If you are a woman reading this article, it is likely that you have found yourself in treatment and are now seeking strategies for coping with sexual addiction. It is also likely that you entered treatment not for sexual addiction but for disordered eating or perhaps substance use. Along the way you may have uncovered that you have tended to express addictive patterns in multiple areas of your life, whether with spending, eating, shopping, relationships or sex. Recognizing that sex can be a compulsive or impulsive problem for you was likely not on the top of your mind when you entered treatment and this sets you apart from the group of men who entered treatment in full knowledge of their addiction, often because they were “caught” by a significant other. In fact, and strangely, the number of men who enter treatment for disordered eating reflects the same number of women who enter treatment directly for sexual addiction – approximately 20 percent.
What accounts for these differences?
Genetic Differences in Men and Women
Rutgers University anthropologist Helen Fisher studies the human brain and says that men’s and women’s brains evolved together but are different. Fisher describes men’s and women’s brains as working like “two feet” – they need each other. On the whole, she explains, women’s brains are “better connected.” They utilize what she calls “webbed thinking,” and are able to connect more “holistically” – evidence of why women may be better at thinking in regards to others, and at connecting and communing in relationships. Men are better at compartmentalization, which accounts for their generally different approach to sex. Men, on the whole, can more easily separate sex from relationships, and in their earlier years tend to seek autonomy and sexual novelty over attachment. This pattern is reversed for women who tend to seek attachment in earlier years and autonomy later on. This is why we frequently hear of middle-aged women going back to college, changing careers or relationships, or going to “find themselves.” As Fisher and other researchers explain, there were evolutionary advantages to these different ways of thinking and behaving (the propagation and protection of the young).
Cultural Double Standards
Gender stereotypes evolved to reflect these genetic differences, and over time, religious and cultural norms supported and amplified gender roles that reflected them. Men were and are lauded for sexually promiscuous behavior (to the point that “promiscuous” is almost never used in relation to men), while women are shamed and given unflattering names for the very same behaviors. Ross Rosenberg, psychotherapist and expert in the field of sex, love and Internet addictions has written, “A society that regards male hypersexuality in positive terms has created a shameful backdrop and societal prejudice for women.”
From an early age, women and girls are taught to “be good,” to sit with their knees together, to not touch themselves and to otherwise suppress their body’s natural urges while, confusingly, portraying themselves as virginal yet sexy to men. The cultural conditioning that enforces these confusing standards on women is likely more to blame for the shame and confusion that prevents more women from showing up to therapy or other treatment for help with sexual addiction. Women have been taught to deny their urges, their bodies and their behaviors and thus, it is only reasonable that sexual dysfunction would occasionally result – in women, just as with men.
The cultural double standards continue with regard to research and media treatment of sexual addiction in women. Minimal research has been done in the area of sexual addiction among women, and even as investigators begin to explore the subject as a whole, it remains to be seen whether women will be afforded the same attention as men – a widespread problem in many areas of medical and mental health research where women and minorities are infrequently included as research subjects.
When the media presents men with sex addiction, we see powerful men – politicians, athletes and actors – who are presented as having fallen from grace as a result of sexual appetites. These men remain famous, however, and continue to have careers, often wildly successful, despite their momentary, or often repeated, lapses. Women, however, are treated differently. When VH1 presented its reality series, “Sex Rehab with Dr. Drew,” the female sex addicts were mostly presented as porn stars who’d lost or abandoned their careers; they were not presented as “powerful yet lost,” but rather as shameful and degraded.
There is no doubt that women are learning to compartmentalize sex, perhaps to their detriment, and likely as a result of a culture that enforces conflicted restrictions around women’s sexual behaviors. It is common for female sex addicts to use sex and sexual relationships as a means of acquiring and negotiating power, and it is no wonder. A culture that tells women they have less sexual and other power than men do creates the dynamic within which dysfunctional sex becomes not only possible, but inevitable – for women and for men.