I said to Sandip, “I read about a form of addiction that is increasingly being recognized by specialists as the world’s most widespread and least discussed form of addiction: sexual addiction.”
“Sexual addiction? What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Just as alcoholics don’t have control over their desire for alcohol, sex addicts don’t have control over their sex drive. Drug addicts, for instance, are not necessarily evil or criminal but are in the grip of a habit that makes them act irrationally and sometimes even illegally. So with sex addicts.”
“What’s the point of calling it an addiction? That they shouldn’t be held responsible because they are addicted?”
“No, being addicted doesn’t mean the addict can’t be held accountable for his or her actions. Alcoholics who assault someone in a drunken stupor are punished, but they are also helped to treat their addiction. Why can’t the same thing be done for those who are not bad people but who do something bad due to lust? Sexual addiction needs to be treated, not neglected by the simplistic division of people into heroes and villains. Sexual addiction can afflict even common people who otherwise lead normal, responsible lives. Sex addicts may be addicted to many distorted forms of sexual expression like stalking, voyeurism, or stripping, but they are most commonly addicted to pornography.
“Did you know that the porn industry is among the world’s biggest and fastest growing industries? In the United States alone, porn revenue is greater than the combined revenues of all professional football, baseball, and basketball franchises.”
Sandip’s eyebrows shot up. “That big?”
“Yes. And sexual addiction is often more entangling than all other forms of addiction.”
The Most Entangling Addiction
“Why more entangling?”
“Because, in today’s society addicts just can’t get away from it. Alcohol and drugs are available at specific places, but sexual provocations are present everywhere. Other addicts have to spend time, energy, and money to get to alcohol or drugs, but sex addicts often have to spend time, energy, and money to get away from sexual provocations.”
“What do you mean? How do they spend time, energy, and money to get away?” “Billboards can act as triggers for sexual addicts. To avoid those triggers, they often have to take another route, which obviously requires time and energy. And with internet access available almost everywhere and porn sites on the net running into the thousands, temptation is always just one click away. Addicts seeking recovery just can’t resist temptation when it is so easily available. Experts insist that a vital first step in curing porn addiction is restricting access to the internet. Installing filters on computers requires money, and now that people have multiple devices with net access, they need multiple filters, which means spending more money.”
“All this sounds reasonable, but I’m still not convinced we should be calling attraction to sex an addiction. After all, sex is not like alcohol, which is not a fundamental human need. The desire for sex is a natural biological drive that’s present in all species.”
“Yes, sex is natural, but very little is natural about the current culture’s commodification of sex?” “Commodification?”
The Commodification of Sex
“Yes, our culture makes sex into a cog in the economic wheel. And it does so at three levels: sex is used to sell commodities; sex is made into a commodity for sale; and people are made into saleable commodities as sex toys.”
“That went by too fast. Can you explain?
“Sure. The first level is the most obvious and widespread. Everything from cellphones to cars is promoted using sex as bait. Ad agencies know that nothing catches people’s attention as much as sex, so they use sexually alluring images to grab people’s attention and then direct that attention to the products they want to sell. The second level is when sex is itself made into a commodity. That happens in offices where people take and give sexual favors in return for jobs, increments, or promotions. And it happens in hotels where sex is made into one more thing customers can tick along with optional conveniences like food, air-conditioning, etc. The third level is the flesh trade, where people are seen as nothing more than sex toys. And of course, there’s pornography, where people are reduced to virtual sex toys.”
“For a monk, you sure know a lot about sex?”
“Not about sex. About lust.”
“What’s the difference?”
“The difference is huge. Knowing more about sex means knowing how to do it better, longer, in new ways, and to enjoy it more. Knowing about lust means knowing about the force that makes people obsess over sex, that makes them do terrible things for its sake. It means understanding ‘Mr. Lust’ to be Public Enemy Number One. Most people don’t recognize lust as an enemy, but monks do. That’s often one of the reasons they become monks. And it’s certainly one of the ways they continue as monks. We need to know our enemy well and know how he acts as an enemy. That’s why I read about sexual addiction it shows how lust binds people.
