When I was young, I was a Cosmo Girl. I read Cosmopolitan magazine religiously. That means I can’t resist taking quizzes which promise, in ten short minutes, to reveal some hidden subconscious secret about yourself that you didn’t know. I took the quizzes whether they were relevant or not. So before I’d even been kissed, I learned that my marriage could, indeed, be saved. At thirteen, I was told to dump the loser and move on. So I hope you won’t use it as evidence against me that I took a sex addiction for women quiz the other day. Then I took the sex quiz addiction for men. Maybe I need a quiz addiction quiz.
I came across the quizzes after following a link from Jack Games over at Step 14. This led me to a criticism of Alcoholics Anonymous on A Healthy Place: Your Mental Health Channel. On the right hand side was a link to a psychological test page. Like the Cosmo Girl I once was, I thought, “Ooh, quizzes.” You will all be glad to know that I don’t have ADHD or OCD. Apparently, I suffer from anxiety and depression, but I already knew that. All the quizzes were for both genders except for the sex addiction quiz. I took them, both the “for men” and “for women” quizzes. I learned that I would have a much bigger problem with sexual addiction if I were a man. I confess, that wasn’t the result I was expecting. Of course, I don’t believe that there is such a thing as sexual addiction, so I shrugged my shoulders and did not make an appointment with a therapist.
Then I came across a post entitled “The Purity Myth” over at Critic of Christianity and I thought maybe our different expectations of men and women’s sexual behavior might be worth discussing.
All of the quizzes were followed by the disclaimer that you can’t diagnose mental illness with an online quiz. However, the sex addiction quizzes had an additional disclaimer.
There is a wide range of prevailing opinions as to what is acceptable sexual behavior.
The Sexual addiction entry in Wikipedia states:
Addiction is the state of behavior outside the boundaries of social norms which reduces an individual’s ability to function efficiently in general routine aspects of life or develop healthy relationships. (emphasis mine)
I’m not sure how social norms interact with, let’s say, heroin addiction, but in the case of sexual addiction, social norms strike me as everything. Despite never for a moment worrying about my sexual behavior or feeling self-destructive or out of control, I came out on both these tests as a sex addict.
Unsurprisingly, I am not the only one with skepticism about sex addiction. Back in 1988, when the idea of sex addiction was still relatively new, Martin P. Levine and Richard R. Troiden published a paper questioning whether such an illness existed. They note that as sexual mores have changed, the definition of sexual pathology has also changed.
…mental health professionals viewed nonmarital and nonprocreative sex as pathological. The first edition of The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, for example, defined masturbation, fellatio, cunnilingus, homosexuality, and sexual promiscuity (e.g., “Don Juanism” and “nymphomania”) as forms of mental illness.
As the counter culture of the sixties and seventies changed the prevailing norms of sexual behavior, the mental health profession followed suit.
Against the backdrop of a (briefly) sex-positive culture, mental health professionals and sexologists re-evaluated professional definitions of erotic control and deviance. ….they depathologized nonmarital and nonprocreative sex. The DSM: III (1980) no longer listed masturbation, fellatio, cunnilingus, homosexuality, Don Juanism, and nymphomania as psychosexual disorders.
Sexually permissive values, however, also provided grounds for adding new psychosexual disorders to the DSM. “Not enough” sex and “inappropriate” sexual response became pathologized. A number of problems of living were transformed into sexual dysfunctions, and were regarded as clinical conditions amenable to therapeutic intervention.
The cusp of the nineteen eighties saw the rise of the AIDS epidemic, a growing dissatisfaction with the self-absorption of the “me decade”, and the rise politicized religious movements broadly known as the “religious right.”
Thus by the 1980s, “too much sex”rather than “not enough sex” began to emerge again as an issue of concern both to the lay public and to mental health professionals. In the permissive climate of the 1970s, it had been unthinkable to argue that there were people who were”addicted to sex” or “out of control sexually.” …. In the increasingly sex-negative 1980s, however, the time had come for the ideas of sexual addiction and compulsion.
In the context of national concern about drug use and addiction, sexually transmitted disease, teenaged pregnancy, and an ethic of commitment, “sex addicts” and “sexual compulsives” were mentioned increasingly in professional publications and in mass media. Nonrelational sexual conduct that had been legitimized in the 1970s was reclassified in the 1980s as a symptom of mental disorder.
The upshot is that “sexual addiction” is a term used to enforce conformity in sexual behavior. I don’t think that it’s too much of a stretch to say that society accepts a greater degree of sexual behavior from men than from women. Consequently, I expected that the separate male and female tests would reflect this and that a women’s behavior would be seen as pathological with at a lower level of activity. Boy, was I wrong. That might have been the case if the questions were the same, but they weren’t.
The most prominent difference between the two tests is the phrase “not related to sexual orientation” which appears repeatedly in the test for men but not once in the test for women. For instance, women are asked:
16 ) Do you hide some of your sexual behavior from others?
While men are asked:
9 ) Do you keep the extent or nature of your sexual activities hidden from your friends and/or partners? (not related to sexual orientation)
It’s hard to be certain what prompted this difference, but I’m inclined to think that, since dykes are viewed as sexless, gay women are not seen as having sexual behaviors that need to be hidden.
The women’s questions focused more on relationships while the men’s questions presumed casual sex. So one question on the women’s test that has no analogous question for the men is:
3 ) Have you stayed in romantic relationships after they become emotionally or physically abusive?
Meanwhile, an example of a question that is asked men and not women is:
12 ) Do you believe that anonymous or casual sex has kept you from having more long term intimate relationships or from reaching other personal goals?
Considering how differently I scored on the two tests, it’s not surprising that more men than women are diagnosed as sex addicts.
I don’t want to mock people who feel that they have harmful compulsions that they need to overcome to have the sort of lives they’d like to have. I just don’t want other people imposing their values, values that everyone does not share, on others. I feel that I was fairly fortunate in that I was raised by a mother who felt like she had been harmed by the Catholic Church’s attitudes to sexuality and intentionally tried to avoid passing negative attitudes about sex on to her daughters. I also came of age during the late seventies, that little window of time when our culture was sex positive. Sometimes, when it comes to sex, I feel like I’m living in a foreign culture these days.
The concept of sex addiction is based on values that everyone does not share. The following are some of the values that are implied by many definitions of sex addiction:
- sex and sexual desire are dangerous
- there is only one “best” way to express sexuality
- sex that enhances “intimacy” is the best sex
- imagination has no healthy role in sexuality
- people need to be told what kinds of sex are wrong/bad
- if you feel out of control, you are out of control
- laws and social norms define sexual health
— From Marty Klein, a sexologist and therapist.
Intellectually, I have a lot of problems with the way society views sexuality these days. I don’t feel out of control, degraded or depressed about my sexual activity.
Unsurprisingly, sexual addiction was first conceived by a group of AA members.