A History of (Hyper-)Sexuality, Volume I: An Introduction (1/2)

A History of (Hyper-)Sexuality, Volume I: An Introduction (1/2) September 6, 2016

By Lucie(n) Fielding

If you want to talk about why sex and porn addiction are such compelling (dare we say “addictive”?) concepts in the contemporary American popular imagination, we need to go back to Enlightenment discussions of sexual pleasure, over-heated uteruses, novel-reading, and sexual-moral degeneracy. As it turns out, it’s Rousseau’s fault (well, yeah, kinda).

John Henry Fuseli, "The Nightmare." In public domain; from Wikimedia Commons.
John Henry Fuseli, “The Nightmare.” In public domain; from Wikimedia Commons.

Before we do so, though, I first wish to thank Jeana for inviting me to offer a couple of guest posts on what I will call here, in the mold of Douglas Braun-Harvey and Michael Vigorito’s (2016) wonderful work on the subject, “out of control sexual behavior” (OCSB). Much of what I will discuss herein arises out of a series of workshops offered under the aegis of this year’s Summer Institute of the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors, and Therapists (AASECT), which sought to problematize the concept of “sex addiction” (which is probably how you are more used to thinking and hearing about OCSB).

A bit of self-disclosure… I am currently a student-trainee in a counseling psychology program and I eventually hope to practice as a sex therapist. My prior training, though, was as a historian—I have a PhD in French with a specialization in erotic literature and the history of sexuality. So even though future posts will get clinical and more science-y (I promise!), I hope you will forgive me if I first indulge in some history play.

In the literature on OCSB, sex compulsivity/impulsivity, sex addiction, and hypersexuality, the emphasis is often placed on white, cis, heterosexual men, which provides an interesting contrast to the historical emphasis on cis female sexuality in Anglo-European-American cultures during much of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Despite this sea change with respect to whose sexuality has been considered “inappropriate” and in need of regulation, there are interesting ways in which many of the terms and conceptions in use today regarding the dynamics of “sex addiction” or “hypersexuality” first originated during the Western-European Enlightenment.

La Volupté

Underlying the sex addiction and hypersexuality models is a concern about excess. For many sex addiction model proponents, certain behaviors are inherently excessive, and, thus, problematic. Basically, any behavior or fantasy that is not heterosexual, long-term, monogamous, grounded in mutual affection, partnered, or “normophilic” is suspect, which means if you are kinky, poly, or queer (or, god forbid, all three!); joyfully get down as your beautiful, Furry self; engage in (consensual) exhibitionism; like watching porn; or you really enjoy the new cordless Magic Wand you just picked up at your local toy shop (because how many of us have conveniently-placed sockets in our homes or want to dig out the extension cords if we don’t have to?), then you just may be engaging in problematic sexual behaviors according to a sex addiction model.

Alternatively, within the hypersexuality discourse, behaviors or fantasies are not themselves inherently problematic, but the frequency of or the time spent seeking or fantasizing about sexual behaviors and fantasies is thought to be excessive. For example, the criteria for hypersexual disorder proposed for the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5, released in 2013) contained multiple references to “repetitively engaging” in sexual fantasies, urges, and behaviors (criteria A2, A3, and A5). And criterion A1 explicitly trotted out the language of excess by asking the clinician to assess the extent to which “Excessive time is consumed by sexual fantasies and urges, and by planning for and engaging in sexual behavior” (my emphasis). The bottom line, as David Ley notes in The Myth of Sex Addiction, is that sex that involves “certain behaviors, or amounts of behaviors” is seen to constitute sexual excess, and excess is unhealthy (p. 61).

There is a long history of viewing “excess” as bad or morally suspect, and “moderation” as good, or a behavioral ideal, and Ley does a lovely job highlighting it in his book, but I am particularly interested in the eighteenth-century iterations of the argument, for it is then that the connection between excess and certain behaviors, fantasies, or urges (or the frequency and intensity of said behaviors, fantasies, or urges) is fully articulated. One of my favorite proponents of this dichotomy is the French materialist philosopher Julien Offray de La Mettrie (1709-1751), who, in his provocative essay La Volupté (1744) introduced a continuum of sexual pleasure—mere pleasure (le plaisir), which is available to all sentient beings; voluptuousness (la volupté), the highest form of pleasure, available only to humans, and defined by pleasures that were moderated, carefully unfolded, plotted, and reflected upon; and debauchery (la débauche), or excessive, incontinent, gluttonous, and extreme pleasure, pleasure unmoderated by reason or aesthetics.

The voluptuary is possessed of a “un coeur né sensible” [a heart sensitive from birth] as well as a carefully-educated mind and is as concerned with carefully plotting a sexual encounter as they are with achieving orgasm. In contrast, the debauched person is defined by excess and typified by an utter lack of self-control. Their desires are immoderate and their expression of them frenetic. This is due to poor moral-sexual education along with a nervous system that is misaligned and over-stimulated. Paradoxically, by feeling too much, the debauched person in fact feels nothing, and like an addict, they need greater and more extreme doses of sensual stimulus to feel pleasure (the apotheosis of the debauched libertine would be many of the Marquis de Sade’s characters, as in The 120 Days of Sodom (c. 1789)).

Excess (debauchery), for La Mettrie as well as other medical and proto-psychiatric writers of the period such as Samuel Tissot (in his essay on the ill-effects brought about through masturbation, L’Onanisme [1760]) and D. T. Bienville (who helped coin the term nymphomaniac in his 1771 treatise, La Nymphomanie, ou Traité de la fureur utérine), was not only problematic for being brutish and un-fun in the bedroom, but as a public health menace. Debauched people were possessed of a disordered mind prone to risky sexual behaviors that would ultimately lead to STI transmission, mental and physical dissipation, and, ultimately, an early and painful death (usually via small pox, syphilis, or unspecified, sudden bodily exhaustion).

Women, for both Tissot and Bienville, were particularly susceptible to the ravages brought on by debauched sexual behavior, impure thoughts, and masturbation, as their especially delicate nerves could be easily overstimulated and become overheated. So, quick, put away that cordless Magic Wand, please?

Up next: in the interest of not being “excessive” and allowing you to be your fabulous, “voluptuous” selves, this post will continue tomorrow. In part 2 we will continue our trip through the history of the hypersexuality and sex addiction discourses as they began to coalesce in the eighteenth century. We’ll consider concerns about the imagination, women reading novels, and (gasp!) sexual degeneracy. In the meantime, as LeVar Burton (sans visor) reminded us often on Reading Rainbow, “Go anywhere. Be anything!” I’ll see you next time?

Read the post series in order here:

A History of (Hyper-)Sexuality, Volume I: An Introduction (1/2)

A History of (Hyper-)Sexuality, Volume I: An Introduction (2/2)

From Disorder to Sexual Health: Treating Out of Control Sexual Behavior (1/2)

From Disorder to Sexual Health: Treating Out of Control Sexual Behavior (2/2)

Dreams of Black Swans: Falsifying Sex Addiction

The Metaphor of Sex Addiction

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