A Neuroscientist Takes a Look at a New Book on Sex Addiction
Desire: Where Sex Meets Addiction
By Susan Cheever
192 pages; Simon & Schuster
In Desire: Where Sex Meets Addiction, author Susan Cheever investigates the realm in which making love becomes a compulsive behavior. Cheever, whose previous work includes several novels and memoirs, was inspired to write about the subject in part by researching My Name Is Bill, her recent biography of Bill Wilson, the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. According to numerous accounts, he was not only an alcoholic but also a sex addict, a lifelong problem that cost him the respect of many of his colleagues in the AA movement. Cheever's book promises to provoke readers, who may recognize states of mind and patterns of behavior—their own or others'—that have caused them pain. One revelation likely to prompt glimpses of self-recognition: The leagues of relationship addicts include both compulsive sex-seekers and "in love with love" types who consistently choose infatuation over long-term commitment. Indeed, the book suggests that "in love" is a dangerous state, to be navigated before proceeding to marriage.
In exploring desire, Cheever offers tales of her own sexual promiscuity, with incisive commentary from experts on the neuroscience and psychology of addictive behavior. Amid increasing evidence that people hooked on sex, alcohol, and other drugs share common traits, Cheever describes an "otherworldly suspension of will" that overcomes addicts, which can propel them to "use" despite prior resolve. The loss of will seems to result from the activation of similar brain pathways no matter what the fix is (many addicts, including Susan's father, author John Cheever, whose recovery from alcoholism led her to write her biography of Wilson, are attracted to more than one agent; in fact, it was Bill W.'s dependence on nicotine that ended up killing him). Cheever echoes the opinion of many scientific experts that sex addiction should be treated not as a failure of morality or character but as a disease of brain biochemistry resulting from a combination of genetics and life events.