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Here We Go Again: Sex Addiction Is in the News

"Sex addiction" is part of the Atlanta tragedy. But is it really an addiction?

Key points

  • The sheriff's comments after the Atlanta tragedy shed light on male inner conflict.
  • Men are taught in our culture to focus on external markers of success.
  • Men's lack of inner awareness leads to what we term "sex addiction" because they do not understand their own needs or motives.

It’s only been two weeks since the mass shootings in Atlanta. Let me repeat that: It’s only been two weeks since the mass shootings in Atlanta.

With the speed of the news cycle being what it is and how news stories seem to quickly come and go, I don’t know about you, but to me, it feels like it was longer than that. But to the family members of the victims, it probably feels like it simultaneously just happened and that it happened a lifetime ago.

Like most awful things that occur, what happened in Atlanta is a many-layered event filled with uncomfortable stuff that is downright painful to look at. There is a lot to unpack about that horrific event and what happened in the immediate aftermath: issues like gun violence; existing gun laws; how seven of the eight victims were women; how six of those seven women were Asian; wanting to deem this a hate crime against the AAPI community in the context of a sharp increase in such violence in the last year; assumptions about women who work at massage parlors/spas; racist and sexist tropes about Asian women; and the list goes on.

But I am going to sidestep all that and instead focus on what was said by the sheriff in the press conference. By now, we all know what he said (or you can look it up). Hearing this immediately reminded me of the many male clients I have worked with and sat with (and probably will continue to work with and sit with, at least for now over Zoom).

Why did this immediately remind me of some of my clients? No, I am not referring to men with a tendency towards or history of violence. I immediately understood the inner conflict represented in the alleged comments by the shooter about his sexuality.

I am talking about men who are troubled by their sexual desires. And I’m not necessarily talking about the illegal stuff. I mean the self-reported male feminist who has the most powerful orgasms when he fantasizes about sexually degrading a woman he knows and respects and worries what this says about him. I mean the upstanding family man who looks at his teenage daughter’s female friends with a feeling of admiration that makes him uncomfortable. I mean that C-level business executive who secretly is into BDSM and is conflicted about why he likes it.

Our culture teaches men to focus externally

Generally speaking, our culture actively discourages men from getting in touch with, learning about, or understanding their inner lives or inner experiences. Men, let me ask you this: As a child when you fell, scraped your knee, felt the imminent pain, and tears began to well up, was there an adult nearby who told you, “It’s OK, just brush it off?" When you played sports in high school, how were you conditioned to ignore your fear of that opponent who was physically bigger and stronger than you who could hurt you somehow? How many times have other men told you to “buck up?" Worse yet, how many times has a woman told you, “Act like a man?” (Ladies, please stop. You have no idea the harm that does.)

Instead, the culture's message to men is to focus on outward endeavors like making a lot of money, marrying a beautiful woman, getting a big house or fancy car or expensive toy. (Hmm, with the exception of marrying the beautiful woman, that sounds a lot like capitalism to me.) These are the (albeit superficial) signs of being successful at being a man.

What a lack of inner awareness costs men

This idea of how to succeed as a man inevitably causes problems for the men who buy into it or alternatively do not know how to get out of it. These men frequently become my clients: They have spent much of their lives disconnected from their feelings or their inner life. Their focus has been on those outward pursuits, they struggle with insight, they do not understand their deeper needs or motives, and now they are seeking sex and relationship therapy because they are experiencing problems in one or both of those areas of the lives.

So it is no surprise that there is a side to society that claims that something like sex (or porn) is "addictive" — because the (inaccurate) belief is that the problem is external. It’s often men who believe this, and in this context of externalizing the problem combined with an avoidance of self-understanding, it makes sense. Some women believe this too and so do some religious conservatives; they uphold beliefs about traditional sex and gender roles — think women are responsible for men’s sexuality (which I wrote about here — and goes to show you this belief resides in many who are not religious). Certain religions also promote distrust of one’s body and its sexual desires or a downright denial of one’s body. This supports the outwardly-focused narrative perfectly: avoid self-examination and the problem becomes external, not internal. Therefore, the “solution” is external too: Women are to blame themselves for their victimization or massage parlors are "temptations" that need to be eliminated.

When we promote an external solution to an internal problem in this way, we perpetuate this way of being in the world: Men do not have to turn inward and do the hard work of understanding why sex (or porn) has such a pull on them. Because remember, not everyone is seduced by the same things.

If the last year of a global pandemic shutdown has taught us anything, I hope it’s shown us that when we do not have the distractions of concerts, travel, get-togethers with family and friends, and so on — when we are literally just sitting around in our homes, we discover that we have a very rich inner life of thoughts, feelings, and urges. And maybe in the last year, you have developed a better relationship with yourself.

© 2021 Diane Gleim


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