Working Out… With Benefits
Until last week, most people probably hadn’t even heard of Kennebunk, Maine, and those who had probably remembered it only as the summer home of former president George H.W. Bush. But that was before the Zumba gym turned prostitution ring opprobrium came to light. Now, once again, we find ourselves in the midst of media frenzy over a sex scandal involving prominent men.
Sure, the details in this case are salacious. Aren’t they always? In this instance, we have a dance-fitness gym allegedly fronting a small-town prostitution ring – with the paid-for sexual encounters being videotaped, no less. (For blackmail, perhaps?) Plus, the client list reputedly includes doctors, lawyers, a television personality, law enforcement officials, and various other well-known members of the upscale Kennebunk community. Salacious indeed!
Cheat, Lie, and Risk it All
Like it or not, it’s Tiger Woods, Anthony Wiener, Eliot Spitzer, and a whole bunch of other sexually misbehaving public figures all over again. And, as usual, we find ourselves asking the same basic question: What were these men thinking? Basically, these men weren’t thinking. At least, they weren’t fully engaging their prefrontal lobe to anticipate the potential negative consequences of their behavior before acting out. That much is obvious. Why else would an otherwise intelligent, thoughtful, civic-minded community leader jeopardize his marriage, reputation, health, finances, career, and who knows what else? A few minutes of sordid sexual pleasure isn’t worth all that trouble. Unfortunately, when lost in a fog of intense emotional arousal and preoccupation, these men somehow feel invulnerable, safe from the possibility of their compartmentalized sexual behavior being discovered by a spouse, loved one, the authorities, a boss, or the media. The neurochemical pull of fantasy-based arousal creates in them a temporary and false sense of protection, wellbeing, and invincibility. Simply put, they don’t expect to be caught. Once started down the sexual path these individuals find themselves in an escalating, increasingly impenetrable emotional “bubble” where, in the moment, little but the sexual fantasy/behavior matters.
Afterward, many of these men engage in an extensive process of minimization and denial, telling themselves any number of lies to justify their behavior. Most of these lies boil down to the following themes:
- It is an evolutionary imperative for men to sleep with as many women as possible. Therefore, I’m only doing what a guy is meant to do.
- My marriage is inadequate because (insert any excuse you can think of here), and the only way I’ll ever get my needs met is to find sex outside the relationship.
- What my wife/spouse doesn’t know won’t hurt her, so I’m not really doing anything wrong.
Of course, married men who choose to cheat are purposefully ignoring the commitment to monogamy they made when they took their marriage vows. They elect to conveniently forget that, in the end, all we really have is our word. And they also seem oblivious to the fact that if they’re engaging in an outside relationship, they’re not at home developing their relationship with their wife and kids, creating the love and intimacy that all human beings need, crave, and flat-out deserve. So even if their wife and kids don’t know exactly what these men are up to, they do know that the men are increasingly more distant from their responsibilities as good spouses or fathers. Sadly, it is the lies – the double life and emotional unavailability – that hurt a family as much as, if not more than, any specific act of sexual infidelity.
Is Sexual Addiction to Blame?
Oftentimes in sex scandals that become incredibly public, as has the situation in Kennebunk, we encounter in the media liberal and wildly uninformed use of the term “sex addiction.” In some cases, the individuals who find themselves at the center of the affair attempt to throw the term around as an excuse for their bad behavior. After all, having an illness sounds much more acceptable than the simple fact that one may truly be a jerk.
In reality, however, a sexual addiction diagnosis is not in any way meant to “take off the hook” or “give excuses” to the men (and women) whose sexual activities and cheating have caused harm to self, loved ones, family, and community. Furthermore, a diagnosis of sexual addiction is not an easy route to avoiding the consequences of unlawful behavior (such as prostitution, invasion of privacy, and the various other transgressions seen in the Kennebunk scandal). Sex addicts are, under all circumstances, responsible for the hurt and loss caused by their sexual acting out. Period. No exceptions. Just as an alcoholic, once diagnosed, is responsible (even more so than before) for his/her behavior and its consequences, sex addicts are also responsible for their hurtful behavior and its consequences.
