When women in pop culture stray from the prescribed “good girl” into the most extreme bad girl—the sex addict—their interest in BDSM is typically equated with their addiction. By contrast, men are usually portrayed as hopelessly addicted to XXX images, preferring porn to people. Are male sex addicts fundamentally different from female ones, shackled to the Internet while women are shackled by handcuffs? If not, why does popular culture portray them in these two different ways? And what does this say about how women’s sex, desire, and pleasure are not only portrayed but policed in our culture?
In films, male sex addicts focus on pornography, such as Adam Sandler’s role in the recent film Men, Women and Childrenin which he and his son, played by Travis Trope, share this addiction. (Other recent movies in which guys OD on porn include Shame, Thanks for Sharing, and Don Jon.) This development coincides with the ease of access to Internet porn, allowing anyone with a smartphone or laptop to have it.
These onscreen portrayals, along with similarly alarming non-fiction articles, offer up modern porn as a dangerous siren luring unsuspecting horny men into the abyss, never to connect with a real-live human woman again. Witness a 2011 New York magazine article about male porn use in which a 41-year-old man named Perry said, “I used to race home to have sex with my wife.... Now I leave work a half-hour early so I can get home before she does and masturbate to porn.” The idea of watching porn by yourself for pleasure—and even masturbating!—gets diverted into making porn into a vice men should avoid if they want to have a healthy relationship.
"There is no evidence that kinky women are more likely to be sexually compulsive. In fact, most people who are kinky have learned how to communicate better with their partners to be sure everything is going OK. That’s the opposite of the self-harm model of sex addiction."
Whereas men’s onscreen libidos get subsumed to porn, women sex addicts in such film classics as Nymphomaniac and The Piano Teacher go down a kinky path of no return. For these heroines, their pathology is part and parcel of their interest in masochism (though in The Piano Teacher, Erika does have a penchant for porn). The repeated linking of women’s interest in BDSM—bondage/discipline, domination/submission, sadism/masochism, and other kinky play—with being unable to control that interest adds up to the idea that women just can’t get enough of whips and chains. Just as men’s brains apparently shut off when faced with naked bodies, women can’t think rationally in the face of a sexy Master, which simply isn’t true in the real world.
“There is no evidence that kinky women are more likely to be sexually compulsive. Just because someone has more sex than another person doesn’t mean they’re addicted, either,” says Susan Wright, spokesperson for the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom. “It’s derogatory to say someone is more likely to be out of control about their sexuality because of the frequency of their desire or because they like to do BDSM. In fact, most people who are non-monogamous or kinky have learned how to communicate better with their partners to be sure everything is going OK. That’s the opposite of the self-harm model of sex addiction.”
Basically, “safe, sane, and consensual” (a mantra for many in the BDSM world) doesn’t compute in the vanilla mindset of the world at large. Therefore, the idea of willingly wanting to give up some aspect of control of your life, whether it’s what you wear, when you orgasm, or what kind of paddle is used on you, is deemed “abnormal.”
The recent popularity among women of the BDSM romance novel Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James, which has sold over 100 million copies worldwide, led to media interest in the topic, much of which expressed a lingering suspicion of kinky sex as dangerous—but in all the wrong ways.
In fact, it’s hero Christian Grey, who tells heroine Anastasia Steele that he’s never had vanilla (non-kinky) sex before, who can fairly be said to be the BDSM “addict.” Yet he at least has a serious, long-term interest in these sexual activities. Anastasia is doing it primarily because she loves him and wants to please him. Does this make her a love addict by default? It’s unclear, but the idea that a woman would consent to an act like spanking or bondage is seen as suspect. One Forbes commentator wrote, “Do middle-aged women, the main audience for this book, really view the threat of violence as an aphrodisiac?”
Well, no, because BDSM takes place within the framework of consent and violence doesn’t. But you wouldn’t know that from much of the Fifty Shades handwringing, which will surely reach a fever pitch when the movie version (starring Jamie Dornan and Dakota Jackson) hits the big screen February 15.
"If a woman reports a sex addiction, her interest in a particular kind of sex is often tagged as the problem: She is likely to be advised by a health care provider to drop the kink, rather than to manage it so it doesn’t negatively impact her life."
The very nature of certain BDSM activities—especially some of its psychological aspects—are red flags for an addiction model that doesn’t have, pardon the pun, room for shades of gray. Women’s interest in BDSM per se is often taken as a sign of sex addiction, whether or not the activity is causing a problem in their lives, says Margaret Corvid, a writer, activist, and professional dominatrix. “If a woman reports a sex addiction, her interest in a particular kind of sex is often tagged as the problem: She is likely to be advised by a health care provider to drop the kink, rather than to manage it so it doesn’t negatively impact her life.”