“Another way to understand the difference is to look at the purpose of knowing people read about sex because they want more of it, whereas monks study lust to get the impetus to avoid it completely. By understanding how lust deludes people and drives them to selfdestructive actions, we protect ourselves and others from being similarly deluded.”
Sandip nodded. “Ok, the difference makes sense. Where were we?”
“On the point that the current commodification of sex is not at all natural. No species in nature commodifies sex the way humans do. What to speak of no species, no other civilization in human history has made such an extensive business of exploiting the sexual vulnerability of other human beings. No wonder there is so much sexual violence in today’s society.”
Sandip objected, “Again this seems like shifting blame for sexual violence from the person to the environment.”
“We’re not shifting blame; we’re just looking at all the relevant factors. Suppose our city is ravaged by arson. To counter the menace, we would strongly punish the arsonists and improve the firefighting services. Additionally, we would investigate an underlying cause: are city buildings made of inflammable stuff? If so, then we would try to correct that, wouldn’t we?”
“Similarly, to counter the fire of sexual violence, we absolutely must punish the criminals swiftly and severely, and at the same time provide better security to potential victims. Additionally, we need to look for an underlying cause. As all actions start with thoughts the stuff of the mind we need to check whether people’s thoughts are made of sexually inflammable stuff. And they certainly are.”
“You know, all this is interesting though some of it is debatable but can we get back to the topic of your monkhood?” “Actually, that’s exactly what we’re talking about the discussion about sexual addiction came up as further vindication of what I’d been feeling: that everyone, I included, needed a way to regulate sexual desire, and that we can’t assume that when we have sexual desire, we’re all like heroes who would never do anything the villains did.
“In that context, I found the bhakti philosophy and bhakti practices so relevant. In the Bhagavad-gita (3.36), Arjuna asks Krishna, ‘What is it that makes people act sinfully, even against their will?’ And Krishna answers (3.37), ‘It is lust, lust that degenerates into anger and is the enemy of the world.’ Reading and comprehending that was one of the biggest Eureka moments of my life, all the more so when I understood that lust is a distortion of our original love for Krishna. The more we revive our love for Krishna, the more lust loses its power over us.
“Where the philosophy illumined, the practices empowered, especially the practice of mantra meditation. Once I discovered the holy name’s power in beating away unwanted thoughts, the scales in my inner battle changed dramatically. That discovery was so empowering.” “Empowering?”
“Definitely. Imagine a child who’s been bullied for years. Suddenly one day the child looks down and finds he’s got fists as big as the bully’s if not bigger. Next time the bully comes to hit him, the child hits back. ‘Take that! And that! And that. For all the years you tormented me, I’m going to get back at you now.’
“I felt something like that when I realized the power of the holy name. My chanting became like fighting in a war. I had envisioned meditation to be peaceful. This mantra meditation sure wasn’t peaceful, but it was better it was fruitful. I slowly started enjoying the war, because I could clearly see I was gradually getting the upper hand on lust. Its grip on me was decreasing. Not that I have knocked down or completely driven away the bully of lust by no means. Lust is too slippery and too wily. It always gets away before you can deliver a fatal blow. It doesn’t allow you to get the conviction that it’s so bad you need to be done with it forever. Then, when it comes back next time, it’s at its wily best or, you could say, wily worst. It has such a sweet smile on its face that you think it’s your best friend. And though you have the iron fist, instead of using it, you embrace My Sweet Smile. Just when you’ve lowered your guard, lust strikes. You end up doing something you never thought you could have done.”
“You’re quite worked up about this war metaphor, aren’t you?”
“I’ve found very few metaphors that describe reality as accurately as this one. I strongly feel that the more people confront their lower self, that fewer outer confrontations they will have to face. Inner war increases outer peace. And compared to all other methods for self-mastery, the holy name is in its own league. Due to its power, I felt confident about choosing monkhood.”
