During a press conference on March 17, Atlanta police announced they had arrested a suspect in the horrific shooting that left eight dead.
The suspect, they said, “does take responsibility for the killings,” but that “he apparently has an issue – what he considers a sex addiction” and that he sees massage parlors – the sites of the violence – as “a temptation for him that he wanted to eliminate.”
As of this writing, only some of the victims have been identified to the public, but it was confirmed that six of the eight were Asian women. Given the nature of the attack and the rise of violence against Asian Americans in recent years, I scoff at the alleged shooter’s contention that the murders were not a racially motivated crime.
I am not an expert on the experiences of Asian Americans, so I will defer to others on that facet of this case. However, as a professional sexuality educator, I need to publicly counter this alleged killer’s assertion that “sexual addiction” is the motivation for this heinous crime.
“Have people spent too much money, wasted hours, lied to loved ones, or endangered their health over sex? You bet. The same thing can be said for sports cars, video games and online shopping.”
Because sex addiction isn’t a thing.
Let’s be very, very clear. It is possible to become obsessed with anything or to engage in any behavior compulsively and to a degree that causes damage in your life. As I pointed out in a recent piece about ethical porn consumption, anything that causes pleasure in your brain can be a problem if it becomes an uncontrolled coping strategy, whether it be candy, Twitter or sexual content.
But that is different from addiction: a state of physiological dependency where abstaining will result in withdrawal symptoms. For this reason, many professional sexology organizations, including the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists (AASECT) does not “support the classification of sex addiction or porn addiction as a mental health disorder.” In 2012, the American Psychological Association (APA) removed the diagnosis from their official manual, the DSM. The medical community, similarly, points out that compulsive sex-based habits lack the key elements of addiction or the long-term neurological changes present when someone is hooked on a substance.
Have people ruined their relationships, careers and lives over porn use or compulsive sexual behavior? Absolutely. Have people spent too much money, wasted hours, lied to loved ones, or endangered their health over sex? You bet. The same thing can be said for sports cars, video games and online shopping.
When lonely, sad, or overwhelmed, humans tend to dive into a nearby dopamine fix. These coping behaviors are symptoms of diagnosable issues: Depression and anxiety, for instance; but they are not illnesses in and of themselves.
And when the culture has a complicated relationship with the source of one’s comfort, the guilt and shame of indulging can be magnified, causing greater distress. If a person was not raised with the idea that sexuality is natural, normal and healthy to explore, any amount of masturbation, porn use, kink or promiscuity will be perceived as pathology.
As psychologist Michael Bader puts it, “While the desire for sexual pleasure is natural, the how, where and why are not. Sexual desire actually begins in the mind and travels down. The ‘problem’ of sexual addiction always involves the mind and the social world, never the desire itself.”
Sex addiction has been bandied as an excuse for a variety of crimes. Harvey Weinstein tried to use it as a defense for rape, Anthony Weiner blamed it for his sending lewd pics to a minor. Even Ted Bundy claimed porn was the source of his sadistic serial murders, despite the fact the vast majority of people consume adult content and never kill anyone.
“Because the U.S. lacks a comprehensive system of sexuality education and most of our messaging around sex is either prudish and unscientific or steeped in crass commercialism, many of us end up with deeply messed up relationships to sex.”
Because the U.S. lacks a comprehensive system of sexuality education and most of our messaging around sex is either prudish and unscientific or steeped in crass commercialism, many of us end up with deeply messed up relationships to sex. For some, that pain and shame furls inward. For others, like the alleged Atlanta shooter, the burden is turned outwards.
His is an extreme example, but it’s disasterously in line with the wrong-headedness our country has toward sex. In lieu of teaching kids sex ed and media literacy, we declare porn a “public health crisis” and try to make it harder for adults to access porn. Instead of following the research and decriminalizing sex work, we endanger workers and actually make it harder to combat trafficking. We choose a boogeyman over taking responsibility and doing the daring work of learning and reflection.
Much remains to be learned about the shooting in Atlanta, especially about the lives tragically cut short. What we can conclude for sure is that – whatever the root cause – sex addiction isn’t it, because it isn’t a thing.
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