My name is Alexander. My nickname is Beastly. I write about sex.
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Hello. I have a dilemma and I thought you may be able to give me some advice. I’ve seen someone and fallen in love. He told me he is a recovering alcoholic. Today he told me he is a recovering sex addict. His rehab counselor told him to first get to know each other and then tell the person. I have trust issues from the past, and I can be jealous. What do you advise? Please, I need help from someone.
Please read this carefully. A compulsion is only a problem when it a) causes physical or financial harm and b) is perceived negatively within a particular culture. Both criteria must be met.
Most people have compulsions, and most compulsions are socially acceptable. I have a raging sweet tooth and probably eat a cupcake every two days. No one cares about this compulsion, in fact, it brings various small businesses money. Most people across the United States are addicted to sweets and sugar — and this widespread addiction fuels rampant illnesses and health problems, obesity, and the global candy industry. But this addiction is socially acceptable — and profitable — so we normalize and condone it. No one bats an eye when someone goes on an impulse trip to maintain their platinum airline status or owns too many clothes.
For someone to have a “problem,” there must be a negative cultural judgment — their behavior must be considered abnormal within their culture’s norms, regardless of how much harm they’re actually causing (to themselves or others). Many harmful substances are not seen negatively in the United States — alcohol kills more people in the U.S. than opioids, but you can legally get drunk every weekend. But if you do heroin once and get caught, you will go to jail. Heroin has a social stigma attached to it that classifies it as “harmful” — a stigma with deeply racist roots.
The fact, we judge all addictions differently. Many working people get drunk on weekends — many say that’s what weekends are for. But if you told your coworkers you smoke meth every weekend, they’ll likely call you an addict, and you’ll probably lose your job.
When compulsions are not socially acceptable, we pathologize them, regardless of how much harm they actually cause. I believe sex addiction is largely a social invention, a pathologizing of non-normative sexual behavior. The diagnosis of sex addiction is tricky because so much moralizing and judgment are already involved in social perceptions of sex. Healthy sexuality is still widely seen as “wrong” by many groups and cultures. Masturbation, watching porn, and casual sex are all part of a normal, healthy sex life, but many people judge these behaviors negatively — and pathologize them as “sick.”
I have mixed feelings on “sex addiction” — I think that, in most cases, it’s bullshit. I think it’s mostly a cultural invention borne of social perceptions of sex, not an actual illness. But I’ll concede that one can have unhealthy compulsions, like spending too much money on porn or skipping work for sex. One still must be careful, though. Our moralizing culture has a history of pathologizing sex — particularly sexually active women. Even with the above compulsions, we can ask questions: how much porn money is “too much”? I know people who spend all their spare cash on clothes, eating out, and video games. Are they sick? And what if you hate your job? I’d skip out on an awful job for good sex.
Sex pathologies have been leveled against women for centuries because we shame women who like sex — we have a litany of words for women (slut, whore, harlot, and so on) that we do not have for men, because men historically are perceived as “virile beasts” and their promiscuity is accepted and encouraged. These ideas sustain widespread violence against women and persist into our present day. Read this recent slut-shaming article about a “sex addict” woman who “romped with between 100-200 partners” — a number I passed by my senior year of college.
Because there’s no standard classification of “sex addiction” and because the diagnosis itself is so subjective, you need to do away with the ideas you have of “sex addict” in your mind and get the specifics from him — ask what “sex addiction” means to him. If he’s an “addict” because he masturbates daily, he’s simply an alcoholic with a bad counselor, and he needs to reappraise his ideas on what behaviors constitute healthy human sexuality. If he’s unable to manage his finances because of porn consumption, that’s a bit different.
Once you know these specific details, you can ask yourself what you’re willing to embrace in order to continue seeing him. If you want this relationship to work, you must embrace all of him, even and especially his compulsions. It took courage for him to tell you these things knowing you might reject him. If you want to keep dating, have an open mind and accept all of him. You can’t “tolerate” his compulsion or “look the other way” — he deserves more than that.
I say this as someone who monitors my own substance use — because I worry about it, and because I know how easily recreational substances can get out of hand. There was a moment in my life a few years ago when I thought I might have a problem.
I generally have a wild, druggy night every two months, and this usage pattern is manageable. Many of my friends drink heavily every few days, so if all substances were seen evenly, my every-two-months thing would be a non-issue compared to their drinking. But again, all substances are not seen evenly — the one I enjoy is a “bigger deal” than alcohol. For this reason, I monitor my use with a harm-reduction counselor who calls me every Friday. We have harm-reduction practices in place and set goals. Did I go two months between uses last time? Great, now let’s go for four months (easily doable).
