Sexual Irresponsibility: Illness, Addiction, or Character?

I’ve counseled hundreds of couples whose marriages and other partnerships were marked by sexual infidelity and other trust betrayals. Sometimes, problems revolved around other kinds of sexual irresponsibility (e.g., “sexting,” flirting, email enticements, internet pornography, partner sexual objectification, etc.) as well. And many times, before these individuals made contact with me, they had tried to seek help for these problems in various popular treatment venues. Often this involved the unfaithful or irresponsible partner getting into some sort of “sexual addiction” treatment and the aggrieved party participating in a support group while their bad-actor partner struggled to “overcome their denial,” then “heal,” and “recover”.  

Now I’m not one of those professionals who insists that addictions are not real. And, I’ve even witnessed some instances of genuine sexual addiction. But such cases are extremely rare. Being willfully sexually irresponsible and wantonly disregarding the requirements for nurturing a meaningful, intimate relationship is not the same as suffering from an addiction. And unfortunately, our society has increasingly accepted the notion of “illness” as an excuse for a person’s perfectly voluntary misbehavior and abdication of responsibility.  What’s worse, many professionals and treatment models endorse such a perspective.  In so doing, they have become some of the more serious “enablers” of character dysfunction, a fact that negatively impacts us all.

Every now and then, we come across an egregious example of someone carrying our culture’s tendency to see everyone as a victim to an absurd extreme, and the fact that this happens at all should give us great pause.  I’ve written before about the notorious (and now deceased) child rapist Ariel Castro who satisfied his lust for teenage girls by carefully stalking and then abducting three young women, holding them hostage for years, and regularly sexually assaulting them.  Castro declared himself no “monster” or predator, but rather a “sick” victim of a severe pornography “addiction” (See also: “I Am Not A Monster”: Impression Management Ariel Castro Style, and Mental Disorders and Accountability:  Is Everyone a Victim?).  This man then had the gall to assert that he should be pitied instead of reviled and afforded treatment as opposed to being punished for his heinous crimes. I’ve also written about three drug-dealing teenage hoodlums caught on their school bus surveillance camera beating a classmate within an inch of his life to “teach [him] a lesson” about “snitching”  to school authorities, while attorneys and mental health experts alike argued that the perpetrators were merely “troubled,” had “anger management issues,” and deserved therapy as opposed to strict legal consequences and reformative intervention (See: Anger Management for Bus Beaters:  Justice Misguided?).  Every day there’s a similar story.  From the congressman caught systematically funneling off hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign funds for personal use while claiming Bipolar Disorder made him do it, to the congressman turned mayoral candidate who claimed that his ongoing lewd behavior and sexual solicitations (even after having “successfully completed” treatment!) was the result of his sexual addiction, to the spoiled rich kid who drank and drove illegally, killed his friends in the process, bragged his well-heeled parents would get him off, and whose attorneys (and, I might add, a psychologist as well) asserted he suffered from the disease of “affluenza” (being the “victim” of never having learned accountability because wealth and power always spared him consequence), claims that mental disorders of some sort are really to blame for a person’s willful misbehavior have become so commonplace that not only have most folks lost their outrage about such claims but they have also increasingly afforded such claims a fair degree of plausibility and even legitimacy (See:  “Affluenza”:  Is Spoiled Rotten The New Accountability Excuse?). This begs the question of whether the concepts of personal responsibility and accountability even exist anymore. Is everyone in fact a victim in one way or another? Is all our behavior merely a product of our biochemistry, our upbringing, our environment, etc.? Do we have any real control over our actions as some of our parents wanted us to believe? Are the concepts of right and wrong, personal responsibility and consequences for behavior simply outdated?

This coming Sunday night on Character Matters, my guest will be Tracy Schorn, AKA: “Chump Lady.”  She has a way of practically applying the principles I’ve long advocated in my books Character Disturbance, In Sheep’s Clothing, and The Judas Syndrome) to matters of relationship irresponsibility and, especially sexual infidelity.  Being a faithful, committed participant in a life partnership has never been an easy task.  It takes integrity of character to resist the many temptations one faces on a daily basis, to honor one’s vows, to commit yourself fully to one person, and to love that person genuinely and deeply. And Tracy has a particularly articulate way of spelling out what it looks like when a person with at least some decency of character and has done damage to their relationship takes responsibility for their misconduct and commits to not only repairing that damage they did but also to developing the kind of integrity that might guard against them doing more damage in the future. Tracy’s been “chumped” before – played for a fool.  But she learned some hard lessons and is committed to being a chump no more.  I expect we’ll have a good discussion about why so many relationships these days are as troubled as they are and why the traditional, dominant models for providing “help” have proven so ineffective. 

