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The great temptation

Culture | The danger signs are clear to all, but compulsive sexual behavior goes on

Issue: "Reaping a whirlwind," Aug. 24, 2013

Ivan Pavlov was wrong—at least when it comes to the issue of sex. Just ask Anthony Weiner. Well, actually, that’s my point. It’s probably not going to do much good to ask the repeatedly disgraced Mr. Weiner. Most dogs you’ve known learn hard lessons faster than Mr. Weiner does.

Pavlov, the famous Russian physiologist, believed that all acquired habits are based on chains of conditioned reflex. He said his experiments showed that when any subject—a human being, a dog, maybe even a rat—made an association between a couple of happenings over a long enough period of time, that subject’s behavior would be affected accordingly. The association I recall from my not-so-detailed studies of Pavlov is of a cocker spaniel regularly beginning to salivate every time he bit and pulled a string that rang a bell.

So why has it been so hard for Mr. Weiner—and a host of others like him—to learn that dabbling in illicit sex earns a painfully negative response? Pavlov’s theories, however well they might work out with other kinds of conditioned response, don’t seem to apply to a whole lot of sexual behavior. The evidence is overwhelming that people keep on choosing destructive behavior even when they have learned repeatedly how chintzy the rewards of that behavior may be.

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For the last generation, no example could have been more dramatic than the AIDS epidemic. By the millions, men have engaged in sexual behavior that everyone knows is likely to have devastating results—including statistically premature death. No one doubts the connection. Does the behavior change as a result? Hardly at all.

But just as one kind of sex brings unwanted death, another kind of sex brings unwanted life. Oversexed teenagers aren’t really ignorant of the relationship between their activity and a possible pregnancy. They’ve had the connection spelled out for them more times than any cocker spaniel has yanked on a cord. But the sexual impulse proves itself ever so much more urgent than any of Pavlov’s lessons.

The list of unlearned lessons goes on. Venereal disease is barely a deterrent to casual heterosexual relations. Splintered marriages and fragmented families may serve as a flashing warning light against marital infidelity—but the threats of custody battles, alimony, and lifelong emotional scars are regularly ignored in favor of the short reward of physical ecstasy and a fleeting emotional high.

Why? What makes this particular learning process so hard?

I’d suggest that it’s partly because God, for reasons good to himself, built sex into us humans as perhaps the most broadly volatile of all his gifts. Sex, by its very nature, tends to be compulsive—a term we use to refer to behavior we engage in even when all the evidence suggests that we shouldn’t. But while life includes a wide choice of compulsive behaviors, sex cuts a comparatively wide swath.

There are compulsive eaters, compulsive drinkers, compulsive gamblers, compulsive speeders, compulsive shoppers, and compulsive baseball fans. (OK, so maybe baseball doesn’t deserve to be on this list—but it’s worth pondering.) But each of those, relatively speaking, exacts its toll from a proportionately small segment of society. Sexual compulsion, at one time or another, has sent its bill to almost every one of us. The very popularity of the temptation makes it hard to harness it.

On the other hand, the very personal nature of sex also suggests roadblocks to dealing with its wrong use. It may be embarrassing to talk about being overweight or being tempted to drink an extra beer or two. But we do it. We have frank conversations about those compulsions with our doctors and our counselors and our pastors—and even with each other. That’s hard to do on the subject of sex. It’s hard to tell someone—and especially to tell a friend—that we’ve got a problem—and maybe even a compulsion—with some aspect of our sexuality.

Anthony Weiner needed such a friend or counselor, years ago. Instead of good advice, however, Weiner was unfortunately conditioned to think he could live as recklessly as he wanted—with no negative consequences. Too many of us, including a number who call themselves evangelical Christians, should learn early what Weiner maybe is right now learning much too late.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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