by Joshua Hoe
If you read the blog or have read my book (Writing Your Own Best Story: Addiction and Living Hope) you know my struggle is with sex addiction.
I try to write a great deal of content that applies to all addicts, because I think addiction is really about the trauma and triggers.
In other words, the acting out behaviors might change but at the core, addiction is about the trauma and triggers.
However, there are not many people out there writing about sex addiction. I have started to realize that even sex addicts are often double stigmatized and even live shame within the addiction community.
I also have started to realize, through hundreds of discussions, that many men (and many men who are addicts) have some common struggles that often manifest in a fear of intimacy and sometimes in sexual dis-function even when they don’t manifest in addictions and in acting-out behaviors.
These are all things that especially apply to me and my addiction.
So I am going to write today about some of the traditions of male socialization and upbringing that seem to cause real problems for us later in life.
My hope is that:
A) By starting this discussion, and speaking openly about these issues, more discussions will be sparked among men and with women about how we raise boys.
B) To remind everyone in the larger recovery community that almost all acting out happens for the same reasons. Stigma and shame is a trigger for almost all addicts. Looking down on any members struggling to recover from any acting out behaviors, regardless of what they struggle with creates stigma and shame.
Our society refuses to talk about sex. Nothing is more shameful and uncomfortable for us to discuss.
Sadly, that makes it even harder, in many ways, for sex addicts to find recovery.
At many of the meetings I go to, when people accidentally enter our meeting rooms, the stock response that we give when asked what program we are in is to start that we are part of “another program.”
The fear of stigma is so real and the desire for anonymity is so precarious for S group members that it is uncomfortable to even speak the name of our program, even in a recovery environment.
I myself, over six years ago, was afraid to go to my first meeting because I was certain either:
A) I would be surrounded by scary sex-addicts (pretty hypocritical considering I had just been arrested for a inappropriate sexual behavior).
B) I would be totally ostracized and rejected – that nobody would accept me (the literal opposite of my first concern).
C) The meeting would be as it was portrayed in many popular comedy movies – as a bunch of horny people trying to attend a meeting to get laid.
D) That I would be labeled and stigmatized for attending the meeting (odd fear since the arrest accomplished all of that on its own).
However, my fears were soon put to rest.
Nothing could have been farther from the truth. The people were universally caring and compassionate, the meetings were professional and very directly on message, and even the people who had done or experienced awful things (like me) were entirely concerned with being a better person.
Going to meetings is hard. Returning to meetings says something about who you want to be. Even people who struggle to maintain a program of recovery are painfully earnest about their desire to change their life and to live a life where their actions sync with their moral compass.
Okay, now that I have addressed the stigma what are the problems for men?
A Caveat, I am mostly dealing with heterosexual relationships here, because most of the problems I am talking about stem from heterosexual constructions.
I fully realize there is another list that could be written about being raised male in a heterosexist society.
1) Sex is shameful
2) Sex is an entitlement (for Men)
Men are raised to believe both that sex is wrong and shameful, but also that it is something that we should pursue and that ultimately is the guaranteed reward you get for being in a relationship.
Sex is men’s shameful entitlement.
In some ways it is even worse for women, they are basically raised to think sex is wrong and that anyone who has sex (before marriage) is a slut. So for women sex is wrong and wrong.
But, I suspect that a few of the reasons why sexual violence is such a large-scale cancer in this country starts with these two things:
Sex is shameful
Sex is an entitlement (for men)
The shame manifests itself throughout every step of a mans sexual maturation:
– We receive social messages that it is both healthy but shameful to masturbate.
For me, this created a strange moral confusion about sex in general.
Sex is fun, but it is wrong and something I should be ashamed of.
Before I encountered this in my life, bad felt bad and good felt good.
Worse, because I experienced feelings of both shame (a powerful emotion) and excitement (a powerful emotion) and sexual release (a powerful physical and emotion experience) at the same time the entire experience was like TNT exploding.
I was confused why something BAD could feel so much better than something GOOD.
Of course, in the Judeo-Christian ethic, we are taught temptation is part of the pull of evil, but hearing it and feeling it are two-totally different things.
And more important, feeling and experiencing this in a society that does not encourage you to discuss it with anyone else is dangerous to say the least.
I suspect it is very easy for people who have never been addicted to Heroin to be amazed at why Heroin addicts can’t kick the habit. The same is probably true of people who have never experienced sexuality like a drug.
In my case, I spent thirty years chasing more intense highs from sex. It started as innocent as could be and ended up in prison.
I was chasing not just release, but the intense feelings from the shame and guilt and release. And just like with a drug, the longer I went the stronger the dose I would have to have to reach the same level of impact.
