Reading Time: 6 minutes Maurice Blot after Jean-Honoré Fragonard, Le Verrou (engraving), courtesy the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Reading Time: 6 minutes

By Lucie(n) Fielding

Did you ever grow anything in the garden of your mind?” Mr. Rogers once asked of us. For Mr. Rogers, the ideas that could grow in this garden were wondrous flora. But what about the weeds, the poison ivy of the mind? In the first post in this guest series problematizing the sex addiction concept, we took a look at contemporary fretting about sexual excess and traced some of those concerns back to the Enlightenment. In part two, we will consider another commonly expressed worry in the sex addiction world, sexual degeneracy. As we will see, in the 18th century, a well-stocked library could be a dangerous place for a woman to find herself.

Maurice Blot after Jean-Honoré Fragonard, Le Verrou (engraving), courtesy the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Maurice Blot after Jean-Honoré Fragonard, Le Verrou (engraving), courtesy the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Sexual Degeneracy, or the Problem of the Imagination


Another concern implicit in the sex addiction model is what John Money and Margaret Lamacz (1989) described as the theory of “sexual degeneracy,” or what I like to call the Dark Side of the Force theory, namely, to quote Yoda from The Empire Strikes Back (1980), “once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny, consume you it will.” According to sexual degeneracy theory, exposure to certain fantas1ies, content (e.g., in porn), or behaviors acts as a kind of “gateway drug” with a particularly virulent multiplier effect to more and more extreme, increasingly risky, increasingly non-consensual behaviors. As Braun-Harvey and Vigorito (2016) explain in their discussion of degeneracy theory, “masturbation, unconventional sexual turn-ons, and recreational [read: nonmarital or nonprocreative] sex [become seen] as symptoms of lustful wantonness that devolved into perverted sexual behaviors” (p. 14). “Excessive” masturbation, under this “logic,” could ultimately lead one down the dark path of child molestation and other forms of sexual violence and exploitation.

For proponents of the sex and porn addiction model, a major worry is what contemporary media (namely, the Internet) is doing to us. As one certified sex addiction therapist put it, porn on the Internet is problematic because, “[it] is affordable, it’s anonymous, and it is accessible at all times, day or night.”

This worry about moral degeneracy due to exposure to contemporary media is hardly new and echoes concerns voiced in the eighteenth century, a period that saw an explosion of access to print. A number of Enlightenment figures, chief amongst them, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, were particularly worried by access to the new media of the eighteenth century, namely the novel, and particularly, as Rousseau termed them in book one of his Confessions (1782), “ces dangereux livres […] qu’on ne peut […] les lire que d’une main” [those dangerous books that one reads with one hand]. For some in the eighteenth century, exposure to novel reading was particularly dangerous for women (again, because of those pesky, overly-sensitive nerves of theirs).

-Baudouin, Pierre Antoine "La_Lecture." -c. 1760
Pierre-Antoine Baudoin, “La Lecture [The Reader]” c. 1760, public domain.
The dangers of reading are driven home in Pierre-Antoine Baudouin’s painting, La Lecture [The Reader] (c. 1760). It depicts a woman sitting slumped in a chair within a sumptuous, cluttered study. A book lies open as if it dropped from her right hand. Her eyes are lidded and seem to be closed. Is she slumbering? Perhaps the book was boring. On first glance, perhaps, but look to her left hand. It is thrust inside her skirts. She does not appear to be sleeping but is instead caught up in a masturbatory reverie. The imagination, enflamed, stimulated, and excited by the book she has just been reading would seem to be a terrible thing to behold.

