Is Kissing a “Gateway Drug” to “Sex Addiction?”

The language in a new abstinence-only bill that passed the Tennessee senate demonstrates the profound misunderstanding of sexual realities that guides the anti-choice movement.

When American Life League put out an ad a few months ago declaring that Planned Parenthood turns kids into “sex addicts” through the use of “gateway drugs” like masturbation, progressives collectively howled with laughter through the video and passed it along so that our friends could howl along, as well. “Who thinks this stuff up?,” we thought, figuring it must be some weirdo fringe right-wing characters. Sadly for us, however, this belief that people who enjoy recreational sex are “addicts” is not a fringe right-wing belief. It’s a mainstream belief in the anti-choice right. That’s why the state legislature of Tennessee has signed off on this ridiculous belief by using the “gateway” language to describe any kind of sexual activity that falls short of intercourse. As Erin Gloria Ryan at Jezebel points out, the way the law is written, even activities like hand-holding and kissing without tongue could fall under the banner of “gateway” activities that supposedly trick kids into thinking sex is fun.  Only one state senator voted against the bill, demonstrating how mainstream this kind of thinking is on the right.

This attitude doesn’t just misunderstand sex; it misunderstands addiction. It assumes that enjoying something is equal to being addicted. If you used this model to think about alcoholism, for instance, you’d have to believe that every person who drinks is an alcoholic and that every person who eats a food known to go well with wine, let’s say cheese, is basically an alcoholic whose exposure to the “gateway drug” has put them on a near-irreversible march to sleeping in gutters. This is why so many people, including myself, object to the term “sex addict.” We recognize that it’s a phrase rooted in a culture that believes that non-marital sex, and some times just sex for pleasure instead of procreation, is inherently wrong and dangerous. In other words, people who equate moderate drinking with alcoholism, and who generally find pleasure itself to be scary, therefore assume it’s usually wrong. Even when people try to use the term “sex addiction” more responsibly, using it strictly to refer to people who make otherwise inexplicable sexual choices that result in needless amounts of pain and suffering, it’s a term that is still rooted in this anti-sex culture and therefore tends to bring along all the baggage the comes with it.

 Using terms like “gateway drug” in reference to a normal and important part of human life—feeling and acting upon sexual desire, enjoying the pleasure and intimacy of sex—distills what is so wrong with the anti-choice movement at its core. Most anti-choicers will vehemently deny being anti-sex, because they know that it’s about as politically popular a position as being anti-ice cream. Still, the “gateway” language gives the game away, and the fact that the word made it into the legislation itself demonstrates that this sex negativity is so engrained into their way of thinking that they don’t even realize how it looks to outsiders. 

This whole incident shows why there’s such a profound difference between the pro- and anti-choice side, one that really does shut down productive conversation and makes overly optimistic attempts to find “common ground” between the sides doomed to fail. On the most basic question—what is sex?—we have nearly opposite attitudes. The anti-choice side sees sex as dangerous, sinful, and even in the situations where they concede that it’s not-as-evil, there’s still a sense that it’s possible to like it too much. The pro-choice side sees sex as a normal, healthy part of life, and believes that people are entitled to pursue a sex life that works for them, as long as they don’t hurt others while doing it. That doesn’t mean pro-choicers are saying sex is risk-free, but most activities worth doing come with risks, and the question is how to allow people to live full lives while minimizing the risk.

To use the “gateway drug” metaphor when talking about sexual exploration that nearly all teenagers engage in to one extent or another exposes the entire metaphorical framework behind anti-choice beliefs. It contains the assumption that sex, at least sex not contained and controlled by heterosexual marriage and an aim to procreate, is an empty pleasure that only holds a promise of pain and ruin. There’s no whiff of understanding of how people experience sex in the real world: as an opportunity to bond with a partner, to get in touch with your own body, and to really enjoy the brief stay you have on planet Earth. 

This is the fundamental problem when it comes to anti-choicers writing legislation about sexual health. It’s not just the misogyny and the hang-ups and the profound distrust of religious freedom that makes them want to force others to live by their dogma. It’s that they just don’t understand sex at all. Putting these folks in charge of writing this kind of legislation is like making me a football announcer for ESPN. Within just a few seconds of listening, you would figure out I am not equipped to be a sports announcer and you grasp that the “sex addiction” fanatics have no idea what they’re talking about. The only difference is that if I were put in the chair of an ESPN commentator, I’d immediately leap up and point out that I’m the worst possible person for the job, since I know nothing about sports. But anti-choicers who demonstrate less than a thimbleful of knowledge about the way people have sex in the real world all seem to think they’re the absolute experts on this subject. The only thing we can do is point out that antis posing as experts doesn’t make it so, and hope that eventually the message sinks in enough that folks quit giving their support to this clown show.