Sex addict or silly boy?

Hapless, charming Boris - he just can't resist fooling around, can he? But psychologists don't see it that way. Anne Garvey on why people who can't stop cheating need help
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Boris is at it again. Caught on camera last weekend, the notorious blond mop escaping from beneath a burglar's beanie, we saw him leaving his new flame's flat. Far from chastened by last year's public expulsion from Michael Howard's shadow cabinet over similar sexual indiscretions, he was clearly deep into another affair. So what was the reaction - outrage? Maybe. Or did we sigh indulgently and turn the page?

It's hard to repress a smile at the image of the hunted, hunched bulky figure throwing a leg over his bike and pedalling off into the afternoon. He may be a father of four, and a shadow cabinet minister, but, hey, he's good fun. Rule-breaking is part of his charm. He's his own person and if that means a brief extracurricular consultation with aTimes Education al Supplement journalist, well, we hesitate to condemn him.

Boris Johnson, like so many serial philanderers, is possessed of transcendent charm. In a conformist world he bumbles amusingly in a comic counterpoint to the cool chic of styled modern men. The persona he has created is entirely convincing; a guileless, jolly, owlish chap - with the entertaining spin of a sharp mind. Under pressure, the Pickwickian expostulations get more Dickensian, the "Who sir, me sir?' schoolboy winsomeness waxes more wide-eyed: the efforts to convince the world grow more theatrical - there to convince us that we're dealing with no more than Billy Bunter caught scoffing at the tuck box.

But like so many men - and women - time and again drawn to infidelity, the colourful charade cloaks the stark reality. This is a psychological condition with dark consequences for the individual and those around them. The stage set is real; sex with others when you've made serious promises to do otherwise, is not entertainment but a potentially life-shattering cataclysm. Cheating is a serious psychological condition.

"Obsessional thrill seeking - when you can't be without it - falls into the category of perversion," says Martha Stevns, a Cambridge Jungian psychoanalyst. "The individual is constantly looking for fulfilment but the contact they desire never happens. So they begin again. When behaviour is repeated it moves from the normal into the realm of compulsion - like a shoe fetish or any other prop. It is tragic and sad."

Not that the players themselves see it this way. To the observer, Geoff leads a quiet married life, but he is living proof that a Casanova complex is not confined to extroverts. In his late thirties, he rejoices in his success as serial adulterer. " I have always been like this; it is very stimulating for me to pursue women. I don't see it as exploiting anyone. I give women what they want and that is concentrated passion. Deception is a necessary part of it, but I don't lie for the sake of it. I sometimes feel it is too much as I get older but I have this urge to go for that one more seduction. It doesn't mean I don't enjoy married life but I surprised myself that in the first week of wedded bliss I had an affair. Just to prove I still could, I suppose. I still wanted to feel free."

Terri Apter, a psychologist at the University of Cambridge, recognises the pattern. "Some serial adulterers just love the excitement of sex. Others are more attracted to the power of it. You can rejoice in being desired or being in control. To feel you can ask something so intimate of someone, and so often, is essentially narcissistic. It can be a way of avoiding genuine communication or an attempt to make contact. A Don Juan can have a deep dislike of women and is out to demean or humiliate them."

Sex addiction is not only a male phenomenon. History has thrown up some eye-watering female examples. Catherine the Great was celebrated for having sex with everyone including her own horse. Messalina, wife of Emperor Claudius, challenged the chief of Rome's prostitutes in a public contest as to who could have the most men in a day, retiring exhausted. Commonly though, women who whisk their way through endless lovers thrive on attention and adulation.

"Women are immensely flattered by being desired,' remarks Dr Apter. "Sex can become the arena where they feel the most powerful." This certainly applies to Nora. Gorgeous and lissom in her late twenties, she calculates she has had dozens of men, but maintains a steady boyfriend in what she calls a "companionable relationship".

"You can't get away from the fact that sex is fabulous. That is central to it all but frankly it can get a bit dull with the same person. I love the glamour, the chase, the allure, the romance of it. Even if it's dirty and raunchy - at a party, say, and downright furtive - it's part of the drama. I seem to have a real talent for it. I can separate it in my mind from my life with my boyfriend. It is genuinely apart. But I do have to have it, so I will happily admit to being an addict.

"I think it's genetic. My aunt was like this in the 1960s, but back then the definition of promiscuous was rather looser."

Dr Apter agrees there is "evidence of a genetic component in all addictions, and the susceptibility is often inherited. But it doesn't mean a sex addiction is inevitable. Past experience and environment play their part."

Another favourite belief of serial philanderers is that, far from reprehensible, their behaviour is actually good for their marriage. "Well, it can keep it stabilised," says Dr Apter. "In the Clintons' marriage, for example, Hillary's dominance, which Bill clearly admires and likes, is counterbalanced by his errant sexual behaviour. For an addictive personality, sex is preferable to, say, alchoholism, which would be more disastrous to the marriage and family. Sex addiction cannot be said to be always bad."

