VH1's "Sex Rehab With Dr. Drew" crosses the line from awareness-raising to raw voyeurism
I’m an addiction addict. That means I’m addicted to watching other people struggle with their addictions. People say that’s not a real addiction, but they don’t know how my addiction to addictions has messed up my life! I spend every second of my day, from the minute I wake up in the morning until the time my head hits the pillow at night, obsessing about whether or not “Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew” alum Mary Carey will finally kick alcohol and break out of the porn business. My marriage is falling apart because my husband can’t watch another minute of heroin addicts stealing cash out of their grandmother’s purses on A&E’s “Intervention.” And if I urge one more of my co-workers to make a “fearless moral inventory” of themselves in an interoffice e-mail, I’m going to lose my job. I’m destroying my entire life by spending all of my time watching other people destroy their entire lives!
Even as an addiction addict, though, I find it tough to feel sorry for people whose big problem in life is that they’re having way too much sex. Yes, it’s easy enough to see that sex addiction is a real problem, that people who suffer from it have trouble with intimacy, that they find it impossible to make meaningful connections with other human beings, that they compulsively turn to sex and masturbation as a means of escape, that they can’t stop even when it’s tearing their lives apart.
But when Phil Varone, drummer for Skid Row, complains to the “Sex Rehab With Dr. Drew” cameras that he’s slept with more than 3,000 women, when he compares being surrounded by horny groupies to being a cocaine addict who’s offered coke every night, it’s tough to weep big, salty tears for him. When we learn that Kari Ann Peniche, former Miss Teen U.S.A., spends a lot of her time masturbating in her bathtub instead of facing reality, it’s not all that easy to generate empathy for her. When film director Duncan Roy tells us that he sits around in his lovely Malibu home and looks at online pornography from first thing in the morning until he goes to bed at night, it’s challenging to find a deep well of emotion for his plight. When we see the enormous pile of dildos and vibrators that a rehab counselor pulls out of porn star Jennifer Ketchum’s luggage, what we feel isn’t sympathy so much as awe.
And also, who has that kind of time and money? How is it possible to slip into a daily routine that involves nothing but looking at online porn or fumbling through a towering pile of dildos for the right one to suit your mood? Don’t these people have laundry to do?
Of course, that’s like asking why heroin addicts aren’t shopping for groceries instead of nodding off on the couch all day long. Yes, these rock stars and professional surfers and porn stars spend all their time having sex and masturbating instead of, say, going to jobs and making friends and working out, because they’re addicts. They replaced all the other things in their lives — if they ever had those things in the first place — with sex, or substitutions for sex. They do this, in most cases, because of some deep chasm of emotional need swirling around inside of them. You know, the same swirling chasm that makes people overeat, clean compulsively, join knitting groups, rage at strangers on the street, or post angry 2,000-word letters about the severe insensitivity of casually choosing a word in your TV review that has a deep personal significance to certain people with a deep chasm of emotional need swirling around inside them.
In other words, we all have deep chasms of emotional need swirling around inside of us. But we don’t all masturbate compulsively, around the clock. Do we? Did I hear someone say, “Speak for yourself”?
Naturally the women in this picture are sex addicts because they’ve been scarred by some sexual abuse in their pasts, whereas the men describe themselves with far less shame in their voices, like they’re just chubby kids who can’t quite find the exit from the doughnut shop. Nonetheless, Dr. Drew Pinsky is pretty sure the men have dark secrets, too — and if anyone is going to link a person’s sexual appetite to his or her abusive past, it’s him. As longtime cohost of the radio show “Loveline,” Dr. Drew often interrupts promiscuous female callers who claim to love one-night stands with the question, “Anyone touch you inappropriately when you were younger?” Back when Adam Carolla cohosted the show, they’d put the woman on hold, then wager over whether or not she’d been molested as a child. Aw, sweet, sensitive Dr. Drew!
Of course nine times out of 10, he was right. And as troublesome as it is to watch as the female sex addicts weep over having devalued themselves repeatedly while the male sex addicts keep shrugging as if they’re just lucky dogs who stayed too long at the pound, ultimately it’s tough to untangle the sociocultural influences from the whole ugly mess. Obviously women come to see sex as the sum of their worth because society tends to do the same, while men aren’t forced to struggle with the same debased equation.
Professional surfer James Lovett, a pot smoker with no discernible moral compass who can’t, for the life of him, stop getting laid, seems to have wandered down this path simply by following his hedonistic urges without limit for years on end. (Our minds simultaneously flash on every stoner we’ve ever known, on their couches, queuing up “Blade Runner” for the 50 millionth time.) James says that his sexual addiction has ruined everything, from his surfing career to all of his friendships. “I’ve lost all my sponsors and friends due to, you know, sleeping with their wives.” Lovett says, “I’ve always used marijuana and stuff, just to kind of be more mellow, I’ve always kind of had ADD …” After watching his restless, manic energy at the rehab center, though, it’s hard not to wonder if he isn’t bipolar.