If, today, we may wax sentimental (pace Albert Einstein) about how “imagination is more important than knowledge” or whistle bars (in honor of the recently passed Gene Wilder) of “Pure Imagination,” in the eighteenth century, moralists and philosophers were far more ambivalent on the subject.  For them, the imagination was both that which made knowledge possible and that which could lead the mind and body into disarray; it was both the material condition for mental advancement and the seed of mental decay. Empiricists like Condillac and Hume worried that an imagination, unchecked by reason, could lead the mind to freely associate ideas that were contrary to the truth, and expounding on that worry, the aforementioned Tissot and Bienville expressed concern that the chimeras of the mind could have deleterious effects on the mind and body. This was especially the case with regard to women or in the case of a child’s burgeoning sexuality. If a woman or a child were exposed to certain (erotic) images and ideas, the imagination could lead them to obsess over those perceptions (expressed physically as masturbatory activity) and this obsession could, in turn, eventually lead to serious mental and physical disorders and, ultimately, death. See the degeneracy argument here?

In sum: the imagination, brought on by exposure to erotic material (in the eighteenth century, novels and engravings; in the twenty first century, internet porn) fuels sexual pleasure and erotic stimulation but it puts its user on a dark and dangerous path of degeneracy and ruin.

Why spend so much time and valuable blog space linking eighteenth-century theories of sexuality and the imagination to late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century discourses underpinning the sex addiction model? Well, for one, I always like providing context. But, more importantly, and I just offer this as a question for your consideration, might it be significant that a discursive field now devoted primarily to problematize behaviors and fantasies experienced by men was first developed to problematize female sexuality? What does this say about how we often consider men to be the problematic gender in the twenty-first-century context, whereas before women were typically considered guilty of the sins of excess and weakness? Given, too, that the degeneracy model has such a long history – but that we can probably be pretty confident that reading novels didn’t lead to the decline of Western civilization or even to many cases of overheated uteruses – should we be skeptical about these claims about Internet pornography and degeneration? For answers to this last question, I, for one, await upcoming books by Marty Klein and David Ley on so-called porn addiction, both slated for release in the fall (His Porn, Her Pain: Confronting America’s PornPanic with Honest Talk About Sex and Ethical Porn for Dicks: A Man’s Guide to Responsible Viewing Pleasure respectively).

Next time: I keep referring to OCSB, or, out of control sexual behavior, instead of sex addiction. Why do I do this? Is this a distinction without a difference? Short answer: nope! In my next guest post I will delve a bit deeper into the OCSB framework and discuss its main features. I hope you will stay with me. LL&P, in the meantime.

A special thanks to Douglas Braun-Harvey, MA, LMFT, CGP, CST and Michael Giancola, MA, MS, LMFT, who kindly reviewed and offered wonderfully helpful notes on drafts of these posts before they were offered to you.

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

List of References (for your reading pleasure):

Bienville, D. T. de. La Nymphomanie; ou, traité de la fureur utérine. Amsterdam: Marc-Michel Rey, 1771.

Braun-Harvey, Douglas, and Michael A. Vigorito. Treating Out of Control Sexual Behavior: Rethinking Sex Addiction. New York: Springer Publishing Company, 2016.

La Mettrie, Julien Offray de. De la Volupté: Anti-Sénèque ou le souverain bien; L’Ecole de la volupté; Système d’Epicure. Edited by Ann Thomson. Paris: Ed. Desjonquières, 1996.

Laqueur, Thomas. Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation. New York: Zone Books, 2003.

Money, John. Lovemaps: Clinical Concepts of Sexual/erotic Health and Pathology, Paraphilia, and Gender Transposition of Childhood, Adolescence, and Maturity, 1986.

Money, John, and Margaret Lamacz. Vandalized lovemaps: paraphilic outcome of seven cases in pediatric sexology. Buffalo, N.J.: Prometheus Books, 1989.

Ley, David J. The Myth of Sex Addiction. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc, 2012.

Rosario, Vernon A. The Erotic Imagination: French Histories of Perversity. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Tissot, S. A. D. L’Onanisme : ou dissertation physique sur les maladies produites par la masturbation. Lausanne: De l’Imprimerie d’Antoine Chapuis, 1760.

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Jeana Jorgensen

FOXY FOLKORIST Studied folklore under Alan Dundes at the University of California, Berkeley, and went on to earn her PhD in folklore from Indiana University. She researches gender and sexuality in fairy...