The Problematic Comparison of Homosexuality and Addiction

A reflection by Sarah

It would be impossible for me to count the number of times I’ve heard some form of comparison between homosexuality and addiction. Usually, these analogies come from well-meaning people who are trying to make sense of experiences foreign to their own. My first two questions to these folks are usually, “Do you identify as gay or have a close relationship with someone who does?” and “Do you personally experience addiction or have a close relationship with someone who does?” In most cases, the answer is either “no” to both or “yes” to one but not the other.

A number of Christian bloggers have discussed the problematic nature of comparing homosexuality with addiction, most from within the context of a liberal sexual ethic. Katie Grimes at Women and Theology raises some valid points as she argues that the comparison of homosexuality and alcoholism “fails as a comparison and it fails as an argument against homosexuality.” Another example comes from Registered Runaway, who has written on how comparing homosexuality with a variety of human problems fosters the use of shallow talking points as the Church grapples with how best to approach the LGBT community: “[Analogies] minimize us. Patronize us. They make us strain to see Christ through all of the mud being thrown.” In both posts, there’s much I can relate to as a gay person. I agree with both authors’ declarations that the homosexuality/addiction analogy is flawed, but when reading articles on this topic in general, more often than not I find myself feeling uncomfortable with discussions of where the analogy fails. I see this discomfort as rooted in the fact that I am both a gay person and a recovering addict.

Perhaps unintentionally, some–though not all–discussions about problems with the homosexuality/addiction comparison imply the sentiment, “Don’t vilify gay people. We/they aren’t like those addicts.” Frequently I hear, “Addiction ruins lives and homosexuality doesn’t,” or “Addiction occurs when a person repeatedly uses a substance or engages in a behavior, eventually becoming unable to stop, but gay people don’t choose to become gay.” I don’t contest what these statements have to say about me as a gay person. I have never seen my sexual orientation as an illness or malady, I didn’t choose to be attracted to women, and being gay certainly has not ruined my life. Yet there’s still something in the aforementioned assertions that I perceive as making light of an important aspect of my experience. In discussion of the homosexuality/addiction analogy, there must be a way forward that honors the lived experiences of gay people, addicts, and those of us lucky enough to be part of both demographics.

In this post, I’d like to make an attempt at that forward movement by approaching this topic from a different angle than I’ve seen in other places. I’d like to discuss why the homosexuality/addiction analogy does as much a disservice to addicts as it does to members of the gay community. I should state upfront that I have no professional expertise in the area of addictions or psychology. My entire education on this topic has come from the school of hard knocks. Therefore, the rest of this post will focus on my own personal experience. My intention is not to make generalizations about all gay people or all addicts. In my 29 years of life, I have faced multiple kinds of addiction. I don’t think it’s important at this time to name all of them, but suffice it to say my experience includes both substance and behavioral addictions. Because I’ve referenced it before and because it is the addiction with which I have the most recovery experience, I’ll use my struggle with bulimia as my primary example. If you’re having trouble understanding why one might conceive of bulimia as an addiction, read this. Now, I’m going to highlight three statements I’ve heard people say when they are comparing homosexuality to addiction. Their words are quoted and in bold print.

“Gay sexual desire is just like an addict’s craving for his/her drug of choice.”

In addition to the fact that I don’t know a single non-sex-addicted person, gay, straight, or otherwise, who would describe his/her sexual desires as “cravings,” I see this statement as problematic because shows a profound misapplication of the term “craving.” In addiction studies terms, a craving is a psychological urge to use a particular drug or engage in a particular behavior. Cravings are also part of withdrawal from use of said substance or behavior. When I’ve said in the past, “I’m experiencing a craving” in relation to bulimia, that has meant, “I’m experiencing the urge to acquire a large amount of food, eat it, and purge by means of vomiting.” Several years ago when I was at my lowest point, I was facing these cravings multiple times a day and my entire schedule revolved around getting food and finding places and times to devour it and purge. As I became increasingly ill, I fell into the irrational belief that I wouldn’t be able to survive a day without bulimic behaviors. When my rituals were interrupted, the cravings remained present until I found some way to engage—even if that meant the only place for carrying out the process was an alley behind the nearest grocery store, and the only consumable product I could afford that would be voluminous enough to purge was a gallon of water. Cravings are intense and baffling. Overcoming them takes an incredible amount of work and support, and it’s hard. Dealing with cravings is not as simple as applying a bit of willpower and saying, “I’m deciding not to do this behavior/use this substance, even though I desire it.”

None of what I have been describing thus far is anything remotely like my experience of attraction to other women. When I experience sexual desire, I don’t find myself thinking, “If I don’t have sex, I’m going to die.” I couldn’t possibly imagine scheduling my entire life, or even a portion of my life, around seeking out opportunities for engaging in sexual activity. Even the sex addicts I know would never conflate the level of sexual desire experienced by most people with the cravings of sexual addiction.