But maintaining a life of constant deceit does place tremendous demands on anyone who sets about juggling their life this way. And it carries with it the constant shadow of discovery. According to Dr Apter, sex addicts minimise the risks in their own mind: " Those in the public eye close their minds to the likely outcome, which is probably exposure. We all do this when we want something badly enough. Everyone is skilled at self-deception. We want to feel we are good people. So we become adept at minimising destructive and demeaning behaviour."

Martha Stevns believes that "on a psychological level, sex compulsives often want to be discovered, because maintaining this kind of serial infidelity is ultimately unbearable. Only then do they get the chance to find real fulfilment in a satisfying mature relationship. There is a psychological concept, the puer aeternus, the Eternal Boy, the Peter Pan who refuses to grow up and take on real responsibilities. Boris looks very like the eternal boy to me, someone for whom the everyday slog of ongoing relationships doesn't offer enough excitement. The challenge of the new conquest promises that the next relationship will bring the satisfaction they crave."

Both psychologists agree that this kind of addiction, what they prefer to call compulsive sexual activity, is ultimately self-destructive.

"It is often an infantile inability to repress any desire," says Dr Apter. Ominously for Boris she adds, "The very privileged often do not develop this self-control and become self-indulgent, feeling entitled to make constant sexual requests."

Martha Stevns is even gloomier for the future. "Having affairs is ultimately about not relating to someone properly. It feeds a constant desire to repeat the exercise in the futile hope of finding fulfilment. It can lead to severe depression. In order to treat someone like Boris, we would need probably years of therapy. It is a serious disorder pointing to deeper problems."

And it clearly is not all fun on the sex circuit. Big time Fifties womaniser David Niven bemoaned his constant search for sex as "like being tied to a mad parrot" ( reported mistakenly by a friend as "like being tied to a mad carrot") and Michael Douglas, now apparently tamed by Valleys siren Catherine Zeta-Jones, had the indignity of having the treatment for his "condition" trumpeted to the world. Errol Flynn, Clark Gable all confessed in their era to a compulsion for sex that had begun to take control of them.

And the times are a-changing for persistently married and chronic adulterers; their style today seems oddly old-fashioned. Like James Bond and his lethal couplings, once considered so stylish, serial sex compulsion today appears dated and sad, and in as much need of proper rehabilitation as any other addiction.

THE CHEAT

Peter, 45, a married chief executive of a leading plc, has been having affairs for more than a decade. He has three children and has been married twice. His first marriage lasted eight years and he has been married to his second wife for seven years.

I started having affairs three years into my first marriage. It's just something successful people do. We're not so accepting of our lot. Most people shrug their shoulders if their marriage doesn't fulfil their every need, but go-getters are perpetually looking for the next thrill.

You don't just have one affair. You're looking for that sparkle and excitement that you get at the start of a relationship. As soon as it goes, you crave it again. My shortest affair lasted three weeks, the longest more than a year.

What I do has no reflection on my marriage. I love my wife dearly, we still have sex and she's the mother of my children. But a mistress is excitement - she's someone who I can focus on completely as a woman, and she can focus on me completely as a boyfriend. Attraction is 99 per cent of it, but it's not just sex. It's sparring with minds, dialogue, rapport and discovering somebody for the first time.

I used to find women through work or social situations, which is dangerous. They know exactly who you are and there are things that can happen. For the last two years, I've been finding lovers on a website. Everyone's married and the women have as much to lose as you. They don't want to leave their husbands any more than I want to leave my wife.

I fell in love with one of them, but those feelings eventually passed. When the excitement and feelings start to wane, you get out. She felt the same way.

In my marriage I'm exactly who I am, whereas with a mistress I can be whoever I want. I might be more needy romantically with a mistress, or more affectionate. At difficult times in my life I need something different.

I think having affairs helps my marriage. I can go off and be made to feel special, get the attention I need, and give the attention that I need to give, so there's nothing I need to drive my wife mad for. I've noticed that when I have affairs I'm nicer to her. I don't feel bad for her. She's probably had a better marriage as a result of it. I'd take out my frustrations with her if I wasn't having an affair.

I don't resent my wife for not giving me everything I want because no one person can. If she was a tall, leggy blonde, I'd want a short, petite dark-haired woman. An affair is a break from normality and that makes you appreciate your wife even more when you go back to it. I admit though, if my wife ever had an affair I would feel desperately upset.

If ever my wife found out I would feel absolutely guilt-ridden. The last thing I would want to do is upset her and she would probably leave me. But everything in life is a risk or you live a mundane life.

Poor sod Boris got caught. I expect well-known people to have affairs because successful people do. The problem is that if you're well-known and having affairs, there are more eyes on you to notice.

I don't think you need to justify my behaviour. I don't think we're designed to be monogamous. I'm a God-fearing person. Do I think it's immoral? Only if you believe that we are designed to be with one person for ever, and I don't.

Peter was talking to Julia Stuart

Comments