When Lust is a Must

For some people, the question is not ‘Do you get it often enough?’ but ‘Do you get it too much?’ In case you thought gender relations weren’t sufficiently complex, a new school of therapy has identified sexual addiction as one of the great afflictions of our time.

An estimated 300,000 people in the US are trying therapy to rid themselves of the addiction, according to a feature length documentary - I Am a Sex Addict - showing in the London Film Festival, in which six people’s cases are explored. In the idiom of the day, those who were once called ‘sex maniacs’, ‘studs’ or ‘sluts’ have now been granted a medico-linguistic shelter, allowing them to view their behaviour from a more objective perspective. Psychoanalysts in this country also recognise that sex can be as addictive to some as drugs are to others.

‘It is a form of alienation from the problem,’ comments Persio Bursinky at London’s Centre of Integral Psychoanalysis. ‘Having sex can be a way to escape from something, to avoid facing facts.’ He has had several clients with such problems, but feels it is a far more common experience in the United States. ‘The American philosophy is for people to express their feelings and to do whatever they want, whether it is right or wrong. So they are much more open to this kind of addiction'.

As demonstrated by the recent reports on male suicides, the ‘stiff upper lip’ approach keeps many Britons from unleashing their sexual desires. Prurient press reports of ‘four-times-a-night’ politicians or ‘three-in-a-bed’ footballers reinforce a sense that promiscuity, or even a high libido, is somehow freakish and reprehensible. But having the courage to admit that you are addicted to sex is another matter.

The kind of services offered by Norman Lamont’s ex-lodger, the ‘sex therapist’, are generally seen as prostitution in disguise, and the impression is compounded by women such as Tuppy Owens - author of The Sex Maniac’s Diary and founder of The Outsiders’ Club. She promotes the laudable idea that everyone, however disadvantaged by disability or other stigma, has the right to an active sex life. ‘Sex and love have to be mutual desires, or sex has to be paid for. There has to be a deal,’ she adds. The Outsiders’ Club newsletter has included a line drawing of a woman naked on a bed, her vagina poised for intercourse, with a queue of men waiting to take their turn.

Doubtless some women do get pleasure from such multiple entries, but more realistic is the observation of one woman in 'I am a Sex Addict' that she allowed men to have ‘gang bangs... the men would call their brothers, and they would take turns’ simply because ‘it was better than being alone; I at least had some attention for that period of time’. She had an affectionate nickname: ‘The Viking’, 'because I had so much endurance.’ Enormously overweight, she got into making porn movies (Tons of Buns, for one), and once had sex 33 times in one night with nearly that many men. ‘I wanted to feel the click, where my loneliness and sadness was covered,’ she said.

This urge for oblivion marks a clear boundary where addiction begins and appetite ends. A soldier describes masturbating in the bathroom up to four times a day ‘so I didn’t feel it anymore’. Others show fewer signs of distress. One woman gleefully describes her antics with carrots and beer. Her almost gloating tone was at odds with the body of the film. We saw her going down on her lover as they drove around in a convertible; but there was no evident down side to her addiction. Would John Kennedy, with his voracious sexual appetite, be considered an addict today? The subject naturally gets bogged down in contemporary sexual ethics. People of all sexual persuasions are encouraged to express themselves, but men are under constant fire for unreconstructed chauvinism, women attacked for provocative behaviour, and men who choose to inflict pain on each other in private are sent to jail. The case known as the Spanner trial has raised widespread concern among the practising S & M community. The three men involved, who were jailed in 1992 for acts which included attaching fishhooks to their penises, are now free, but the civil rights group Liberty is taking a group of cases to the European Courts.

A spokesperson for the pressure group contesting the Spanner case summed up the quandary faced by many: ‘I think people have different sex drives, and they put them into practice in different ways. You could be addicted to the missionary position and few people would think is odd. It’s not as though people practising S & M are paedophiles, who talk about being driven out of control, and ask to be castrated.’ It could be argued that this extreme end of the sexual spectrum is where the issue of addiction really belongs.