The Magazine

Sexual Overload

Sometimes promiscuity is just promiscuity.

May 28, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 35 • By ANN MARLOWE
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Sex addiction may not exactly be an existential threat to the United States, but as this book makes clear, the cultural trend which created this farcical “illness” has much graver consequences. The medicalizing of what was hitherto seen as a moral issue and the promotion of a ridiculously broad notion of addiction aren’t just silly: In last year’s Dominique Strauss-Kahn scandal, the term “sex addict” was tossed around as though it explained something—homely maid walks into hotel room, and boom! Sex addict is ready to go.

Photo of Rep. Anthony Weiner

Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY) announces his resignation from Congress, 2011.

Timothy A. Clary / AFP / Getty Images / Newscom

David Ley gets at the philosophical heart of the matter: the dualism inherent in the idea that “sex addiction” overrides a person’s good impulses and makes them do bad things that aren’t really in their nature. “We are what we do,” Ley responds. He is squarely in the cognitive psychology camp, urging, “if you want to change how you feel, change what you do.” Ley points out that the argument that pornography causes rape, and particularly that the use of Internet porn leads to sexual violence, gets things backwards. Sexual violence has dropped by half since 1993, when web browsing became widely available, and even teen sex, teen pregnancy, and venereal disease rates have fallen. As should be intuitively obvious, people who spend most of their time panting over porn on their computers are less likely to be out in the real world getting in trouble.

Ley’s chapter on pornography makes all sorts of reasonable arguments for porn’s harmlessness in the context of most mens’ lives. But it doesn’t address any of the aesthetic issues with porn, most notably the way it has led an entire generation of men to a remarkably uniform and clichéd idea of a “sexy” woman and a “hot” sexual encounter. The problem isn’t that porn leads to rape; it’s that it leads to banality. And amid the common sense, there is also an annoying strain of valorization of male promiscuity in Ley’s work. He proclaims that “infidelity and promiscuity is a fact of human existence and a long-standing component of masculine eroticism”: 

Rates of last-year male infidelity in Mexico City are around 15 percent, Haitian men at 25 percent, and Mozambique males as high as 29 percent. The African countries of the Ivory Coast, Cameroon, and Togo report rates of last-year male infidelity as high as 36 and 37 percent. .  .  . In Russia, there is an almost universal social acceptance of infidelity. .  .  . In countries where male infidelity is expected, even celebrated culturally, the concept of sex addiction has not taken hold, and male sexual exploits are not seen as a sign of weakness but as a strength.

But Ley somehow never notices that these are spectacularly unsuccessful societies. 

With greater persuasiveness, he argues that “sex addiction” is a label placed by (some) women and a feminized culture on more or less normal male desires. He is right to say—though perhaps he says so at excessive length—that “the limits on ‘healthy’ sexual desire and frequency that are set by sex addictionologists are most similar to the female norms and ignore these gender differences.” But he goes overboard in arguing how much men and women supposedly differ in their views on sex: “50 percent of males think about sex more than once a day, compared to only
19 percent of females” is one of the more implausible claims.

For anyone who has cringed once too often at the term “sex addiction”—or questioned the blanket use of “addiction” as an explanation for behavior that is really a matter of moral choice—Ley’s demolition of the bad science and worse reasoning behind the sex addiction industry will be refreshing. For a while. This workmanlike, plodding book is no more than serviceably written and, alas, has fewer spicy bits than the reader might have hoped; it is all rather clinical. It also suffers from an inherent defect of books about addiction: rendering one thoroughly tired of the subject matter. Ley, like the addiction advocates, has quite a lot of sex. If a Martian were to read this book, he would have the idea that most Americans spend more time having sex than they do working, shopping, and watching television, and that sex is how most of us define ourselves.  

This probably comes with the territory of being a sex expert. But it’s a relief to close Ley’s brief volume and reemerge into the fresh air of a wider world, where sex is neither a feverish, tawdry addiction nor the central concern of life. There is, in fact, nothing like a book on sex addiction to reduce sex to the status of a tiresome obsession. It makes one nostalgic for the bygone days when sin, rather than addiction, was the framework for looking at illicit sex, when moral failings had the gravitas of Don Giovanni being dragged down to hell versus today’s mewling on Oprah.

Ann Marlowe is a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute and blogs for World Affairs.