The good news is that the pendulum is definitely beginning to swing in the opposite direction and the tide is truly turning when it comes to people’s attitudes toward responsibility and character. Character is and has always been the key to responsible social functioning, and many others are beginning to share this opinion. That’s good, because we have it within our power to stem the tide of rampant abdication of personal responsibility. A good beginning would be to put an end to the endless “enabling” we’ve been doing by refusing to accept the all-too-frequently invoked “disorder (or addiction) excuse” and holding all people, except for those very rare few who are truly so mentally ill that their voluntary capacity is compromised, accountable for their misbehavior. “Therapy” was never meant to be a substitute for a well-earned consequence.  It’s time to quit shuffling habitual responsibility-shirkers into ineffective “treatment” and instead hold them to account.  Folks who, like Tracy, have been “chumped” in their relationships, have unfortunately learned this lesson the hard way.

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25 thoughts on “Sexual Irresponsibility: Illness, Addiction, or Character?

  1. We’ve seen advancements in nearly everything but psychology, and I don’t really understand why. Is there some vested interest among professionals to see the ‘good’ in everyone? Is the academia threatened by differing views? Why the insistence on seeing every behavior in terms of neurosis?

    Being an educator and advocate in the industry, I would be interested in what you see as the major roadblocks to enlightenment.

    1. Great questions Einstein, whilst I don’t claim to have the answers at all, I believe that our quest for scientific knowledge has come to objectify human beings to fit the scientific method. This has gone on to such a degree that it has completely ignored our spiritual and social nature. I agree that we just can’t seem to get past Freud. Perhaps the disintegration of the extended family has a lot to do with this too. People aren’t developing with the adequate attachments that they have evolved to require. Character is developing enmasse, in isolation from attachment and the social cohesion that ensues from these healthy attachment relationships. Attachment creates committment and empathy, Empathy creates responsibility and altruism, Altruism creates security, Security enables curiosity. Curiosity within a secure environment enables the development of Character. Socially responsible Character keeps this cycle of facilitating a society whose individuals are securely attached to each other and whose empathy and altruism create the security needed for growth.

  2. In our attempts to neatly categorize aberrations of behaviour, so that we can objectify people and separate character and behaviour. …(and we must not forget…medicate the population), we have created the Monster, the DSM. The monster that has now become the enabler/ labeler. It seems that if we can put a label on a constellation of behaviours then it is now a disorder that can be studied, treated and claimed by it’s ‘sufferers’. This is one of the greatest tragedies of our times. Then as the culture and the times change, we add, modify or delete whole categories each time a new edition comes out. Homosexuality was deleted once the times changed, then they added in new disorders like Conduct Disorder in recent times, to describe a child who is acting in unacceptable ways. The more we create labels, the more loosely they become applied after that. Excessive happiness is actually a behavioural criteria for certain disorders, as if one can actually even be too happy!, is there such a thing in reality? Measured by what? Whilst I absolutely acknowledge the realm of psychiatric illness and human distress, I believe it is the fact that psychiatry and the culture of medicating ‘disordered minds’ is a large part of what is behind this shift. That is, the shift from accountability for character… to enabling people to have no responsibility or accountability for their actions. I agree Dr Simon, we must stop reducing ourselves and each other to a set of excuses and start shouting from the rooftops, the principle that 99.99% of us have freewill and are therefore accountable for how we exercise it. No more excuses.

    1. actually Juliette, people can be too happy, it’s called Manic. Also happiness is a temporary state which will eventually be followed by sadness and if someone thinks the answer to life is happiness they will soon be disappointed. I’ve heard it said that a person should not seek happiness because you will always be chasing it. Rather, contentment and acceptance which can be carried with you through happiness and sadness.