I spent most of my “normal” non-sexual life discussing even the most difficult political and social issues of the day with people across the political spectrum virtually every single day. But the first really deep discussion I had with anyone about sexuality was at the meetings that I started attending after my arrest.
– Because of shame, we boys know virtually nothing about sex even after we first have sex.
We know what the act of sex is, but we honestly now nothing about healthy sexuality, how to be a good sex partner, or the relationship between healthy sex and intimacy.
Mostly we know we are supposed to be magically great at sex, that we will be ridiculed and shamed if we are not, and we know that we have to have a big penis and not cum to quickly or else (even if we barely know what this really means).
Sometimes it works out, and things go well, but these concerns are always present in every sexual encounter and with every new partner every time throughout our entire life.
The most bizarre and scary thing is that even among ourselves, we carry on a false bravado about sex. We never honestly discuss sex even among ourselves.
In most cases, even our role models are so ashamed to talk about sex openly that they don’t even want to share the basics much less explain the larger picture.
Schools are almost universally prevented from discussing anything about sex.
And when their is manifested sexual inappropriate behavior demonstrated, our focus is on punishment and removal, not education or information.
While I am talking about socialization of boys when they are young, I know from experience, that when boys grow up and get punished for having an unhealthy relationship to sex, most prisons focus on teaching sexual shame – even here, where it matters the most, people are not taught about healthy intimacy or about healthy sexuality.
We also remain committed to this idea that if we remove those few “bad actors” with sexual problems from society that everything will be fine (more on this below). The problems are MUCH bigger than a few “bad actors.”
Look at even the most conservative sexual violence statistics, virtually every woman in America has experienced some form of sexual violence. The vast majority of sexual violence goes unpunished and under-prosecuted.
Virtually all of the men I have met, when they are honest with me, have a story of a sexual encounter that was questionable (maybe not technically illegal but borderline).
These days with the proliferation of website escorts and massage parlors, secret sexuality is rampant across the entire country.
Ask ANY cable provider what pay-per-view services they make the most money from every month, if they are honest they will say it is pay-per-view pornography.
And, the statistics I have seen are staggering about the amount of online porn addiction, sexually violent on-line behaviors, and inappropriate online activity happening.
A massive amount of men in this country have a very active secret relationship with a sexuality beyond a healthy relationship with a significant other or committed partner.
I will fully admit that people can engage in all of the above mentioned behaviors in a healthy manner. Sometimes, fantasy can also take the power from taboo.
I feel safe in saying that most people engaging in these behaviors would NOT feel they were engaging with these behaviors in a healthy way.
I am not saying all men are sex addicts, or that all men are violent, but you can’t have this amount of actual sexual violence in a country without a large amount of people participating.
Can we at least admit that maybe we could do a better job of educating men about sex?
Can we imagine how much better the world might be if we just committed to changing this even a little?
I am not saying this to make myself feel better.
I am certainly not saying that because everyone is doing it, I should not have been in trouble. I am saying the opposite, we have a huge problem with sex and sexuality in this country.
I know what I did, I lost three years of my life in prison (another two on probation and parole), a career I was great at, and hundreds of friends to my addiction.
I know what I did was wrong and I have paid a massive price. While there are things about my experience that I disagree with, I accept and accepted that what I did was wrong.
I am also not saying that all unhealthy sexual experiences result in sexual violence or that all sex addicts are sexually violent.
My point is that we are not very good at teaching healthy sexuality to boys and that there are predictable outgrowths that come from that.
We have to find a better way.
3) Objectification Everywhere
Virtually every advertisement includes a woman as a body or a collection of body parts emoting sex directed at the male gaze.
Don’t believe me, open a magazine and count.
Watch an hour of television and count.
Rarely are any of these women given voices (if they do speak it is usually a breathy invitation to sex).
Rarely are any of these women given status beyond sexual rewards for men brave enough to purchase the accompanying product.
These women are rarely, if ever, represented as successful or intelligent, or as having a point of view (beyond providing sex).
Often they are not even given heads (print and online representations often focus only on boobs and butts).
We are showered daily from birth with images of women as objects.
My guess is some of that seeps into our worldviews.
Maybe we are immune but I doubt it.
In my experience, it is objectification – where we start seeing someone not as a person but as an object we are entitled to desire and control – that allows most sexual violence to happen.
Again, I am not saying that people cannot process objectified images. I am saying that the constant stream of objectified images of women make it easier for boys (and eventually men) to do the mental gymnastics necessary to commit violence against women.
I have a simple fix for this. The philosopher Emmanuel Levinas believed that in the encounter with someone’s face (accepting them as person) we become servant to their humanity.