We have no way of knowing at this point how many, if any, of the men and women enmeshed in the Kennebunk affair are sex addicts (persons with repetitive, self-destructive patterns of sexual acting out). Certainly it is possible to engage in ill-advised sexual behavior without qualifying as an addict, and it is very likely that most of the “johns” involved in the current situation fall into this “non-addicted” category. Yes, these men are probably somewhat narcissistic, brazen, self-entitled, and callous about their sexual acting out, but that doesn’t make them addicts. It is important for the media and the public (and clinicians) to recognize the big difference between cheating or having an affair and truly being sexually addicted.
That said, it seems likely that at least a few of the individuals involved are people for whom sexual fantasy and behavior has become a life priority, causing them to look away from spouses, children, friends, work, health, finances, and even their standing in the community to seek out anonymous/casual sex. These unfortunate individuals have learned over time to use sex as a way to fulfill and soothe their emotional needs, using the excitement of the new sexual experience to reduce anxiety, stress, and depression. They find themselves fantasizing about and searching for sexual encounters to the exclusion of other pressing life priorities. For these men and women, experiencing severe negative life consequences as a direct result their sexual behavior is, over time, inevitable.
Sadly, a whole lot of likely trusting wives and girlfriends in Kennebunk are about to find out their man has been unfaithful, perhaps repeatedly. For these women, it will be the betrayal of relationship trust that causes the deepest sense of pain. And the pain they will experience is indeed profound. In fact, recent studies show that wives, after unexpectedly learning about a husband’s infidelity, oftentimes experience acute stress symptoms similar to and characteristic of post-traumatic stress disorder – not so surprising when you consider their entire world has just been turned upside down. One has to wonder how much worse this trauma will be in the current situation, with the transgressions plastered all over the news.
Oftentimes betrayed wives (and girlfriends) are angry not only with the men, but with themselves. They think, “If only I’d been nicer to him/better in bed/thinner/etc., he wouldn’t have done this.” Sometimes they turn to alcohol, overeating, compulsive exercise, spending, or other potentially self-destructive behaviors to dull the pain. Occasionally a woman will even “cheat back” to get even, only to hate herself later for doing it.
Another common response is to blame “the harlot,” in this case “Zumba Madam” Alexis Wright. In this way the cheating husband/boyfriend can be seen as an innocent victim of someone else’s unscrupulous behavior. Cheaters are very happy when this occurs, as it lets them off the hook. In reality, though, branding the other woman with the scarlet letter of adultery helps no one. And the man, having “gotten away with it,” is likely to engage in more of the same behavior down the line, expecting the same results.
Thoughts for the Future
Addicted or not, the men (and women) involved in the Kennebunk scandal and their loved ones need compassion, understanding, empathy, and emotional support if they are to healthfully move forward. For those who are sexually addicted, specialized individual treatment is needed, perhaps in an inpatient setting, paired with and/or followed by group therapy and 12-step recovery. The rest of the men can use the experience as a growth opportunity. Unfortunately, for those who are married or in long-term partnerships, even when experienced therapists are extensively involved with couples committed to healing, some of the pairs won’t be able to regain the necessary sense of trust and emotional safety required to make it together. For these couples, therapy can help the people involved to process a long overdue goodbye. Helpful resources can be found on numerous websites, including The Sexual Recovery Institute, The Ranch, and It’s Cheating.
Happily, the betrayed women of Kennebunk can help themselves by helping each other. Since so many of them are having the same basic experience, they can band together to share their thoughts and feelings, cry on and/or provide an understanding shoulder, and generally be supportive of one another. Rather than smiling and looking the other way when they see one another at the grocery store, they should stop and talk, agree to meet for coffee, and perhaps even form an organized support group. They needn’t go through this alone.