      1. Puddle, 🙂 too happy in comparison to what? As evidenced by what? It’s an extremely subjective judgement based on expectations which are based on values and beliefs of the person judging. If I was labelled excessively happy because I couldn’t help laughing at something very funny, and it truly was. If I found it in me to laugh at this, when a few weeks before that I would have seen the tragic side of the whole situation of me being made involuntary when I walked in voluntary. If I found it in me to laugh instead of grieve, was that really excessive or was it character strength? Was Osama Bin Laden excessively happy when he did what he did? Was Nelson Mandela excessively happy when he celebrated his release? Were Americans excessively happy when OBL was redefined and made to go back to where he came from? I do understand what mania is, however there is a difference between someone suffering from mania and someone labelled as excessively happy because they are laughing when someone decides that they ought to be sad or angry.

        1. well, happiness instead of grief is not a sign of character strength IMO because there is nothing wrong or weak about grief.
          I guess I would have to really understand what you were referring to in your first comment about someone being labeled with “excessive happiness”. I do think, my opinion, people can display happiness and not feel it. Maybe the way it is used in diagnosis if if a person is displaying inappropriate happiness.
          Anyhow, as “they” say, happiness is an” illusion” anyhow. 🙂
          http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/06/opinion/sunday/great-betrayals.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

          1. That’s a really great point Puddle about character strength, I just basically have a problem with psychiatry and how it labels everything, then uses behaviour as the diagnostic criteria, in and of itself without considering the human variations as to why the behaviour was there. Whereas a psychologist looks at your narritive and your behaviour in context of that narrative, psychiatry just looks at your behaviour so that it can fit you into a diagnostic category, that medication has been approved for. This way of looking at things is then utilized by disturbed characters to lay claim to having a ‘disorder’, in reverse. They say ‘I have that behaviour therefore I have that disorder’, is the point I’m trying to make. I read the article you have linked to when I had a look at Chumplady’s site. Her site is fantastic and I gained lots of strength and inspiration from reading it. The Betrayal article describes my current reality to a tee. I found it particularly helpful because it doesn’t specifically focus on infidelity just the betrayal of trus,t which distorts the victim’s reality. The way the article describes how hard it is to move forward from the previous narrative, the one full of a lie(s) and distortions made me feel validated. Did you relate to it in that way, re your state of confusion? I know I certainly did.

          2. I’m not sure I’m on the same article/ page! 🙂

            which article ?

            “I read the article you have linked to when I had a look at Chumplady’s site. Her site is fantastic and I gained lots of strength and inspiration from reading it. The Betrayal article describes my current reality to a tee. I found it particularly helpful because it doesn’t specifically focus on infidelity just the betrayal of trus,t which distorts the victim’s reality. The way the article describes how hard it is to move forward from the previous narrative, the one full of a lie(s) and distortions made me feel validated. Did you relate to it in that way, re your state of confusion? I know I certainly did.”

        2. Hi Puddle, before I saw your post, I had a look over Chumplady’s site for the first time. She had a link on there to the same article you had linked to ‘Great Betrayals’ I can’t remember exactly where on her site she had the link.

    1. J, interesting article. Thanks for posting it. 🙂 Just as everything, humans have found a way to take something that has beneficial applications in the world and turn it into something that just doesn’t work. Of course animals have to rely on more direct methods of communication since they don’t have complex language.

    2. J, interesting article. Thanks for posting it. 🙂 Just as everything, humans have found a way to take something that has beneficial applications in the world and turn it into something that just doesn’t work. Of course animals have to rely on more direct methods of communication since they don’t have complex language.

      Regarding Sexual addiction? It’s supposed to have the highest recidivism rate of any “addiction”. I’m wondering how many people who enter treatment for it do so because they really want to get better vs wish they wouldn’t have gotten caught!?
      But Spathtard cried the blues and blamed his alcoholism for things, saying his piss poor performance at times was a result of his alcoholism and that “he supposed it would be a long time before he was rid of that monster”, as if it was forcing him into the bar. LOL!!!of course he used his drinking and “alcoholism” in other manipulative ways as well….LIES as usual.

