Glossary: Don't blame him, he's just a poor sex addict

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The Independent Online
WHEN Valerie Harkess was faced with her toughest question (why did you go back and sleep with Alan Clark even after it had become clear that he was well on the way to completing the Happy Families set?) she opted for the 20th-century equivalent of seeking sanctuary in a holy place. 'I suppose I was addicted to him,' she said. In other words - I need help, not condemnation. I have taken the vows of victimhood. You cannot touch me here.

Jamie Blandford's lawyers know about this loophole, too - in 1985 he was fined and put on probation for breaking into a chemist's shop after his lawyer played the addiction card. This week he was given another probationary sentence. Treatment, not punishment, is the addict's conventional sentence.

We are addiction addicts these days, compulsively drawn to compulsions; but it was not always so. The word comes from a term in Roman Law. An addiction was a court order assigning ownership, most often used of the surrender or dedication of someone to a master. To addict oneself was to devote oneself as a servant or disciple.

So, although it was certainly possible to be addicted against your will (as in the case of most slaves) the word didn't rule out free decision, a conscious election of a certain path, which might be perfectly honourable. This meaning survived for some time into the 17th and 18th centuries.

In this sense it would be possible to say 'Mother Teresa is addicted to the suffering poor' and not suggest by it an unhealthy and unwilling dependence1 . (You couldn't ever have called her a 'poverty addict' - that use of the noun dates from the beginning of this century and is always clearly judgemental.)

The idea that addictions were voluntary states lasts quite a long time. When John Stuart Mill writes of 'a man who causes grief to his family by addiction to bad habits' in 1859, the word still contains the notion of free dedication. And because the man could change his mind if he wanted - could addict himself to his family instead - the remark allows for moral condemnation.

Modern addiction is more forgiving altogether. 'Chemical addiction', which is sometimes used as a technical description to distinguish between things we develop a mental need for (soap operas) and things we develop a physical need for (heroin and, some would have you believe, chocolate) illuminates the divorce of the mind and body.

Now the general implication is that if you're in the grip of an addiction you are not culpable. What you do might be reprehensible, but the blame2 for it resides not in you but in your disease. It makes no more sense to condemn you for your behaviour than it would to condemn a diabetic for failing to control his blood sugar level.

So, though Michael Douglas might once have been described as a fornicator and libertine, he now issues a press release stating that he has checked into a clinic3 to have treatment for sex addiction. Poor thing, we are supposed to think, how brave he is to fight it. Where can we send our donations to help us to stamp out this terrible illness?

The Oxford English Dictionary doesn't include sex addiction in its very extensive list of compound words formed with sex, which both suggests that it must be a fairly recent coinage and makes it difficult to determine a precise date. The notion has been around for centuries, of course - it wasn't Bryan Ferry who invented the notion of love as a drug, and the idea of being enslaved to love harks back nicely to the etymology of addiction.

But the modern use of sex addiction to describe serial infidelity takes things one step further: it removes lust from the arena of moral combat, the battle between conscience and appetite, and places it in the realm of medicine. Those who stray become patients, deserving recipients of our sympathy.

There are other addictions, too - workaholics have been around since about 1968 (though, as John Ayto nicely points out in the Longman's Register of New Words, there is no such thing as workahol) and shopaholics and chocaholics soon followed. The latter two are jocular forms - more a guilty joke than a genuine attempt at exculpation - but they draw some of their force from the general principle.

Oddly enough there doesn't seem to be a similar get-out for money - no counsel has yet dared to step forward and argue that his client is hopelessly addicted to used notes and is conscientiously attending meetings of Cashaholics Anonymous. This is probably because the compulsive acquisition of money is socially sanctioned anyway, so that moral distinctions are reserved for ways of getting hold of it. But in almost every other sphere of moral action the rule holds good. If you're hooked, you're off the hook.

1 From the French dependre, to hang down. Thus the notion of relying on something for support.

2 From the Old French blame, blasmer. From the ecclesiastical Latin blasphemare, to revile, reproach.

3 From the Greek klinikos, from kline, a bed.