent up frustration. The unhealthy sexuality we see in our towns' red light districts represent steam escaping through the pressure valve . I suspect that if we suddenly let loose the floodgates, we'd be scalded in the process.
One strategy that might succeed, though, would be to keep hiding "unhealthy sex" -- at least to the degree that it is hidden today, in order to minimize the chance that we'll pass those practices on to future generations. But "healthy sex" should be as open and unrepressed as it is possible to be. Yes, that means teenagers experimenting, freely and naturally. It means non-clinical sex education, at an age-appropriate level, in school curriculums. It means de-mystifying and de-criminalizing many kinds of sexual behavior (although not all).
If society does that, then it is entirely possible that we could come close to eliminating unhealthy sexual addictions. If society doesn't do that, there is still a chance for a family to do it. But it has to be a really good family, because in addition to creating healthy attitudes, it has to explain away and defend against all of the unhealthy influences that are present in the society.
Of course, this is the task that families are engaged in on many levels, not only when it comes to sex, but also when it comes to gangs, alcohol, drugs, smoking, and the great tasting, unhealthy junk that's sold as "food". Frankly, it seems like a miracle that any child grows up to be a good person. Thankfully, a lot of them do -- generally because a good family prepared them well enough to heal the scars of the mistakes that everyone is bound to make, sooner or later.
In The Nature of Fantasy, I pointed out that fantasies disappear when the need for them goes away. But the need for "sex" never goes away, because it's a survival drive that is as much a part of us as our need to breathe, eat, drink, and sleep.
So if "sexual healing" is possible, it means that we have to "recondition" ourselves properly. A two-pronged attack is needed, here. Half of the solution is to improve the person's self-image using techniques like guided imagery and hypnosis. (See Mental Alchemy: The Art of Transmutation.)
The other, equally important half of the solution is some healthy outlet to replace the addiction. A loving, accepting partner would be ideal. But that places a huge emotional burden on the partner, who may be dealing with their own issues, as well. In addition, it is in the nature of sexual addiction that it interferes with creating and sustaining a close bond of love and affection with another.
So it's likely that "sex therapy" is the best and most efficacious avenue of attack for the second half of the solution. Because the capacity for intimacy must be nurtured, along with the inclination towards healthy sex practices.
It's possible, too, that a person could recondition themselves. It would be a harder process, in the absence of someone caring enough and knowledgeable enough to help. But it might be possible. But it would still require some sort of surrogate for the sex act.
But again, society's repression raises it's ugly head. It's possible that one could engineer a return to "healthy sexuality" by working to make changes in the psyche and utilizing the services of a prostitute as a physical substitute, until a suitable partner was found. But prostitution is illegal in most states. And society frowns on it in all of them.
Ancient Greek society had a tradition of heitaras -- women of culture who entertained many men. Their home was a meeting place, a place to discuss philosophy and art, as well as a place to seek sexual gratification. Of course, ancient greek culture was immensely disrespectful to all other women, who were supposed to stay home, have babies, and keep quiet. So I'm not suggesting that we should emulate all of Greek culture. But the system of heitaras seems like a useful one.
In today's world, we have other options, as well. These days, sex therapists are listed in the phone book. And there are teachers of tantra and "sacred sex" who work to put spirituality back into the act.
I'm happy to say that such activities are changing society, however slowly. They have a struggle on their hands, because they are battling not only the repressiveness of mainstream society, but also the licentiousness and unbounded sexuality of subcultures that are unreasonably unrepressed.
But at least progress is being made. In large part, we owe that progress to the freedom we have in this society -- a freedom that stems from the all-important principle of "The Separation of Church and State". Of course, it's still more of a principle than a reality. Our politicians are still required to profess a belief in one of the major faiths if they are to stand any chance of being elected. But at least that principle limits the amount of all-out repression that church doctrines can impose.
That separation has produced a significant degree of freedom -- much of which is the "freedom to make money by selling pornography". Oddly enough, the people who profit from others' sexual addictions have a vested interest in the sexual repression that lines their pockets. So they proclaim the importance of "moral standards" from the front door of the church while they sell their pornography from the back door of the house.
To the extent that "unhealthy sexuality" runs rampant in our society, our freedom seems unfortunate. But to the extent that "healthy sexuality" is allowed to emerge and flourish, and become a role model for our children, that freedom is a very healthy, very positive thing.
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