Sin, Sluts and Gender

I was reading a very interesting article by Hanna Rosin on the Double X blog about the history of the diagnosis "sex addict" in light of the Tiger Woods scandal. The article spends some time examining how the diagnosis has been received in the feminist and mental health community.

On the one hand, one can understand the feminists' concern that by diagnosing promiscuity as an "addiction" cheating men might be seeking a way out of their moral responsibilities. This worry is not new, there has been a trend in America to shift from sin to disease. Stealing, gambling, getting drunk and having sex are addictions. In one sense, this is a good trend as it allows people wanting to change a socially acceptable outlet to get help. It allows us to talk to each other about our problems through the screen (euphemism?) of medical language. People feel more comfortable talking about their struggle with alcoholism (this external thing afflicting me) than about being the town drunk.

And it's this stigma reduction that make some feminists squeamish about the label "sex addict." Does the term allow the cheating husband to hide behind the psychiatric terminology?

However, as Rossin notes in her article, the term does describe some pretty crippling behavior. Properly used, the term has diagnostic value.

But the article also made me think of other ways sexual language has been used unevenly between men and women. Our culture uses a variety of words to describe an overindulgence in sex: Slut, nymphomaniac, and promiscuous (I could also mention ho). Unfailingly, these are words that get applied to women. A slut is a woman, not a man. This is insane as men are, by far, the more sexualized of the two genders. We masturbate more. We cheat more. We consume more pornography. We attend strip clubs. We pay for sex. And finally, we are referred to sex therapy more often.

Men are slutty. Women are pretty chaste and discriminating. So, from a feminist stance, it is interesting that the term "sex addict" has come along to cover over the sexual sins of men but women are still stuck with terms--slut!--that are both demeaning and inaccurate.

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5 thoughts on “Sin, Sluts and Gender”

  1. Yeah. Ye olde Madonna or whore dichotomy. Take your pick.

    Still a patriarchal society in many ways. Wonder what God thinks about that - must piss her/him off no end ;)

  2. I think Christians are way, way too interested in other people's sex lives. Their lurid interest in every detail of Woods' "infidelity" seems to me to be motivated primarily by jealousy. Fat, stupid Bible belt women angry they'll never get a Tiger Woods, and fat, stupid Bible belt men angry they'll never bed a dozen beautiful women.

    If you actually look at the world as God made it, well - it doesn't seem that God shares our obsession with sexual ethics. Plants display their vibrant sexual organs (flowers) for the whole world, and everyone seems to love them for it.

  3. There are two issues here: i) Is it fair for men to claim a "sexual addiction" to remove some element of responsibility; and ii) Was Tiger Woods a sex addict?

    Chris Rock had a great line that, "A man is as faithful as his options." Tiger Woods had TONS of options - women would throw themselves at him simply because he was Tiger. While his alledged sexual activities might be considered a bit unconventional, the number of sexual encounters is probably less than Wilt Chamberlain, Mick Jagger, or many, many other sports and rock stars who simply don't receive the same media attention for their after-hours activities. The major difference is that Tiger was married and promoted a clean-cut image.

    This in no way excuses his choices. Rather, it begs the question of whether Tiger is a true "addict" or simply the most recent addition to a lengthy list of celebrities who happen share their bodies with dozens (if not hundreds) of other people.

  4. I want to think of a perspective other than gender and quantity of sexual activity: power and language. Those in power get to have the language that they use to describe the world (specifically, the powerless) adopted in a larger societal context.

    I find your comment about cheating men hiding behind some psychiatric label a very thoughtful observation, as if this "disease" excuses them from controlling their behaviors. Because men are still largely in power in our society, they get to choose the distinctions with which sexual "deviance" is defined amongst genders: sex addict (men) vs. sluts/hos (women). Good post.

  5. As a clinical sexologist, this post stirred up a lot of discussion points for me.

    First, the term "sex addict" isn't solely applied to men. Perhaps the media may make it seem that way, but women will self-diagnose as "addicted" to sex or porn too. For example, Charlotte Kasl's "Women, Sex and Addiction" has been around for 20 years. (I say "self-diagnose" because I find people often use the term "addicted" when the problem is more nuanced than that. A good therapist "diagnoses" addiction much less than the clients themselves do.)

    Second, sex therapists, researchers and educators have an ongoing debate about the use of the term "sex addict." There is concern over the pathologizing and medicalization of sexuality, but also there is the issue of the term "addict" being too easily applied to any behavior we feel powerless to control. (ie. "I am addicted to HGTV. I can't turn it off!")

    Third, even those who don't like the term "sex addict" will concede that that are people who cannot control their sexual impulses. It's unfair to them to assume that they're simply trying to excuse their behavior.

    Fourth, concerning Dammerung's comment, I don't think the interest in Tiger Woods is about jealous "fat, stupid, Bible belt" men and women. (and why the need to be malicious?) I think it reflects the love-hate relationship Americans have with sex. They think his actions are "terrible" but then they watch endless hours of TV describing every sordid detail. Sexuality is part of our humanity but few of us know how to live out our sexuality in a holistic way. So we're captivated by other people's stories.

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