BDSM means different things to different people, but the more it is portrayed as something either women do to please men, as in Fifty Shades of Grey, or because they are otherwise out of control—without any corresponding positive images (where is the equivalent of Ellen DeGeneres’ “Yep, I’m Gay” Time magazine cover for kinky folks?)—the easier it is to demonize it. Many people who practice BDSM do so not only to get off physically, but to work out and play with issues of power in a safe way, to explore fantasies that may indeed by edgy yet can be profoundly transformative. In fact, a 2013 study published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine found that BDSM practitioners reported greater levels of well-being and may just be mentally healthier than their vanilla counterparts.
But you don’t need a Red Room of Pain to be tagged a sex addict, or one step away. Going outside the boundaries of a monogamous heterosexual relationship in any way at all may be stigmatized as “addiction” when a woman does it.
For Jenny Block, author of the memoir, Open: Love, Sex and Life in an Open Marriage, “sex addict” is often used as an epithet, a form of slut-shaming. “I find it intriguing that if a woman wants anything other than missionary position sex with a man, [we think] there’s something wrong with her. We can barely leave her alone and accept that,” Block says. “If we ask for what we want in bed, we’re being selfish; if we don’t want sex, we’re selfish.”
Being publicly identified as a woman with two long-term relationships (one with a man, one with a woman), she says that she receives hate mail that accuses her of being a sex addict. “Just because you’re admitting to how much sex you want, or admitting you’re having more sex that the average person admits to, doesn’t make you an addict,” she says.
This has led many pro-sex women to be suspicious of the label “sex addict.”
“Our sex-negative culture is quick to portray all manner of non-normative sexual desire and behavior as ‘addiction’ and as proof of damage, illness, misery, or trauma. They are ‘problems’ that can be ‘solved’ by conforming to the cultural ideal of a long-term, monogamous pairing,” says Arielle Greenberg, a feminist scholar who writes about film and sexuality. “Even all those supposedly wild Sex and the City girls ultimately just wanted to settle down with the right guy.”
Some critics even deny the existence of sex addiction as such. “We know there are people who struggle with compulsive sexual behavior. But diagnosing sex addiction is not well supported by scientific research,” says Shira Tarrant, associate professor of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at California State University-Long Beach. “That said, social judgment about porn use, BDSM, and hook-ups tend to parse according to gender lines. TV and movies often portray men who compulsively use porn as grappling with natural-impulse-gone-amok. Women who get off on BDSM are more likely portrayed as nymphomaniacs, sluts, or freaks. These sorts of media messages say a lot more about social control and moral panic than about human sexuality and female desire.”
"Women who get off on BDSM are more likely portrayed as nymphomaniacs, sluts, or freaks. These sorts of media messages say a lot more about social control and moral panic than about human sexuality and female desire."
Indeed, while some do actively identify as sex addicts, such as former Teen Mom reality TV star Amber Portwood, the criteria we use to judge who’s addicted and who’s not are often dubious. As Carol Queen, staff sexologist at pioneering sex toy store Good Vibrations, points out, “Many of the behaviors pointed to as ‘addicted’ are part of many peoples’ healthy and diverse sex lives.”
Surely you don’t need to be a sex addict to identify with this statement by sober sex and love addict Lee Riley: “I had no idea how to operate in the world without the primary purpose of finding a man to validate my worth.” In Riley’s case, this had clearly made her life unmanageable. But I’ve expressed similar sentiments and so have most of my female friends when we’ve found ourselves compromising our principles and “settling” in the dating world rather than facing life as a single person.
Or take Jenna, who identifies as a “sex, love, and relationships addict,” about whom theAtlantic reported. “She explains that she was addicted to ‘intrigue,’ always depending on men who admired and paid attention to her”—a very common behavior that women are encouraged to engage in to curry favor with men in the dating world.
If “normal” female behavior can also be an indicator of sex addiction, where does that leave women? In a morass of confusing messages that go beyond the issue of clinical sex addiction to how healthy and unhealthy sexuality are defined by a culture that can barely get a handle on its sexual mores.
Am I arguing that no one should ever seek help if they feel sex has taken over their lives in an unhealthy way? Of course not. But we need to unpack the ways we demonize sex, scapegoat porn, and blame BDSM before we start throwing around the term “addict,” whether in pop culture or casual conversation.