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

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. 

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  • johann7

    In fact, the use of anti-drug rhetoric makes perfect sense. Sex, like drugs (according to some), is viewed as implicitly harmful (“sinful”) in this framework. The approach to mitigating this harm is the same, too: prohibition (abstinence) instead of harm-reduction (safer-sex education; expanding access to STI screenings, birth control, and abortion; and programs modeling healthy vs. abusive or exploitative relationships and combating rape culture). Both sex and drugs give someone, as a primary effect, pleasure for its own sake. It was inevitable that addiction and gateway frameworks would eventually be applied to sex.

    Now I’m worried they might go after rock and roll next. No more Christian rock – it’s gateway music.

  • crowepps

    The Puritans’ biblical-based opposition to pleasure has been shared by other Christian groups. At least until well into the twentieth century, it was not unusual for many churches to denounce activities such as dancing, drinking, card playing, gambling, attending movies or plays, listening to certain types of music, reading novels or poetry, rolling dice, going to horse races, wearing jewelry and makeup, having thoughts relating to sexual pleasure, and engaging in any type of recreation on the Sabbath.

    George H. Smith relates: “Throughout its history, Christianity has been steadfastly not only anti-pleasure but pro-suffering. . . . The puritan era was simply an extreme manifestation of what amounts to a deep-seated suspicion of pleasure of any sort. While sexual pleasures were the chief source of condemnation, the pleasure inhibition in Christianity was generalized to relate to many other areas.”

  • 3xsurvivor

    While I believe that the laguange of the Tennessee bill is preposterous, the problem of unsafe sexual practices that do not involve vaginal sex is not.   Teaching the risks of intimate acts other than vaginal sex is important as the goal of sex education has to be not just pregnancy prevention.  (One of the issues in trying to understand oral HPV infecttions is trying to figure out how what is usually a genital infection spreads to the mouth and hypotheses include both oral sex and open mouth kissing.)


    The problem though is the only way to ensure abstinance as a means to eliminate the risk of pregnancy and STI’s is requiring sex separation until after high school.  While this is possible in private schools, and is common in orthodox Jewish, and some Catholic high schools, creating an environment that makes it very difficult for middle and high school children to act on sexual urges would require changing schools and school activities in such a way that would be foriegn to the grandparents of current high school students.  Furthermore, one could argue that allowing middle and high school students to have access to the internet, including social media sites like Facebook, twitter, and tumbler, and use of smartphones with the ability to send text messages and pictures without parental or school supervision create opportunities for sexual thinking that would be a precursor to acting on it as well.


    The sad part is states that are so focused on abstinance education have real problems with high incidence of STI’s, teen pregnancy, and other habits that start in high school that lead to serious health problems decades after high school graduation.


    What recent research does show that if a state wants to promote abstinance the key is teaching girls the ability to tell boyfriends no as a guy’s girlfriend is more influential in determining if sex occurs than any sex education course.  Also, there is a need to change the culture within which teenage boys live where boys pressure other boys to have sex to the point that a significant percentage of high school boys lie and state they have had sex when they have not.




  • llewelly

    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.

    The front runner in the Republican presidential primary is a devout member of a religion which teaches its members to think about alcohol in precisely the way you describe.

  • amanda-marcotte

    When I was young and living in Texas, that was in fact the “debate” amongst fundies about rock music. A lot of Christians did, in fact, claim that Christian rock was a “gateway drug”. 

  • amanda-marcotte

    You’re still under the delusion that sex is inherently evil, and that sexual desire can and should be squelched. The result of your mentality is that the damage to young people’s psyche when they do have sex—and they will, because sex is good and sex is a basic part of human nature—they will be afraid and self-hating for no reason. 


    Let’s not teach young people that they’re evil for being human. 

  • sayna

    Separating the sexes would only (possibly) prevent heterosexual sex. You’re forgetting that not everyone is straight.

  • kagehi

    There was some UK study done on the subject, which if I remember right, said that something like 75% of all “men” had their first sexual experience with another guy, at all male schools, during a certain period. And, I am pretty sure 75% of the UK isn’t gay. I can only imagine that the statistics with women are more or less the same in all girl schools. So, the idea that separating the sexes stops any sort of sex, is pure idiocy. Its a pipe dream, nonsensical, delusion, which flat out doesn’t work. The only *actual* way you could stop it would be to sterilize everyone at birth, and even then, that only reduces the desire, not eliminates it. Of course, it also has the side effect of wiping out the people that use it as a method of abstinence, but giving the bloody stupid people we are dealing with, if they wanted to do that to themselves, I might be all for it.

  • rachael-vinyard

    Yes! My boyfriend was raised in a super Christian home and had to sneak to a friend’s house to watch Christian rock videos because that was too dangerous in his own home.