But James and Phil don’t seem to be going through any kind of major reckoning, beyond, “Why can’t I take anything seriously?” Most of the women on “Sex Rehab With Dr. Drew,” on the other hand — Kari Ann Peniche, Playmate Nicole Narain, even porn star Penny Flame, who has her own business and appears to play a domineering role professionally and personally — don’t seem all that sure who they are outside of their sexual appeal. This is the ugly underbelly of being a distractingly good-looking woman: You have to feel pretty good about who you are on the inside to stay focused on it when most of the people around you just can’t shut up about how hot you are.
But without sex, why would anyone put up with me? former swimsuit model Amber Smith, who also appeared on “Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew,” essentially asks. Phil has some idea why they might.
Amber: If you don’t get sex on the third date, don’t you just leave?
Phil: No. I’ve never dated.
Amber: I was going to try to go for six dates but … I don’t think they’ll stay around that long.
Phil: So why wouldn’t they stick around?
Amber: That’s what I want to know!
Phil: What the hell would you say on a first date that would make someone not call you?
Amber: That’s what I’m saying!
Phil: Because, don’t take this the wrong way, but you’re hot enough to sit through a bunch of bullshit.
Amber: A bunch of bullshit, right?
Phil: Because, in all honesty, like, I could handle nuts for one day just for good sex with you.
Way to help her heal, Phil. Now let’s ask ourselves: Is this really the environment in which Amber is going to start recognizing that she’s more than just a hot piece of ass?
By the second episode, Phil is pretty sure he’s falling in love with Amber, a development that’s half “Pokey Little Puppy” cute and half stiletto-pokey twisted. But then, that’s the way “Sex Rehab With Dr. Drew” feels from start to finish. One minute we’re ogling footage of James slapping his one-night stand on the butt or Jennifer trying to masturbate in her house before leaving for rehab, the next minute we’re in the Come to Jesus room with Dr. Drew, who’s nodding and blinking just like the really sensitive sort of therapist who wouldn’t dream of, say, broadcasting revealing sessions with addictive personalities, knowing that such public shaming was sure to do them more harm than good.
Not that I doubt for a second that Dr. Drew doesn’t believe that he’s serving the greater good by broadcasting a bunch of porn stars’ sexual secrets to all the world. Dr. Drew is perfect at playing earnest, pure-intentioned Dr. Drew, because Dr. Drew truly seems to believe his own P.R. How else could he discuss, with a straight face, how he plans to battle the tremendous shame surrounding sexual addiction by shaming a bunch of sex addicts on national TV?
With the porn stars and the surfer and the little drummer boy, this doesn’t necessarily seem all that risky. Most of them don’t appear to need much more than a little therapy. (It’s OK to tell the truth about your feelings! Really! People outside of the Playboy mansion talk this way all the time, no kidding!) Furthermore, it’s obvious enough what this naughty gaggle of rehab patients have to gain from the publicity. What’s the cost of a few embarrassing anecdotes and teary therapy sessions, really, when compared to the opportunity to become a household name?
The very obvious exception is Kari Ann Peniche, who immediately identifies herself as both tragically confused and a victim of sexual abuse. Through a giggly smile, she tells us that she was molested from age 5 to age 7, she was raped at age 14 and at age 17, but she says “it doesn’t bother me.” She admits that she doesn’t have any real friends, but when Dr. Drew says, “We’re here to help,” she replies, “I hate that word. Help.” Not surprisingly, within a few hours, Kari Ann goes from smiling and giggling to demanding that the staff allow her to go home for a few hours to pay bills and do some other things that she for some reason didn’t handle before she left. Dr. Drew suspects that she’s got a drug problem and wants to go home to use.
By the second episode, the concerned tone has shifted slightly, and Kari Ann is starting to be cast as a villain for not taking Dr. Drew’s very sincere smiles all that seriously. But can you blame her? Like the very patients he treats, the man sees the world through some toxic lens of addictions and branding opportunities. And is that makeup he’s wearing?
Ultimately, though, the real ethical question here is, do we feel right watching this? Sure, we may feel compelled to watch, but should we? Is it fair to listen in on an abuse victim like Kari Ann’s therapy sessions, when we suspect she’s not strong enough to be giving her secrets away at such a young age? Even if Dr. Drew and VH1 are comfortable drawing out these people’s darkest moments and broadcasting them to a rapt nation, should we feel right being a part of that identity theft, should we be privy to that invasive, unforgiving process, which could itself be seen as a form of abuse, really, for all of its lascivious, grabby, unethical commercialization of deep dark secrets? Aren’t these addicts, by the very nature of their problems, far too confused and vulnerable to make good decisions about whether they should expose their most guarded, lowest, ugliest experiences to an indifferent or even mildly amused national audience? Is it morally sound to ask an addict, who may not be capable of rational decisions, to sign away his or her privacy?
“I can’t stand every moment,” Amber tells Dr. Drew, describing her anxiety at being in rehab and, presumably, appearing on the show a second time. “I want to flee.”
We don’t really blame her.
Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky. More Heather Havrilesky.
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