Restraint is not Deprivation
“So that’s how you became free from sex desire?”
“I didn’t say I was free from anything.” “But aren’t you making that claim by wearing the dress of a monk?”
“A monk is someone who’s decided not to engage in sex and is striving to become free from sex desire not necessarily someone who is already free.” “So you’re admitting you have sex desire?” “Srimad-Bhagavatam says that no one, except Lord Narayana and the sage Nara-Narayana, is free from lust.”
“I’ll take that as a yes. So, the question begs itself: If you have sex desire, then why deprive yourself by not fulfilling it?
“Do you sometimes feel sexually attracted to women other than your wife?
“What?” The shock was evident on his face.
I kept a straight face. “You heard me.”
“Well, that’s personal.”
“You’re asking me a personal question too. So it’s only fair that you be ready to answer one.”
“But I’m Sherlock Holmes, not you. Here you’re meant to answer questions, not me.”
“Agreed. But my question to you is a part of my answer. I need to hear your answer before I respond. Don’t worry, my question is not meant to make you feel guilty; it’s meant to highlight a universal feature of human behavior.”
"Well, OK. I’m just like everyone else. Sometimes I do feel sexually attracted to other women.”
“Then why deprive yourself by not fulfilling that desire?
“But that would be immoral, scandalous, maybe even dangerous.”
“Those are all negative motivations. Isn’t there a positive motivation for being faithful to your wife?”
“Yes, definitely. I want to have an honest and deep relationship with my wife, to look her in the eyes whenever we share our hearts. And I know I can’t do that if I cheat on her.”
“Well said. That means refusing to act on an existing desire doesn’t always have to be a deprivation especially when there’s a higher purpose.”
“When you put it that way, yes . . . I can see what you’re driving at.”
“The same principle of a higher purpose underlies the self-restraint of a married man as well as that of a monk. The difference is that the monk’s self-restraint is, so to speak, one level higher whereas a married man restricts sex to his wife, the monk doesn’t engage in sex at all.”
“That’s not just one level higher. It’s an entirely different ball game. You make it sound as if it’s a dietary preference: whether to be an omnivore or a herbivore. But I would say it’s like choosing between eating and not eating at all. Sex is like food it’s a basic bodily need.”
“Maybe I should give you some sound punches on the nose.” Though I knew a smile would belie my words, I couldn’t stop it from creeping on my face.
Sandip’s face showed that he hadn’t caught the joke. “If you have to resort to force as a replacement for argument, then you have already lost the argument.”
“I’m considering force not as a replacement, but as a complement.”
“Your argument is that sex is a necessity, like food. If that were true, then all of us monks should be dead, shouldn’t we? If talking with a monk for several hours doesn’t convince you that he’s alive, then what’s that monk supposed to do? Probably an experiential learning session with your nose as a punching bag for the monk’s fists might convince you that he is indeed alive.”
A smile broke across his face. “OK, point conceded. I’ll admit that sex is not quite on par with food as a necessity. Still, the desire for sex is irresistible for most people, if not all.” He spoke in a tone that invited challenge.
But some challenges are worth neglecting, especially when an opening is available elsewhere. “Irresistible isn’t the same as essential. Alcoholics feel that alcohol is irresistible. And it may well be for them, depending on how strong the grip of the addiction. But, just because the urge for something is irresistible, it doesn’t make that something essential. ‘Irresistible’ refers to that which we feel we can’t live without, whereas ‘essential’ refers to that which we actually can’t live without. Food is essential. Alcohol and sex may seem irresistible, but they aren’t essential.”
Caitanya Carana Dasa is the associate-editor of Back to Godhead (US and Indian editions). To subscribe for his daily Bhagavadgita reflections, please subscribe for Gitadaily on his website, thespiritualscientist.com.