"The more I study it," writes JFK biographer Jed Mercurio in the London Times, "the more sceptical I have become that sex addiction is a genuine condition." That's a confusing way to put it. Mercurio is probably right that many people, especially sex-obsessed celebrities such as David Duchovny, Russell Brand, and Michael Douglas, use the addiction label as a way of medicalizing their behavior and escaping responsibility for it. But to the extent that they succeed, it's because people misunderstand addiction, not because people fail to distinguish between "real" addictions like alcoholism and "fake" addictions like excessive copulation. There is such a thing as too much sex, just as there is such a thing as too much drinking, and in either case people may be so strongly attached to the experience that they have trouble stopping or moderating their behavior. That is the essence of addiction, not the physical withdrawal symptoms Mercurio calls "a cardinal sign of addiction" (while dismissing Kennedy's claim that he'd get headaches after three days without sex). Even the American Psychiatric Association does not consider withdrawal symptoms a necessary or sufficient condition for a diagnosis of "substance dependence."
Phillip Hodson, a fellow of the British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy, tells Mercurio "you cannot really be 'addicted' to normal drives," such as sex and hunger. Really? As scholars such as Andrew Weil and Ronald Siegel have shown, there is considerable evidence that the desire to achieve altered states of consciousness is a basic human drive, one that can go awry in cases such as alcoholism or heroin addiction. And is it really so absurd to note the similarities between continuing to overeat even while expressing a desire to be thinner and continuing to smoke cigarettes even while expressing a desire to quit? In both cases, there is a conflict between pleasure and health, between short-term and long-term interests, that results in a hard-to-break habit.
Mercurio sympathetically quotes a psychiatrist who says:
In the past psychiatrists attempted to differentiate between irresistible and unresisted impulses. Irresistible impulses have historically been accepted as mental illness. But unresisted impulses that led to misconduct were ascribed to depravity.
If psychiatrists have given up on distinguishing between "irresistible and unresisted impulses" (I'm not sure they have), it's because the task is hopeless. Observers can confidently say that an alcoholic did not resist an impulse to have a drink, or that a celebrity did not resist an impulse to have sex with a groupie. But there is no way to prove that they could not have acted otherwise.
"The likes of Duchovny and Brand are just reaching for a convenient excuse when they claim that their urges are irresistible," Mercurio writes. "Irresistible isn't the same as hard to resist." Fair enough. But the existence of reformed alcoholics, ex-junkies, and former smokers demonstrates that the urges felt by people Mercurio would recognize as "true" addicts are not irresistible either. Unless he wants to say that quitting (or cutting back) proves they were never really addicted to begin with.