The Aresan Clan is published four times a week (Tue, Wed, Fri, Sun). You can see what's been written so far collected here. All posts will be posted under the Aresan Clan label. For summaries of the events so far, visit here. See my previous serial Vampire Wares collected here.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Sexual Addiction

In the late nineteenth century it was a common belief that sex drained the life energy out of a person (see, for example, here). One can imagine this theory being expounded by men who noticed how tired and lethargic they were after sex and who believed that we are sustained by some unknown life energy, believing they must have lost a little bit of their life in the process. The French had a now familiar term "La petite mort," "the little death," which actually referred to this loss of life energy. It wasn't just a metaphor. It was believed that too many of these little deaths could lead to a big death. The parallel between semen and blood was made, as if every ejaculation was comparable to blood loss and too many of these ejaculations could eventually kill you. In fact, there were case studies in late nineteenth century medical literature of nymphomaniacs simply dying of exhaustion.

All the more reason to be worried about hypersexuality considering its serious health consequences. Surprisingly it was female sex obsession, nymphomania, that was considered more common, much more so than the male version satyriasis. This term nymphomania derives, apparently from the 1775 work of a French researcher named Dr. Bienville, who wrote the first full study of nymphomania Nymphomania, or a Dissertation Concerning the Furor Uterinus. His proposed list of causes for it included: "eating rich food, consuming too much chocolate, dwelling on impure thoughts, reading novels, or performing 'secret pollutions' (masturbation)." Like many of his followers in the coming centuries, he too believed that excessive sexuality in women, as well as in men, was a disease and something that could be cured.

The times have changed and beginning in the mid twentieth century the psychology field began to abandon the idea of hypersexuality as a mental disorder or disease. For one, it's not really believed that there are any health downsides to having too much sex. And there simply is too much variability in people's level of libido and the ways people express their sexuality, for some practices to be considered as a disorder or disease. Some people like to have more sex than others.

Nonetheless, some people still consider high levels of sexual activity as possibly being an addiction. In Der Spiegel, Frank Thadeusz writes against this idea of sex addiction and self-help groups that propose to treat people as if it's a disease, like alcoholism or drug addiction.

Now, first of all, we should distinguish between what we call a habit and an addiction. We all have many habits, whether it includes always reading the newspaper over breakfast, or taking a certain route to work, or checking your email every fifteen minutes. Usually, when we speak of an addiction, we mean a habit that really interferes with your life. Not just something that's a bad habit, like say pushing the snooze button every morning when the alarm goes off, but something truly harmful, like a drug or alcohol addiction. When excessive sex was believed to have serious health consequences, this might have made sense for sex addiction, but not anymore.

Even then, labeling it as a disease might not be helpful either, since a disease is normally you're something a victim of. People may like to perceive themselves as victims of their bad habits, but this is too much an evasion of blame. Certainly you don't choose whether the cold virus or cancer that infects you starts spreading, but you do have a choice of whether you'll drink alcohol or have sex. That isn't to say it's an easy choice or that a strong urge might not pull you towards something (people overcoming addictions do genuinely struggle with their addictions and do fail to overcome them), but it is still in the realm of choice.

On the other hand, we should be a bit reluctant to condemn groups that try to help people get over bad habits. Certainly there are room for helping people that have say a bad overeating habit or have what they believe to be an unhealthy obsession with sex. Breaking such habits can be really hard, and though people get over habits in different ways, it can really help some people to have that support. The problem is when these groups promote an ideology that truly misunderstands or misrepresents the problem, which is probably not helpful. Sex addiction is really a label that only works when self-applied and proper responsibility needs to be accepted; if you believe that your sexual habits are interfering with your life, then cutting back is good. But when you start to think another person is abnormal simply because their habits deviate from your own, then that's not good.

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