Is Ryan Giggs a Lothario or a sick man in need of help?
The notion that people who sleep around are sex addicts, powerless before lust, screws over the Enlightenment idea of human reason.
There was a time when the bedroom adventures of Manchester United footballer Ryan Giggs would have been described as promiscuous. Likewise, the online flirtations of the American Democratic politician Anthony Weiner would have been described as ‘playing the field’. Today, however, such behaviour is far likelier to be discussed as a marker for disease.
Giggs is a brilliant footballer. But now we also know that he has cheated on his wife Stacey and allegedly has had various other affairs. Yet instead of being looked upon as a Lothario or a scoundrel, we are told that Giggs is sick. ‘Ryan has an illness and he needs my help’ – that was reportedly the verdict of his wife. And the illness? It is sex addiction. It is reported that Giggs will seek ‘treatment’ for his ‘condition’ so that he will be ‘cured’ of this ailment. As a Daily Mail headline put it: ‘Ryan Giggs to seek therapy for sex addiction in bid to save marriage.’
The rebranding of promiscuity as sex addiction is not confined to Britain. Throughout Europe and the US the numbers of sex addicts is said to be on the rise. Anthony Weiner has recently been diagnosed – by the media and self-styled experts at least – as a ‘sex addict’. Following the revelation that he sent rude pictures of himself to various women online, Weiner has been widely depicted as a sick man. ‘He needs treatment’, one expert told the Associated Press, because apparently, without help, ‘sex addicts’ can go ‘completely out of control and destroy their lives’.
Australia, too, is experiencing a growth in the number of patients seeking treatment for this affliction. Michelle Thomson, who runs Life Resolutions, a counselling service in Melbourne, says referrals for sex addiction have increased from one every couple of months to about 24 a month.
Lust, infidelity, betrayal and the drive for sexual domination have always presented a challenge to a society’s grammar of morality. However, the contemporary conflation of a bad habit with a medical problem is symptomatic of the difficulty that Western societies now have in making moral judgments about human behaviour. Sometimes, even people who claim to possess religious convictions find it difficult to ascribe guilt to immoral behaviour. That is why behaviour that was once denounced as sinful is now increasingly discussed through the language of therapy rather than the language of morality.
These days, the old deadly sins tend to be looked upon as personality disorders that require treatment rather than transgressions that deserve punishment. Take the case of Peter Madden, Australia’s moralising Christian Democrat politician who promises to clean up Kings Cross in Sydney. While he is happy to denounce the participants of the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras for being ‘sexually immoral’, he prefers to use a more neutral-sounding, medical language to account for his own behaviour. Apparently he is an ‘ex-sex addict’ who has struggled with an addiction to pornography.
Sometimes even a violent crime such as rape can be represented as a consequence of sex addiction. Recently a court in Adelaide was told that a man who committed a series of rapes there and in Western Australia had sought treatment for his sexual addiction and, according to a psychological report, was now a ‘different person’.
The problem with this recycling of bad habits and degrading behaviour as medical problems is not simply that it fails to hold people to account for the choices they make and the consequences that their actions have. Yes, a lot of people – including celebrities such as Keith Urban, Tiger Woods, Michael Douglas and Lindsay Lohan – can present themselves as victims of an addiction rather than as lecherous and self-regarding individuals.
But the real problem is the message that this diseasing of human behaviour sends to all of us. The fashionable label of ‘addictive personality’ encourages people to acquiesce to their worst instincts in a quite fatalistic way. Addicts are portrayed as victims of circumstances beyond their control: they are literally counselled to accept powerlessness as the defining feature of their existences. Sexaholics Anonymous mimics the 12-step approach of Alcoholics Anonymous. The first step that a sex addict takes on the road to sexual sobriety is to admit that ‘we were powerless over lust’.
The promotion of the myth of human powerlessness has fostered a climate where addiction has become normalised. The American Association on Sexual Problems claims that more than 15 per cent of the US population is addicted to sex.
Throughout the Western world, clinics and self-help groups devoted to treating the recently discovered epidemic of sex addiction are flourishing. Their growth is underwritten by fashionable cultural norms that promote the medicalisation of people’s bad habits. These days it sometimes seem as though any bad habit can be recast as an addiction. In recent years, society has become accustomed to the use of terms such as internet addiction syndrome, workaholism, shopaholism, cybersex addiction, addiction to love, compulsive helping, exercise addiction, mobile-phone addiction. The idea that individuals are unable to control their impulses, and even their lives, is treated as a self-evident truth in the narrative of addiction.
The category of addiction now plays the role of a cultural fetish, through which society calls into question people’s potential to exercise moral independence. The normalisation of the status of dependence is reinforced by the constant exhortation that we should seek professional help for our so-called addictions and personality disorders. As a result, a new culture of dependency is constantly upheld and promoted across society.
In this context, the term ‘irresponsible’ has undergone a radical transformation. Since people who cheat on their partners cannot be held accountable for their alleged sex addiction, then the only grounds for condemning ‘sex addicts’ as irresponsible is if they refuse to seek professional support. Perversely, those who attempt to deal with their problems through the exercise of self-control are castigated for being in denial and criticised for failing to come to terms with the gravity of their illness. Seeking help is mandatory, not an option, for those diagnosed as sex addicts.
Western society has become hooked on addiction because it finds it difficult to imagine that people can be the authors of their destiny. It is therefore drawn towards a fatalistic interpretation of human behaviour. The idea that people ‘can’t help it’ or are ‘victims of their emotions’ is really an abandonment of the standard of accountability that was associated with the Enlightenment idea of human choice. Through its devaluation of the idea of moral independence, the medicalisation of bad habits diminishes the human capacity for self-determination.
The good news is that people can overcome their bad habits if they choose to do so. People who in one stage in their life became far too distracted by sex can later on learn to value and cultivate a durable intimate relationship. And people regularly quit smoking, lose weight, substantially reduce their alcohol consumption and even get bored of staring at dirty magazines. It is amazing just how far an act of will can take you.
Frank Furedi’s On Tolerance: A Defence of Moral Independence is published by Continuum in August 2011. (Pre-order this book from Amazon(UK).) Visit his personal website here.
An edited version of this article was published in the Australian on 18 June.
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