Polyamory and sex addiction
At a recent poly conference I attended, the organizers set aside time and space for anyone who wanted to do a presentation or announce a discussion topic. A longtime poly couple took the opportunity to discuss a terribly difficult and traumatic problem.
The man, who sincerely loves and respects the woman, had recently confessed to her that despite their poly vows of openness and care, he had been cheating with secret girlfriends, sneaking out to spend huge sums on prostitutes, endangering his livelihood by spending hours a day with porn rather than working, and keeping it all hidden. She had sensed that something was badly wrong but blamed herself. The man poured forth, to the rapt audience at the conference, what it was like to be a sex addict the compulsion pushing everything else aside, the inability to stop despite seeing the damage his behavior was causing, the denialism despite seeing it, and the almost suicidal self-disgust at being unable to break his destructive behavior despite his best efforts.
If you've ever heard an alcoholic or a gambling addict tell his story, you heard exactly what we heard in that room. This had nothing to do with sex-negativity or guilt about being a sexual creature. If I was skeptical about the reality of "sex addiction" before, I wasn't any longer.
The man is now in a sex-addict recovery organization, and with its help and the help of his partner he has broken loose of his compulsion, so far. The two said that they decided to close their relationship during the ongoing intensity of working through this, a radical step for both of them.
The woman, very experienced in the poly and kink worlds, emphasized that sex-positive communities have had a hard time facing up to the reality of sex addicts because the mundane world often throws this accusation against anyone who lives beyond the ordinary.
Hopefully, we are becoming mature and confident enough to be less defensive and address this problem when it really exists.
Deborah Anapol, one of the founders of the modern polyamory movement a generation ago, takes up the topic in her latest "Love Without Limits" article on the blogsite of Psychology Today magazine:
Polyamory and Sex Addiction
...Several years after that, Thelma looked me up again, asking what I thought about sex addiction. I responded that I was very disturbed by the presence of sex addiction in the polyamory community, saying that while most polyamorous people are not addicts, it was a significant problem and one that often came up for discussion in my workshops. Although I wish sex addiction was never an issue in polyamory, the truth is that polyamory does provide a convenient cover story for addicts who are generally in denial about having an addiction.
It's easy to justify sexual obsession by calling it polyamory. A handful of sex addicts can wreak havoc in a community, especially when people are still operating out of conditioning that forbids the sharing of "family secrets" out of misguided respect for confidentiality. Polyamory offers a venue in which sex addicts can begin at least to tell the truth about what they're doing instead of carrying on secret affairs. I prefer to put a positive spin on it by seeing that bringing their destructive, addictive behavior out into the open is the first step toward healing, but unfortunately it can get messy and hurtful for those who are hoping for love and instead find callousness.
I'm well aware that some people object to the whole concept of sex addiction, partly because the label is sometimes used inappropriately to condemn people who don't conform to sexually repressive social or cultural norms. However, if the polyamorous community insists on denying that sexual addiction exists, they end up reinforcing the erroneous view that all polyamory involves sex addiction by allowing sex addicts to masquerade as polyamorists.
After hearing my opinions, Thelma decided she'd like to tell me about her own experience. "I can well describe what it is like, how it feels to be the substance that a sex addict uses to engage in his addiction," she told me. For Thelma, the idea that she was attempting a polyamorous relationship that would involve a potentially painful confrontation with her own jealousy, but would be well worth it in the end, allowed her to be drawn into an abusive relationship....
Anapol also discusses the outwardly similar, but quite different, syndrome of "New Relationship Energy addiction."
...For Alex, polyamory did provide a context in which he was able to see that it was not so much the jealousy and possessiveness of his partner... nor the judgments of society which were essentially reversed in the polyamory community that stood between him and his sexual freedom. Rather, he became aware for the first time that nonmonogamy was workable only if he could heal the childhood wounds that led him to compulsively lose control when he indulged in his "drug." When he wasn't "high" on "new relationship energy," Alex was an empathic and attentive partner. "It wasn't like I could just be satisfied with two or three women and settle down. There was never enough, and I was always tempted by the next one."
Alex's high-level communication skills, team spirit, and playful creativity made him a natural for polyamory, but his addictive behavior sabotaged him every time. Alex, like Thelma, finally joined Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (SLAA). Similarly to its sister Twelve Step groups Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, SLAA preaches abstinence (which in this case means monogamy rather than celibacy).
At one point, when Alex was having difficulty staying on the wagon, I suggested that it might be easier if he stayed out of "bars," but he and Dawn so enjoyed the relaxed openness of poly-friendly venues and the deep friendships they'd established that they continued to gravitate toward this community and eventually succeeded in establishing better boundaries....
Read the whole article (April 11, 2011).
The woman I described at the start of this post writes,
There are sex addicts and their partners in our community who suffer in silence, being too embarrassed and afraid of condemnation to come out, ask for support, etc., because they are aware how conflicted many are about whether sex addiction actually exists.
Part of the controversy over whether it exists comes from "addiction" sometimes being defined as applying only to chemicals that cause withdrawal symptoms. People who hold to this definition insist that the term "compulsion" should be used instead for things like gambling, sex, Warcraft, and marijuana.
But there's evidence that the same dopamine reward/compulsion process occurs in the brain whether the addiction is chemical or purely behavioral. So I think the term is justified. And anyway, so many people use "addiction" this way now that it's too late to change it.
Labels: Deborah Anapol