Over the past year, I had several conversations about sexual compulsivity. Collecting background information for Sexed, a novel about sex addiction, I learned that the problem, in various interpretations, is a serious concern for many gay men.
It doesn't help that the subject, which is insufficiently researched and often filtered through idiosyncratic beliefs, is controversial and confusing.
Depending on who's talking, sex addiction takes on different definitions and meanings: excuse for the adulterer, perversion for the righteous, sin for the preachers, deficient impulse control for the psychiatrist, joke for the friend, defense for the celebrity, hypersexuality in action for the therapist, and so on.
The truth is that the broad concept of addiction changes over time, based on acquired knowledge and developing attitudes and norms. As a growing body of scientific evidence reframes the meaning of behavioral and process addictions (gambling, overeating, Internet use, sex, etc.), researchers and laypersons alike obtain much-needed clarity. The focus should then shift on what's truly important: the meaning of the condition to afflicted men and women.
During my interviews with gay men struggling with compulsive acting out and drained by obsessive sexual thoughts, I quickly realized that individual experiences vary considerably. Reported behaviors ranged from criminal acts to solitary and sporadic masturbation. In the book Cruise Control, sexual addiction expert Robert Weiss recognizes that it can be difficult for some people to differentiate between sex addicts and regular gay guys in a sexually liberated--some would say oversexed--gay culture.
From a different perspective, I had a similar thought. At times, among stories of sexual impulsivity and compulsivity with catastrophic outcomes, the addict's shame and despair is associated with a pattern of behaviors so tame, one could question whether the described emotional turmoil is the result of sex addiction, good ol' internalized homophobia, or--here comes the saddest expression--sex negativity.
As I listened to the story of a 34-year-old man unable to quit unwanted sexual cruising, I insensitively wondered: "Is this person a sex addict or is he dealing with the result of years of terrible messages regarding same-sex love?"
Homophobia and shame drive addictive behavior ... The emotional isolation, coupled with the fear of being "found out," amplifies the experiences and behaviors that contribute to addiction. -Robert Weiss, Cruise Control.
Addition models underline the influence of familial, societal, and cultural beliefs on the formation of impaired belief systems that seem to have a central role in the development of behavioral additions. By definition, sex addicts are the recipients of ambivalent messages about sexuality. When it comes to men who have sex with men, general misconceptions mix with cultural biases about homosexuality.
Each person has a belief system that is the sum of the assumptions, judgments, and myths that he or she holds to be true. It contains potent family messages about a person's value or worth, relationships, needs, and sexuality ... For gay and lesbian persons who are also sexual addicts, compulsivity simply compounds problems of acceptance and shame. -Dr. Patrick Crames in Out of the Shadow, considered one of the premier publications on sexual addiction.
Despite significant changes in the cultural landscape, gay sex remains surrounded by mixed messages. Hopeful and benign advancements--from a supportive White House to the Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality--coexist with abusive interpretations, constant aggressions, and outright violence.
Many religions describe homosexuality in terms of abomination and affront to their gods. In the news, we read of fundamentalist groups that throw gay men off roofs and pastors calling for the execution of "anybody who's a homo or bi" for an AIDS-free world. Teenagers use the term "gay" to describe what's ugly and ridiculous. Some lawmakers publicly equate same-sex love to bestiality and incest. Families still disown LGBT children. Closets remain not only for clothes.
Alongside accepting environments, these attitudes still manage to form an obscure message: gay sex is dangerous, wrong, and evil. Under these circumstances, too many gay men still end up having sex in damaging secrecy, engulfed in humiliation and remorse.
Shame, secrecy, isolation, and fear are fertile grounds for behavioral addictions.
It is important to recognize and be aware of these parallelisms.
Sex addiction is terrible and can lead to catastrophic outcomes.
Gay sex is not terrible. No matter what they teach, no matter what they say, gay sex, just like straight sex, is an affirmative and healthy expression of human sexuality.
Nothing good comes out of shame.