  3. the initial reason I quit drinking was during a break up and I was trying not to call him. I knew I would if I was drinking because I know. So then, it was clear it would never work with us drinking together so WE BOTH said, the relationship is more important than drinking,,,,,,Yeah right……he showed me which was more important alright the next break up. So much BS came out of his mouth. it’s just so amazingly clear, painfully clear, now. at the time I saw the gorilla in the middle of the room but had no clue it was really a monster and very dangerous. I bought the lies and was so hopeful so many times and he knew I was “stupid” like that.
    If there is a bright side to this it’s that it did provide me the initial push to quit drinking.

  4. “Why the insistence on seeing every behavior in terms of neurosis?”

    Let’s keep on pondering Einstein’s thought here.

    Freud got inspiration for his theories from Romantic Age literature(who had noticed there are psychic forces keeping a human being from enlightenment) and Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

    It seems that myths that would have given us a good idea of character disturbance have been forgotten along the way.

    1. Of course, the fact that Freud, Jung and others had the concept of radical evil puzzles me. If they accepted the concept of radical evil, archetypal shadow that is more than just a personal shadow, how come they didn’t conceptualize character?

      Did they think it’s all just unconscious forces? Robert Moore in his book Facing the Dragon mentions that not only did Alfred Adler see superiority hiding an inferiority complex, but also inferiority complex hiding an unconscious superiority complex.

      Has evil been thought as a force and not something people can consciously decide to do?

      1. Perhaps the times they lived in too. Good character was cool then, as Dr Simon and Chump Lady say. It’s not so cool now. Good character was almost an assumption extended to most people of the culture back then. It was alot more socially undesirable to be of bad character I think compared to nowadays. Now, we have some very poor characters running the economies of the world. Bad character is often the thing that makes people ‘successful’ these days. Look at some of the younger generation’s ‘cool’ role models we have in the music and entertainment industry. The porn industry and the way women are viewed as objects by the whole society. Women have come to view themselves as objects too. Evil is a big subject that should have it’s own article I think. I think it does exist although I can’t say I am able to define it. I know what it can look like though, which is to say, evil can pretend to be good and not appear evil at all.

    2. There’s also the conept of deindividuation. It’s the idea that people lose their inhibitions in crowds. It’s been used to explain e.g. violent riots.

      1. Some call it revolution too J. Sometimes revolution is even necessary, like the men and women who fought for America’s Independence. It is a fascinating thing that people can lose themselves in big enough groups and be overwhelmed by the emotional tone of a crowd. Like when you go to a very large concert, the atmosphere is electric when a mass of people all come together for one thing, no matter what it is.

    3. Hi J, still waiting for the book but it’s been dispatched I know that! Did you see my post about Red Riding Hood, when you asked that question about CD myths earlier? A lot of the great operas have CD archetype mythology in them. They usually involve a love triangle between true love and a CD trying to possess the fair maiden and eliminate her true love/suitor by manipulation, like Tosca by Puccini. The Magic Flute by Mozart is another great one full of magical thinking and extolling the virtues of good, spiritual character versus bad, like overcoming temptation, having faith in a higher power and overcoming darkness and power lust.

      1. Yes, I saw that earlier post of yours.

        Thanks also for yet more great examples.

        “overcoming darkness and power lust” Success, of course, does mean that one can earn more, so that one can live better. Obviously, still, one can get obsessed with success, even if one is not an aggressive beast out to dominate. Doesn’t success feel good? One could sacrifice one’s health fervently chasing it.

        1. I agree entirely J, success by whose standards and values? Measured by what? So many people do that very thing. It all boils down to the desire for power/money and the power of consumption. I still can’t tell if the ‘darkness’ I have talked about before, when I was going to kill my abuser 17 or so years ago, was always within me or it was fed by his darkness. Or whether I was infected with his.

          I hope to get some insight and inspiration on this from Moore’s book. I did win some kind of battle, because I had a very good, to the core, personality/soul before that, I crossed over into this state… then came back to submission to goodness and kind of higher power, the way I had always lived my life.

          1. Both the steps into and back out were a conscious choice, I remember making them. My motivations changed and then came back to what they were. My beliefs changed the same. My ego was very wounded by horrible abuse, but that’s not an excuse either. It was something else too, in me. I really want to know. I just remember well the moment I had to surrender to a higher power that held my life and actions to the narrative of the future. I had something to lose too. I made the right choice.

  5. If the person is seeking the porn, or whatever, for the high they receive, and it progressively gets worse (meaning riskier behaviors), then that would be a valid addiction?

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