Sex, Lies & Trousergate: Is Sex Addiction to Blame?

Last week former general David H. Petraeus was a war hero reinvented as the Director of the CIA; this week he has resigned his position and is more famous for committing adultery than for being a four-star general. His sudden fall raises the perennial question: Why do men in power keep cheating, especially in this, the 21st century, when technology and the 24/7 news cycle practically guarantee that they'll not only be caught but memed without mercy? Is it just a dangerous combination of high-test narcissism and boys-will-be-boyness? In 2008, in the wake of l’affaires Edwards and Spitzer, MORE asked six smart writers for their sharpest takes on the psychology of the high-level cheater. Why does he do it? Will he ever learn? And are we wrong to care?

by Susan Cheever
lipstick on collar photo
Photograph: iStock

From MORE'S 2008 package on politicians who cheat. Why do these smart, successful men make moronic choices? Is sex addiction to blame? 

When the novelist Charles Dudley Warner wrote that “politics makes strange bedfellows,” he was not thinking about Monica or Ashley or Rielle. But given the lives of our twenty-first-century politicians, his nineteenth-century wise-crack seems more like prophecy than wit.

Why do these smart, successful men make moronic choices when it comes to sex? When the latest politician is caught and he awkwardly apologizes as his wife stands awkwardly next to him, we are mystified. Why do men who seem to have everything always want everything else? And why do their wives put up with them?

 The answer may be as simple as it is unexplored. These men are in the grip of an addiction; they use other people as a substance as surely as alcoholics use whisky. All addictions start with pleasure and slowly progress until the addict is unable to think straight when it comes to the substance. Adultery is the drunk driving of sex addiction. “Because our sexuality is one of our most fundamental life processes, sexual compulsiveness is extremely threatening to all of us,” writes Patrick Carnes, whose book Out of the Shadows first defined sex addiction in 1983.

Women marry addicts for many reasons: They think the men can be rescued, they are addicts themselves,  or the addiction is weirdly familiar because a parent or relative abused alcohol, drugs or some other means to mitigate life’s frictions. By the time addicts get into trouble, their families are already caught in a web of secrets and lies.

There’s a little bit of an addict in all of us. Most of us have had the experience of eating or drinking something we had promised not to eat or drink. We may even have slept with someone we had decided not to sleep with. In a full-blown addict, this powerlessness takes over. I know from experience: In my drinking days, I rarely considered what effect my being impaired might have on my husband and children. As far as I was concerned, the next glass of wine was the solution, not the problem.

Sex addiction is particularly tricky because we are all so in love with love. When a friend is in love, we celebrate; when we are in love, we exult. Yet what we call falling in love is an addictive experience. Our obsession, our deliciously out-of-control behavior, and the way the world narrows down to just one person are all characteristics of addiction. Psychological studies show that lovers and drug addicts have almost identical brain chemistry; in both, a sort of hedonistic highway is lit up.

Is this what ails our politicians? Each case is different, but addiction as a possible cause is rarely mentioned. And by not mentioning it, we compound the tragedy. As addiction has become better understood, many effective treatments have been developed. But without diagnoses, there can be no remedy. Until we are willing to explore the possibility of sex addiction, we are doomed to ignorance, baffled and betrayed as we watch the smartest leaders of our generation destroy themselves and their families.

Susan Cheever's most recent book is Desire: Where Sex Meets Addiction. She is also a biographer of Bill Wilson, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous.


Patricia J. Williams on sex, scandal and the danger of these distractions.

Katha Pollitt on why hypocrisiy is the bigger scandal.

Originally published in the November 2008 issue

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