The Sex Addict Defense
More than ever, when a man or woman in a relationship is caught cheating, they play the sex addiction card. But is that a good enough excuse?
It was a short-lived but juicy item of gossip this summer. No sooner had CNN news personality Anderson Cooper publicly confirmed the open secret that he was gay than he faced a “cheating boyfriend” scandal in the tabloid press. Britain’s Daily Mail splashed photos of Cooper’s beau, the predictably tall, dark and handsome Ben Maisani, smooching an unidentified man in New York’s Central Park.
The story went viral, got replayed by our glut of celebrity press, and thereby become a “fact.” (Never mind that there was no proof that the photograph had been taken since the two men got involved. Or that their relationship may be open—and cheating allowed.) During the days that it took for the story to disappear, I couldn’t help watching Cooper’s delivery on his news show with a certain giddy fascination. (For one thing, the show is called Keeping Them Honest.)
I also couldn’t help thinking how it may have played out if Maisani had instantly admitted to being a sex addict.
Maisani could have checked into the Gentle Path program at Pine Grove Behavioral Health and Addiction Services rehab—the spot where many boldface names have fled amidst infidelity dramas—and, more important, be reported to have checked in. Whether amends would be necessary is nobody’s business but Anderson and Maisani’s, who have kept their relationship as private as possible—Anderson being a journalist and all. But the treatment-for-sex-addiction would erase the appearance of a public stain, and that would be that.
That the two men refused to comment on any aspect of the story no doubt encouraged the tabloids to return their attention to Lindsay Lohan and other reliable train wrecks. But the dustup begs the question, when celebs (or anyone in a relationship, for that matter) pull the sex addict card when caught in a carnal indiscretion, can we believe it, and is it reason for forgiveness?
“The treatment of sex addiction has become an industry. To maintain growth there have to be ‘sexual addicts’ to treat."
Disclaimer alert: This is not to discount the often-lifesaving effects of recovery, whether through 12-step programs or an alternative. It’s about exploring the exploding trend of the sex-addiction label as an excuse for what our grandparents would have simply called bad behavior and a lack of character. In addition, if the cheater is in fact a sex addict, receives treatment and pursues recovery, what are the chances that this path will lead to healthy sexuality, monogamy and his relationship's survival?
If an alcoholic is honestly sober, that typically means that they do not touch the sauce. Ever. Period.
But sex-addiction sobriety does not necessarily mean chastity—or even not having lots of sex with lots of people (although this is a controversial matter). A key part of the sex addict’s 12-step recovery is creating a healthy “sex” plan, and one size definitely does not fit all. Healthy sex is generally viewed as intimate, “connected” sex, an experience that promiscuity does not exactly promote (unless you are polygamous, perhaps). But it is possible that for some addicts, at some points in recovery, a healthy sex plan veers from monogamy.
Sex addiction, rather than being black-and-white, is, say, 50 shades of gray. This allows cheaters plenty of wiggle room.
“Claiming to be a sex addict and hoping not to ‘get in trouble’ is a pretty lousy way to escape the consequences of a very hurtful behavior,” said Jeff Schultz, a sex addiction counselor and founder of the Sonoran Healing Center in Phoenix. “Odds are good that they'd end up in treatment anyway and could even uncover evidence of a real sex addiction.”
Whether or not the sex-addiction fallback will fly depends partly on the validity of the diagnosis itself. The American Psychiatric Association (APA) is debating whether sex addiction should be added to the DSMV-5, due out next year. The addition of what the APA is calling “hypersexual disorder” would legitimize the label as an addiction. A partner having secret hook-ups on the side could then proclaim themselves a patient rather than a cad. But would the overuse or the misuse of the label (for example, to get out of a jam) tarnish its growing validity?
Absolutely, said Cathy Meyer, a certified marriage educator who writes for The New York Times and the Huffington Post. And she blames treatment providers—and what she calls the sex-addiction industry—for the cheating’s facelift. “There is a rush to diagnose immoral sexual behavior as an addiction,” Meyer said. “The treatment of sexual addiction has become an industry in our country. To maintain growth in that industry there have to be ‘sexual addicts’ to treat.”
Some 10 years ago, there were fewer than 100 certified sex therapists in the nation; today there are over 1,500. “Has that number increased out of need? Or is the need being created due to the increase in folks who are choosing that specialty?” she asks. “I believe there are those who are sexual addicts. Some folks choose to deal with stress by engaging in unhealthy behaviors,” she said by way of answering her own question. “In my opinion most are not viewing porn or sleeping around because it relieves stress. They do so because it feels good and is fun. What better excuse when caught than ‘I'm a sex addict?’”
I was recently queried by a producer of True Entertainment’s show Unfaithful, a reality series that puts relationships rocked by cheating in the spotlight. The producer was hunting stories where couples experienced infidelity as a result of a fetish, a kink scene or a sexual addiction. The problem he faced was finding couples who would speak publicly about infidelity.
I let him know that I was having the same problem for this story. The shame associated with sexual issues may be stronger than that relating to drugs, alcohol and the other behavioral addictions that harm relationships. The men and the couples I spoke to were adamant about anonymity.