I find it offensive that increasingly often, non-addicted people use the word “addiction” to describe something that they enjoy immensely and couldn’t imagine living without. I’ve seen a “List of Things I’m Addicted To” trend emerge at different times on Facebook, in which people will list items such as “my best friends” or “my children.” This is a perfect example of how acceptable it has become to misapply the term “addiction.” A person who truly is addicted to his/her best friends or children has an unhealthy attachment to those people, and I seriously doubt that most would be comfortable broadcasting such a reality proudly on Facebook. As I see it, the term “craving” gets misapplied in a similar way when a person compares homosexuality to addiction. Implying that my sexual inclinations are the same as my urges for bulimic behavior belittles the constant work I’ve had to do over the years to progress in recovery.

“There might be a genetic element to homosexuality, but there’s also a genetic element to addiction, and that doesn’t mean we excuse addiction.”

There are many possibilities for interpreting this statement as problematic (I’ll be glad to discuss more with you in the comments), but here I’ll focus on my observation that it assumes both homosexuality and addiction are behaviors and nothing more. A person who makes this statement assumes that being gay is solely about having sex. I’ve been told before that because I’m celibate, there’s no reason for me to use the label “gay.” I strongly disagree and I would like to write on that topic in the future, but for now I’ll link you to the work of my friend Joshua Gonnerman, who is also a celibate gay Christian.

A person who makes this statement also assumes that addiction is solely about feeding insatiable cravings for one’s substance or behavior of choice and has nothing to do with underlying psychological and/or spiritual problems. My experience with bulimia (and other addictions too) has taught me that reducing it to its behavioral aspect not only ignores the bigger picture of what might be leading to the behavior, but also impedes real progress in recovery. I didn’t start engaging in bulimic behavior because one day I decided it would be nice to become addicted to gorging myself and vomiting. Numerous factors including nutrition, trauma, anxiety, and the way I felt about myself all played a role. In order to attain any level of recovery beyond the superficial “just stop eating and throwing up!” I had to deal with all of those complicating factors and many more. At different points, I spent months in inpatient and residential eating disorder treatment facilities. Though most of these experiences proved beneficial in helping me to stop bulimic behaviors, the majority did very little in terms of helping me construct a way of life outside the facility that would no longer include binging and purging. Those treatment experiences that were most helpful assisted me in focusing not only on behaviors, but also on the underlying reasons for engaging in those behaviors in the first place.

The work of recovering from any addiction involves an honest and thorough look at the darkest parts of oneself. Any person who has worked a 12-step recovery program knows that there is a noteworthy distinction between “dry” and “sober.” Stopping behaviors and abstaining from substances is all a person needs to do in order to maintain dryness, but doing the painful, arduous work that holistic recovery necessitates is what leads an addict to the gift of sobriety. Most people who prefer different, non-12-step types of recovery programs and approaches also would likely agree with the basic idea that recovery is about about so much more than stopping behaviors. Reducing the struggle of a person who experiences addiction to “drinking too much,” “using illegal drugs,” “eating and throwing up,” etc. effectively denies all aspects of recovery that aren’t purely behavioral, thereby implying that recovery merely involves abstinence.

“A gay person involved in a same-sex friendship or ‘celibate’ partnership is no different from an alcoholic tending bar/a prescription drug addict working in a pharmacy/a bulimic working in a restaurant, and it can only lead to temptation.”

Being in a celibate partnership, I think it’s probably obvious that I disagree with the assumptions this statement makes about gay people. At best, it incorrectly suggests that if we experience sexual attraction, we are constantly “at risk” for acting upon that attraction. At worst, it presumes that we are sexually attracted to every person of the same sex. The lack of logic becomes clear when one applies this statement to straight people’s interactions with the opposite sex. I doubt anyone would argue that a straight man must necessarily be attracted to all women, that a straight woman must necessarily be attracted to all men, or that any person in a heterosexual relationship must be playing with fire just by being in that relationship.

This statement also misrepresents addicts by implying that exposure to situations involving substances with which we struggle will necessarily trigger us to use or engage in the addictive behavior. Furthermore, it could be taken to imply that being around said substance or having the opportunity to engage in said behavior is the only possible trigger for a recovering addict. There have been times when specific foods have made me feel uncomfortable or caused negative associations that needed processing. However, when I’ve felt cravings for bulimic behavior, the impetus for those urges hasn’t been cheesecake, pizza, and tacos. Almost always, the trigger has been stressful interactions with family, seemingly unmanageable emotions, or memories of a traumatic event–and often, it’s a combination of all three. Simply being around food, even the food items I consider most challenging, does not trigger me. Being around other substances I have used in the past does not trigger me either. I know plenty of alcoholics who work as bartenders and prescription drug addicts who work as pharmacists, doctors, and nurses, and most of them do not find their work environments triggering. Of course, there are recovering addicts who do find it triggering to be in the same vicinity as the substances they have used and I do not intend to deny their experiences, but it is incorrect to suggest that this is true for all people suffering from or recovering from addiction.

I hope my personal reflections have been helpful in clarifying some ways the homosexuality/addiction comparison is problematic, both in terms of its incorrect characterization of gay people and in its false representation of addicts and addiction. While these three iterations of the analogy are the ones I hear most often, they are not the only forms of comparison people regularly make between homosexuality and addiction. If there are others you would find beneficial to discuss, feel free to leave them in the comments section.

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