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What We Talk About When We Talk About Sexual Addiction

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

I just don’t see how anyone can write about sexual addiction without also writing about masculinity and feminism. But before I do that, let me propose a few caveats:

  1. It is not my place (or ambition) to say whether sexual addiction exists or not.

  2. I am not claiming that there are not also women who identify as sexually addicted.

  3. When I question the ways we conceptualize sexual addiction, I am not doing so to trivialize or disrespect anyone’s experiences.

  4. Despite the possible inclusion of “hypersexual disorder” in the DSM 5, I will use the term “sexual addiction” because it remains the term of choice and because the word ‘addiction’ shapes our understanding of the disorder.

  5. There will be some explicit references in this post.

I feel the need to begin with these caveats because I have already learned that to speak about sexual addiction with any sort of doubting curiosity is to invite angry assertions of its existence. The invocation of addiction implies the absolute certainty of the recovery movement. It demarcates a clear trajectory into abjection as well as the redemptive potential of recovery. Cohering (as in: bringing together and making coherent) sexual excess under this term leaves little room for nuance. Yet, as I have argued earlier, sexual addiction remains an aporia that helps shape notions of sexuality, morality, and even addiction itself. If we do not pay close attention to what we mean when we say that certain destructive sexual behaviors are “addictions,” we risk losing sight of what we might learn about gender roles and entitlements.

The other response to any doubting curiosity is the seemingly inevitable reference to men who feel compelled to masturbate until they bleed. 

So sorry about the "bloody penis" thing. Here's a mental image to cleanse your palate.

I find it strange, then, that when I do a little googling (“blood penis masturbation”), I mostly find references to a little blood in ejaculate and nothing much about that image I suspect we all had when we first heard of the bloody penis. As with sexual addiction itself, it seems, the bloody penis is a signifier in search of a signified.

Indeed, I have come to think of that bloody penis as the master signifier of sexual addiction. It appears in any conversation that threatens to veer from vague to precise when describing the sorts of behaviors we include under the diagnosis. The invocation of the bloody penis, much like the invocation of addiction itself, sucks all the air out of the room. How, that bloody penis seems to demand, can one be a bastard if one is so deeply (self) injured?

I wonder, however, if the bloody penis can also stand in for the crisis of masculinity, which, I believe, shapes conversations about sexual addiction. And I do not see how we can talk about the crisis of masculinity without also talking about feminism.

If the rapid proliferation of various men’s groups in the late 1980s and early 1990s is any indication, second wave feminism scored some major victories in its mission to challenge behaviors that, until then, had maybe been seen as unfortunate (or even immoral), but not as sexist and illegal. It’s easy to forget that second wave feminism is responsible for terms such as “sexual harassment,” “date rape,” “rape culture,” and “marital rape,”(as well as insults like “male chauvinist pig”).  With those terms came the recognition that the activities they described were not individual acts of lust, but part of a larger pattern structured by uninterrogated notions of masculinity. All of a sudden, a man like Don Draper looked less like a successful “man” and more like that male chauvinist pig, and that made it a little harder to be – or aspire to be – a man like Don Draper.

Feminism, according to the men's rights movement

It should come as no surprise, then, that various men’s groups would try to imagine other ways to be a man. Some saw feminism as an opportunity to renounce the privileges and perils of masculinity. Others tried to recreate a new, but still essentialist, “deep masculinity.” Then, there was the “men’s rights” movement, which aimed at reversing feminist achievements by repositioning men as victims of feminism rather than as oppressors of women. Whatever the permutation, however, these movements were all concerned with similar questions: how can a man be a man after feminism? What behaviors are still acceptable, and how do we categorize behaviors that are no longer acceptable – or sometimes even legal?

The seminal mythopoetic book, in which the "deep masculine" is represented by a wild yet gentle fairy tale character.

In 1983, as women were taking back the night and insisting that men not just “be men,” Patrick Carnes came out with the first major book about “sexual addiction,” a term he is credited with coining.  In the book, he describes a continuum of behaviors, ranging from masturbation to cheating to public lewdity to child molestation. Although he makes glancing references to women who regret having casual sex (suggesting that some prostitutes are really just sexual addicts), the majority of his examples involve stereotypically male behavior. Despite his claim, then, that he uses the male pronoun “simply to preserve sentence continuity,” it does seem to be the appropriate one for the majority of sexual addicts in this early study (xxv).

Although “sexual addict” might be a tough pill to swallow, it does seem preferable to labels like “sexual predator,” “cheater,” or even “male chauvinist pig.” The diagnosis permits a person who has hurt another to avoid responsibility for his actions, if only temporarily. It helps reconceptualize sexist bad behavior away from a reflection of a person’s character to a symptom of a disease that is, despite claims to the contrary, surmountable.

So sorry I had to bring it up again. Here, look at the cute bunny.

What better image of this sick role than the bloody penis? Anyone else who might have been hurt or betrayed is overshadowed by the image of man who would transform pleasure into pain, who would pay for his sins with such terrible self-abuse. The man who has broken trust or violated the rights of others is now both victimizer and victim.

I suspect, when conceptualized within the framework of a feminist challenge to conventional notions of masculinity, sexual addiction must inevitably bifurcate. On one side, there is the sickness: the compulsion to masturbate, for example. On the other side, there are behaviors that might better be returned to the category of badness: breaking marital agreements, preying on the vulnerable, paying for sex, lying to get sex, treating women as objects (outside of consensual BDSM).

These behaviors result from the structural entitlements men still enjoy, after all. To include them as forms of sexual addiction is to draw attention from the real disorder, which is (if I might propose a new diagnosis) the linked mental illnesses of sexism and misogyny. After all, if there were no sexism, no continuing inequality between men and women, I’m not sure we would need terms like “sexual addiction” to contain or cohere sexuality that infringes on the humanity of other people.

Men like Tiger Woods or Bill Clinton or Eliot Spitzer or Anthony Weiner might not get such an easy out if we were to look at their actions as the result of choice rather than compulsion. Doing so, however, would reposition them as active agents in their own lives, not victims of urges beyond their control. And those few people – men and women – who suffer from terrible, self-injurious sexual compulsion might get the attention and help they deserve once the waters are less muddied by a condition that might better serve as a symptom than a diagnosis.



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