Additionally, those I spoke to were not celebrity cheaters (like Tiger Woods, Jesse James or David Duchovny)—they were not even celebrities by association (like Ben Maisani)—so did not face glaring media exposure. While most self-identified as sex addicts and so the label was not exactly an “excuse,” they did choose to keep cheating—or its lure—a secret. Their reason? Because their nonaddict partner “would not understand” what one man referred to as “the complexity of my journey.”
Several men said they were unable to create a dialogue with their partners about how this brand of addiction could make monogamy very difficult for them, so instead agreed to monogamy—and hoped for the best.
One recently married gay man from Maine who attended occasional 12-step meetings for his sex addition told me that prior to tying the knot, he had reluctantly promised his hubby-to-be that he would be monogamous (his own pre-marriage sex plan, as part of his 12-step work, allowed for casual flings as long as the sex was safe). His partner had made fidelity a deal-breaking stipulation before they walked down the aisle. He confessed to me, however, that he had great reservations about whether he could fulfill this promise over the long haul.
One tricky element for him, as a sex addict, was that he felt truly compelled to use sex to deal with pain, anxiety and feelings of emptiness. The stress leading to the wedding, for example, and facing a life of monogamy caused extreme anxiety, which spurred on a raging desire to act out sexually. Of course, the prospect of 'fessing up to all of this while expecting his husband-to-be to still toss the bouquet only aggravated his agita.
He admitted that if he were to cheat, and get caught, he would likely fall back on his sex-addiction label—but with little expectation of success. “I don’t believe my partner would buy me saying I cheated because I’m a sex addict,” he said.
Hoping for the best is a dicey strategy, to say the least. The sheer stress of keeping their addiction a secret may be enough to trigger the brief escape of a brief encounter.
This case confirms what Women’s Health magazine uncovered during a post–Tiger Woods poll: 63% of women said they view sex addiction as "an excuse for infidelity."
Yin Quam, a former dominatrix who is now an S/M educator and writer, asserts that using sex addiction as a rationalization for cheating indicates that while people may claim that they don’t disclose their sexual problems because “a partner may not understand,” this is not really the truth.
“I have come across a great many clients who use their desire for kinky sex as an excuse for infidelity. Many proclaim that their spouses would never understand or be judgmental,” Quam said. “However, since I've worked with clients through the process of coming out to their partners successfully, my belief is that many choose not to do so for their own reasons.”
“I don't believe that monogamy is the only route. But no matter what, honesty and compromise are the key elements.”
I spoke to several self-proclaimed sex addicts in relationships who said that honesty is the key—and building a good relationship requires admitting their addiction to their partner and dealing with it together. These men said that to stay sexually sober, they had to learn to see sex as an emotional connection with a loving partner rather than exclusively as sexual gratification.
Of course, this happy scenario requires that the cuckolded partner’s love can survive the betrayal. It remains an open question whether or not gay men, who are typically more open about sex—and have open relationships more often—than their straight counterparts, are more flexible when it comes to cheating issues, especially in the age of gay marriage. While gay men may have a tradition of easily separating sex from sentiment (and of having more than their share of “intimacy issues”), the desire or need for monogamy may be a deeply rooted part of one’s character independent of experience. Some people cannot love with it and others cannot love without it.
“If I cheated, we’d have to talk about why it happened and what was going on with us, not just the fact that I’m a sex addict. There’s more to it than that,” one man told me.
According to Jeff Schultz, many relationships can endure—and even become stronger—after the sex-addict partner admits their infidelity.
“When the sex addict stops cheating and acts with honesty and integrity, then his actions begin to rebuild broken trust and his relationship can begin to heal,” he said. “Little deposits of trust made over time can do wonders for a relationship harmed by sex addiction. With greater trust, there is the basis for intimacy, and with growing intimacy, a healthy sexual relationship.”
Quam agreed. “I don't believe that monogamy is the only route,” she said. “But no matter what agreement you make, honesty and compromise are the key elements.”
Bottom line, using sex addiction as a get-out-of-jail-free card—for citizens no less than celebrities—when one partner commits a sexual trespass tends to affirm monogamy as the best arrangement and betrayal as the worst offense. Faithfulness is certainly the time-honored model, but the high rates not only of divorce but of adultery (by men) suggest that it is honored almost as much in the breach as in the observance. Perhaps we invest too much in this one element in a relationship. As everyone knows, in every long-term coupling each partner disappoints the other in various ways.
Still, to expect a potential partner to jump feet first into a relationship with you if you are addicted to any substance or behavior is unrealistic and unfair. Disclosing that you have a disease is the responsible if risky act. Otherwise, you start the commitment already burdened with a secret. If your chosen one sticks around, your honesty will likely have helped tipped the scales.
As for Anderson Cooper and his beau, their silence about the entire affair, sex addiction or not, was refreshing. A few week’s after the smooch that, according to the tabloids, broke Cooper's heart and scuttled their supposed marriage plans, the two were spotted riding bikes together, baseball caps pulled low over their foreheads, in a most smiling manner.
No one can ever truly know the real deal in the privacy of other people's relationship, and for that we can be thankful, especially when the relationship involves two celebrities. But the apparently amicable outcome in the Cooper-Maisani business may affirm the wisdom that enduring love matches are about compromise, conflict and, when necessary, forgiveness. Just ask Bill and Hillary.
Scott Alexander Hess published his first novel, Diary of a Sex Addict, last August and has just completed a new novel, The Jockey, set in prohibition-era New York City. He blogs for the Huffington Post Books Section.