All this brings me to my point: it doesn’t matter “how much” of a problem he (or anyone) has. It doesn’t matter if he has a disabling sexual compulsion or simply pathologizes his normal, healthy sexual behavior and considers it a sickness. What matters is that he believes he has a problem and is working to correct it, and if you want this to work, you must support him in that. It’s really not your place to discredit his addiction or monitor it. You are simply a confidante, a safe space.
My boyfriend is a fine example of how to date someone who thinks they have a problem: he has never judged me and stays hands-off with my harm-reduction/moderation regimen. He trusts what I tell him, lifts my mood when I’m coming down, and otherwise stays uninvolved. If I get triggered somewhere and need to leave, he leaves with me. When I get scared about my usage, he reminds me that I’m doing everything right (counselor, moderation, and so on) and being responsible.
This guy you’re interested in is being responsible. He’s talking to a counselor. He’s acknowledged he has a problem with alcohol. He’s doing everything right. So trust what he says and don’t act like a warden. You’re not a cop — you’re a lover.
My boyfriend and I are very promiscuous and many doctors — especially ones who are not familiar with gay culture — might call us sex addicts. Our promiscuity has caused problems: last summer we had a lot of sex and unintentionally ping-ponged STIs back and forth between us for months. The repeated antibiotics were so hard on our bodies that we had a serious harm-reduction talk and decided to minimize the number of sex parties we go to.
Brent and I are not sex addicts — most people we know are similarly promiscuous. Even when our promiscuity causes harm, it’s not perceived negatively — promiscuity in gay male culture is normal. I say this to poke holes in the “sex addiction” diagnosis. Not all cultures judge sex similarly. Which culture does your boyfriend subscribe to that judges his sexual behavior negatively?
While I’m casting doubt on “sex addiction,” I won’t do the same for alcoholism. Addictions to drugs and alcohol are different — substance addictions alter brain function to the point where the brain goes from wanting a substance to needing it. These are classified as mental health disorders by the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). Sexual compulsions are not.
This is why I monitor my substance use, not my sex life — only the former has the real risk of chemical dependency. (There is, of course, some debate on this — we know surprisingly little about all this stuff, and there’s even scientific debate over how exactly to classify substance addictions. Are they brain disorders, mental illnesses, or both?)
You have trust and jealousy issues, so you must learn from him what usage periods look like (some people say “relapses”) and decide if you want to deal with them (it’s okay if you don’t). You both must agree to be as honest and understanding as possible when these usage periods happen.
I hate the word “relapse” (along with “addict” and “addiction” — these words are rooted in shame and widely used thanks to the cult of 12-step). I think “usage period” is better. Many people plan usage periods, and doing so allows them to take steps to minimize and moderate the intensity of the usage period. This is called harm reduction, and it is applicable to both sexual compulsion and alcoholism.
For example: when I plan to have a wild night on drugs, I agree to text my boyfriend the next morning and tell him I’m okay and headed home. I never go for two days — I’m a one-night-only user — so this next-morning text keeps me accountable and keeps him informed. I don’t know what a comparable practice would be for your partner with his sexual compulsion but plan on something like that.
If you ever meet him after a usage period (sexual or alcoholic), remember he’ll be in a low headspace. Alcohol is a chemical depressant, and if he’s coming off a sex bender, he’ll probably be physically and mentally exhausted. He’ll feel vulnerable — no one feels cute when they’ve done something they’re not proud of. This is the time to be a pillow. Cuddle, watch a movie, and don’t talk about his usage. Never have a serious talk when someone’s coming down. Give him some distraction until he falls asleep.
And this goes without saying: if it’s not working, break up. If you ever feel you have to stay with him in order to prevent him from doing something unhealthy, the relationship is unhealthy and it’s time to leave. You’re never locked in. Always put your needs first.
Watch this TED talk about addiction. The speaker wrote a book called Chasing the Scream which proves that everything we think we know about addiction is wrong. Our culture isolates, demonizes, and judges people who develop chemical coping mechanisms — which are necessary in a world that shames mental illness, fosters rampant income inequality, subjects minority groups to continuous violence, and offers few ways to escape poverty.
In such an unfair world, people have to cope, and coping may include drugs, alcohol, or sex. We’re all responsible for the problems people face when they develop dependencies because we all allow our cruel society to be what it is. Addiction is a symptom of a broken world, not broken people.