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Terence Blacker: Whatever happened to promiscuity?


It is time to brace ourselves for more bad news. The cover story in this week's Newsweek reveals a new epidemic which already has an estimated nine million Americans in its grip.

This scourge is more frightening than bird flu in that carriers of the condition are everywhere – in society, in the home. It could, as Ant and Dec might say, be you.

The disease is sex addiction or, if you prefer a fancy designation, hypersexual disorder. A blight of unzipped incidents is destroying marriages. Careers are being cut short by a thrumming over-enthusiasm for online porn. Heart-breaking stories are being told. "I was meeting girls on the basketball court, in the club, pulling my car over to meet them on the street," a man attending a Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous clinic confessed to Newsweek.

Like all good epidemics, sex addiction has inspired media spin-offs. A reality TV show called Bad Sex traces the progress of a group of men and women with "severe sex issues". Shame, the much-touted new movie by the British director Steve McQueen, is an unflinching study of a man tragically enslaved to lust.

Would it be heartless to suggest that, in a crisis-riddled world, this is one problem we should not spend too much time worrying about? We live in an over-stimulated society in which people may well spend more time on sex (thinking it, dreaming it, sometimes even doing it) than in the past. Insecurity and social anxiety have sharpened the need for attention, however brief, and for validation, however meaningless. But an epidemic? Surely this is a panic too far.

There are, of course, people with behavioural difficulties expressed through a compulsion – food, exercise, fandom, sex – but most of the nine million people allegedly suffering from hypersexual disorder are simply taking what modern life has to offer. Unlike Brian Sewell, whose thousand-lovers-a-year habit is happily recounted in his recently published memoirs ("It was sheer intoxication with the sudden ease of it"), they have then felt mortified and have blamed their weakness on a disease.

If you are an addict, you are a victim. A bit of cod science about dependency on dopamine in the brain usefully removes the problem of moral choice. It excuses the weak, the selfish, the mindlessly randy by placing their problem outside their lives. If there is an epidemic going on, who can be blamed for becoming infected?

Weirdly, the transformation of old-fashioned promiscuity into a medical condition also has the effect of demonising a certain type of sex. It is the pornified generation's version of the fear of "nymphomania" in the 1950s or of masturbation in the Victorian age. Perhaps it is not sex addicts who are in urgent need of treatment but the self-dramatising, blame-shifting culture in which they live.