CRITIC AT LARGE
Sex Addiction: Ooh! Aah! Eek! Ugh. Zzzz ... Ooh!
By CARLIN ROMANO
November 28, 2008 [View it Online]
Some people just like to do it again and again and again.
Go to conferences, that is. Direct dissertations. Apply for jobs. Publish their latest thoughts, no matter how uncooked. And yes, that other thing — OK, make it those other things — that librarians might categorize under "Sex: Supernumerary."
When David Duchovny checked into a facility for treatment of sex addiction a while back, a certain smirking overtook the land. What does such a facility deny you, folks thought — access to your thoughts? "Other bodies" may be closer to the banned substance, but there's no denying that many people don't take sex addiction seriously. They think of it as on a par with "tennis addiction," or "travel addiction," or "good-restaurant addiction" — a category mistake left over from religions that exalt the noncorporeal.
Au contraire, suggests an onslaught of books this season. Even in the age of Viagra, Cialis, and newly upbeat senior citizens, too much sex and too much interest in it can be fatal, it seems, to one's self-esteem and esteem in the eyes of others.
The current lead title in this arena is Susan Cheever's Desire: Where Sex Meets Addiction (Simon & Schuster, 2008). The daughter of novelist John Cheever and an accomplished writer herself, the author comes out big time as one overly familiar with the supposed ailment. She catalogs her promiscuous history while retailing useful info about sex addiction's connection to alcoholism. (It seems Alcoholics Anonymous guru Bill Wilson suffered from sex addiction once he cleared up his other problem.)
Soon to follow in her footsteps is Benoit Denizet-Lewis, a New York Times Magazine contributing writer, with America Anonymous: Eight Addicts in Search of a Life (Simon & Schuster, 2009). That book contextualizes Denizet-Lewis's recovery from sex addiction amid tales of fellow addicts hooked on or returning slowly from surrender to drugs, food, alcohol, or gambling.
The sociological bent of both authors gives them a leg up, so to speak, on writers who simply memoir their way, however finely and entertainingly, into the subject.
Full frontal in that genre right now is novelist Rachel Resnick's excellent Love Junkie (Bloomsbury, 2008). Perhaps not surprisingly, the L.A.-based author of Go West Young [Expletive]-Up Chick (St. Martin's Press, 1999) found she had issues as she hit her 40s. "Her addiction to sex and love," the book flap announces, "cost her in damaging ways throughout the course of her life. At the root of her issues: a Dickensian childhood and a haunting experience she must finally confront."
Cheever and Resnick enjoy company these days as literary sorts telling sex-addiction tales on themselves. In Loose Girl: A Memoir of Promiscuity (Hyperion, 2008), Kerry Cohen, a young-adult novelist known for Easy and a former University of Oregon M.F.A. student of such noted writers as Chang-rae Lee and Garrett Hongo, takes us way back. "Cohen was 11 years old," we're informed before diving in, "when she recognized the power of her body in the leer of a grown man." Ultimately "a young girl who came to believe that boys and men could give her life meaning" learned "to quiet the desperation and allow herself to love and be loved."
To someone skeptical of sex addiction as a full-fledged illness, the deck seems a bit stacked. Where to look? Giulia Sissa's Sex and Sensuality in the Ancient World (Yale University Press, 2008) provides some aid in assuring us that we're not headed straight downhill. A professor of classics and political science at UCLA, Sissa reminds us that, in the land of serious scholarship, if not the world of pop psychology, views differ on the pros and cons of high-quantity sex. Praising, at the outset of her study, the great philosopher-physician Galen's regard for "the cunning of sex," she observes, "At a time when philosophy, particularly Platonic and Stoic philosophy, had extensively warned against the folly of passion and Christian asceticism was on the rise, Galen reminded people of eros' reasons." The ancients, Sissa shows, had more respect for our "insistent desire" than do 12-step sorts today.
One might also turn to the latest in a long line of Casanova biographies, Ian Kelly's new Casanova: Actor Lover Priest Spy (Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2008). Forget all the bad things you've heard about the 18th-century Venetian and those nonlibidinal irrelevancies: his 42 books, 3,600 pages of memoir, the state lotteries he founded, and the fortunes he made and lost.
Casanova, Kelly explains, turns out to have been a nice fellow who averaged only three sexual partners a year, expressed sincere feelings for the women in his life, and helped many an ex-lover financially. The great lover's life, of course, stirred an industry of its own in the publishing business. One recalls, just in living memory, Judith Summers's Casanova's Women (Bloomsbury, 2006) and Lydia Flem's Casanova: The Man Who Really Loved Women (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997).
Would so many writers produce so many books about him if sex addiction were so bad? You say there are also a lot of books on Hitler? OK, ditch that argument.
Still, in the face of the sex-addiction-book avalanche, one wants to cry out in return: It's not the sex, stupid. It's what goes with the sex. Deception. Dastardliness. Deviousness. Even disease.
You say this is beginning to sound like a National Rifle Association ad — guns don't kill people, people kill people?
Okay, leave it at this. There are book-length antidotes to Cheever's party-pooper take on excessive sex. Try Brian Alexander's America Unzipped: In Search of Sex and Satisfaction (Harmony Books, 2008). In it the "Sexploration" columnist for msnbc.com found that sexual experimentation, including sexual excess, has gone mainstream in America. Fetish conventions, amateur porn sites, swinger clubs, and Christian sex coaches dot the homeland.
According to Alexander and the AVN Media Network, Americans in 2006 spent $2-billion at exotic dance clubs, $1.7-billion on sex toys, $2.8-billion on Internet porn, and they generate 2.2 million hits a day on Voyeurweb. Soccer moms — maybe even hockey moms — are up to more than we think.
What's really needed in this latest publishing explosion is a helpful tome on "safe sex addiction," to bring the various causal chains of the phenomenon to an appropriate climax. Meanwhile, remember — reading these books eats up time you could profitably spend otherwise engaged.
Carlin Romano, critic at large for The Chronicle Review and literary critic for The Philadelphia Inquirer, teaches philosophy and media theory at the University of Pennsylvania.