Part 2 of a two part post. Please note: This post discusses many different aspects of my personal sex life -- many, many aspects -- in a fair amount of detail. Family members and others who don't want to read that, please don't. Really, really don't. This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog.
In the last column, we were discussing this Sexual Addiction Screening Test created by Dr. Patrick Carnes, inventor of the term "sex addiction." We saw a noticeable pattern in this test: the pathologization of unconventional sex; the pathologization of sex that other people are shocked or upset by -- regardless of whether they have any right to be; and the pathologization of people who make sex a high priority in their lives. (Thanks to Dr. Marty Klein's Sexual Intelligence blog for the tip). Today we continue going through the test, looking at all the questions that a sexually healthy person might answer "Yes" to... and examining what exactly is troubling about this test and the model of sexual dysfunction it represents.
(This piece contains explicit descriptions of sex. If you're under 18, please do not continue reading.)
Have you spent considerable time surfing pornography online?
Okay. Given that I even have to ask the question, I'm going to say "yes." I read atheist blogs more than sex blogs these days... but I still probably spend about an hour or two a week looking for dirty material on the Net.
And again (see the last column), we have the assumption that seeking out porn is bad -- no matter what.
Pathologizing people for whom sex is a high priority? Pathologizing sex that shocks or upsets other people, regardless of whether they have a right to be? Check, and check
Have you regularly purchased romantic novels or sexually explicit magazines?
I actually had to answer "No" to this one. Romance novels and magazines aren't my thing (Dirty Found being the exception). But again, we have the "porn is unhealthy no matter what" trope.
So see above, re: the pathologization of socially frowned-upon sexual habits... and of horniness generally.
Have you traded sex for money or gifts?
Technically, I had to say "No" to this one, too. I worked as a stripper, not as a prostitute. But I'm calling it out, because I want to call out the insulting, bullshit stereotype that being a sex worker means you’re a sad, helpless victim, forced by poverty or addiction or low self-esteem into a choice that no sane person would ever make.
Pathologizing sex that shocks or upsets other people, regardless of whether they have a right to be? Check. And how.
Have you maintained multiple romantic or sexual relationships at the same time?
Not to mention ordinary single people who date more than one person at a time.
My answer to this one? Yup. You bet. And not nearly often enough.
I think we have another trifecta, people. We’ve got unconventional sex, sex that shocks or upsets other people, and people who make sex a high priority. Let’s hear it for the pathologization of non-monogamy!
Do you visit sexual bath-houses, sex clubs or video/bookstores as part of your regular sexual activity?
Personally, these days I’d have to answer "No" to this one. But that hasn't always been true. There was definitely a period of my life when I was going to sex clubs and sex parties regularly... if by "regularly" you mean "every month or two."
Pathologizing unconventional sex? Check.
Have you cruised public restrooms, rest areas or parks looking for sex with strangers?
Nope. But see above, re: gay men. Lots of happy gay men have done this, especially in their early coming-out years. Note that the question doesn't ask "Do you do this often?", or "Do you do this at the expense of other romantic/ sexual relationships?" -- or even, "Are you doing this now?" It asks, "Have you done it?" Ever?
Pathologizing unconventional sex? Check.
Have you been paid for sex?
The test already asked "Have you traded sex for money or gifts?" So I’m not sure why Dr Carnes felt compelled to ask it again. Therefore, see above, re: the fucked-up assumption that engaging in sex work is a sign of sexual disorder. As opposed to, say, a sign of sexual comfort and curiosity and exploration... or a sign of wanting a job that pays well for short, flexible hours.
Pathologizing sex that shocks or upsets other people, regardless of whether they have a right to be? Check.
And now we have the best one of all. I did this one out of order, so I could save it for last:
Have you regularly engaged in sadomasochistic behavior?
This is the kicker, folks. More so even than the questions with the dropped words and the bad grammar. ("Have stayed in romantic relationships after they became emotionally or abusive?" "Have you attempted to stop my online sexual behaviors?") This is the question that proves, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that this test is bullshit, pure charlatanism, with no more professional authority than those Internet quizzes on what kind of barnyard animal you are. ("You are a Goat! Goats are...")
The DSM -- the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, written by the American Psychiatric Association -- no longer lists consensual sadomasochism as a mental illness, except when it causes distress, impairment, unhappiness, or potential danger.
A fact of which Dr Carnes seems blissfully unaware.
Since he's still including sadomasochism -- not distress, impairment, unhappiness, or potential danger caused by sadomasochistic sex, but the mere fact of practicing SM regularly -- as a sign of sex addiction.
Have I regularly engaged in sadomasochistic behavior? Yes, you half-wit. I'm a sadomasochist.
Pathologizing unconventional sex? Pathologizing sex that shocks or upsets other people, regardless of whether they have a right to be? Check, and check yet again.
So here's an experiment. Take the word "sex" in this test, and replace it with the word "music." Shift the grammar as needed. And imagine a test with these questions:
Do you often find yourself preoccupied with thoughts about music? Do you feel that your musical tastes are not normal? Has the music you like ever created problems for you and your family? Do you hide some of your musical tastes from others? Has music been a way for you to escape your problems? Have you purchased services online for musical purposes (sites for MP3 sharing, music fansites, iTunes, etc.)? Have people in your life been upset about your music? Have you paid professional musicians to satisfy your musical needs? Have you spent considerable time surfing for music online? Have you regularly purchased music (records, CDs, MP3s), or materials about music (books, magazines, videos)? Do you visit music clubs or concert halls as part of your regular musical activity? Have you gone to public parks or street fairs looking for music? Have you ever been paid to make or sell music?
This little experiment makes it clear: The "sex addiction" model represented in this test does not view sex as a positive, fundamental part of human life -- the way we see music, for instance. The "sex addiction" model represented in this test sees sex itself as a problem. And it accepts the conventional mores and taboos about what kinds of sex are and are not acceptable... regardless of whether those kinds of sex actually cause any harm.
Which is a problem.
Our society is fucked-up about sex. It creates rigid and irrational taboos on what kinds of sex are kosher and what kinds aren't. It fears and despises sex generally, and holds people who don't fear or despise sex in contempt. Using conventional sexual morality as any kind of marker for sexually healthy behavior isn't just wrong-headed. It's grossly irresponsible. There are people in the world who have real problems with sex, real compulsions, people whose sexual behavior does real harm to themselves and others. They need help -- and they need it from people who don't see sex itself as the problem.