I believe that we should never present someone as only an object.
I believe if we are presenting someone sexually, they should always also be presented as a fully capable and actualized subject.
Women should be brains and bodies.
Women should be capable and sexual.
Women should have voices not just bodies.
Lately, a few action/adventure movies have done a much better job of deploying this strategy (Mad Max and Star Wars) and I hope it speaks to a larger trend.
But, Madison Avenue is the key.
There is nothing wrong (inherently) with portraying women (or anyone) as sexual. What is wrong is presenting them ONLY as sexual objects and not as subjects capable of making decisions, choosing what they want, and as having consent.
4) Emotions Matter
Boys are taught not to feel emotions outside of anger.
We are taught, often through sports culture, that winners never celebrate.
We are taught that it is weakness to cry.
We are taught that asking for help is showing weakness.
We are taught that men don’t talk about what they are feeling or talk about emotions.
Yes, there was a time when we had to mostly function as hunters. Yes, there was a time when life was mostly about getting food and protecting the family.
This time has largely passed.
Yes, there will always be dangers and reasons to be protective. But the dangers from swallowing our emotions are real, ask any therapist.
There is a reason why all of our major outlets for help stress the importance of sharing our feelings and talking about our fears.
For example, The Church favors confession, Psychologists call it “Talk-Therapy,” and 12 Step Programs call it “sharing.”
When we don’t find healthy outlets for allowing ourselves to feel the end result is the buildup of resentments. Bottled up emotions almost always come out at some time (and often in some much more awful way).
In addition, when you are only allowed to express ANGER bad things can happen (anger is not always a pretty emotion).
Perhaps the best demonstration of the importance of letting yourself feel is the recent Disney/Pixar movie ‘Inside Out.’ I cannot recommend this movie enough to anyone who has problems with “swallowing” their emotions.
I ruined virtually every good relationship I ever had because I found it virtually impossible to talk about any of the things that were really bothering me with my partners (more about that in a second).
My suggestion for this is for people to stop teaching boys to swallow emotions or to only feel “certain” macho emotions.
I know everyone is terribly worried about the “wussification” of America. Personally, I think we have much bigger problems (and not much problem being macho).
5) Confusing Sex with Intimacy
Boys are often raised to think that sex is the end goal of partnership.
As I grew older, because I was taught that sex is an intimate activity (which can be true) I never really had a good grip on what real intimacy is (or what it should be).
For most of my life, I had no problem with sex and very little desire to find intimacy.
I assumed that when my partners complained about me having intimacy issues it was just more of that Men are From Mars and Women are From Venus stuff.
Even when my parents were getting along well, I did not sense much open intimacy on a day-to-day basis.
And I also knew that “real men” were supposed to be rugged and silent.
What I have learned since:
* Sex is not necessarily intimate, in fact for me it often became a substitute for true intimacy.
* Intimacy was all the things that made me feel uncomfortable and vulnerable and made me “rush” to get to sex.
In other words, I was afraid of intimacy and replaced it with sex.
I was even more afraid of intimacy as an addict because I was afraid that my romantic partners would meet the “real me.”
The “real me” I had been hiding for so long because deep down I knew that if anyone ever really knew me they wouldn’t like me.
As an addict, I always had my secret self where I was acting out and my public self where I was playing at “normal.”
In every relationship I was entirely certain that people loved my public persona but would hate the private/secret me.
And partially, I think I was also afraid that if I ever exposed my “secret self” I would have to give it up.
So, instead of ever getting to real intimacy, I played out what seemed like a never ending string of intimacy games. And I ended up destroying every relationship that could have been meaningful of significant to me.
I pushed away everyone who really cared for fear they would either reject me OR they would force me to change.
I wanted to keep acting out and didn’t want my secret life exposed.
Boy am I glad I learned to get past that. I was essentially miserable for 30 years because I refused to expose my secret self.
At the end of the day, I think healthy models of intimacy and discussion about what healthy intimacy looks like could be very beneficial to boys growing up.
I am under no illusions, I know most of these suggestions will fall on mostly deaf ears in a society that maintains a Puritan relationship to sexuality.
Just like I found it very challenging to accept that the best way to recover from addiction was to give up control, I suspect most of America finds it challenging to accept that talking more about sex is the best way to overcome our sexual issues as a society.
This is unfortunate, because I am very convinced that our current socialization of sexual silence and emotional isolation for boys has been and continues to be problematic.
Thanks for listening.
What do you think is wrong with how we socialize sexuality in boys? Do you have any suggestions for healthier ways to engage with sexuality as a society? I would love to hear your opinions, leave a comment!