The term “sex addiction” has received a lot of press over the last several years, with celebrities like Tiger Woods, David Duchovny and Kayne West claiming to suffer from it. Even without knowing too much about the topic, the world had its doubts. Was this a real illness or just an excuse for naughty behavior? Could a person really be addicted to sex? While the answer to that question doesn’t yet have a simple answer, those claiming to suffer from it engage in a variety of different behaviors, and not all of them include cheating or extramarital affairs, as seen reflected in the press over the years. Some “sex addicts” obsessively masturbate or watch pornography, and don’t use their problem as an excuse for seeking sex outside their relationships (Koenig, 2012).
Although sex addiction may be a familiar term to your average person, it’s is not an official mental disorder recognized by the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). In the third edition of the DSM (released in 1987) sex addiction appeared under the heading “sexual disorder - not otherwise specified,” but was removed for all subsequent editions. A condition called Hypersexuality was also considered for the most recent edition of the DSM (released this year), but was rejected in the end. But, just because something doesn’t appear in the manual of mental disorders doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s not a legitimate problem, does it?
One of the first challenges in proving that sex addiction is a mental disorder is that one assumes that you should be able to apply the same model to sex addiction as you can to any substance addiction, such as alcohol or drugs. But with sex addiction, there are no physical withdrawal symptoms as there are with alcohol and drugs. Another major challenge comes from a lack of research on sex in general. Dr. Rory Reid, a neuropsychologist at UCLA, explains, “We don't have a lot of information about what constitutes normative sexual behavior, so how can we conclusively determine what is deviant?” (Keenan, 2013). There are a lot of people who report that they feel out of control sexually, but there is very little work done to look into the reasons behind this. The research up until recently relied heavily on self-reporting, questionnaires and observing the brain of a “sex addict” at rest (without sexual imagery). Why isn’t more research being done in this area? Historically, it has been very difficult to find funding to do research on sexuality. Apart from the taboo nature of the subject, funding for research on sexuality is often very hard to come by.
Despite that, there has been some research done on sexual addiction. The results from a recent study on sex addiction has provided further challenges for making the case. The study measured brain activity in people who report suffering from sexually compulsive behavior when they were exposed to sexual stimuli. The participants were shown different images, some sexual in nature, others neutral and others unpleasant. The researchers used EEG to monitor their neural responses to the images. Studies like this one have been done with alcohol and drug addicts, who reacted to images of their substance of choice within the first 300 milliseconds of having been shown the image. The theory was that a sex addict’s brain should react similarly within the same timeframe when shown the sexual images. The results? The scientists didn’t find evidence to support this theory. They didn’t find differences in the neural responses for the sexual images that could be related to the participants sexual compulsive behavior.
This isn’t good news for those who claim that sex addiction is a very real mental illness, but there are a few things to consider before writing it off. The number of participants in the above study was relatively small. There were 52 participants in total, 39 men and 13 women. It was also the first study of its kind. With any research, studies need to be repeated several times with the same results before making any kind of conclusions. Even the researchers in this study said the research should be repeated and because it’s the first time they have done this type of study, there could have been things that they missed. More studies need to be done with larger groups of participants in order to truly assess this study’s results.
It also seems important to consider that whether you label it “sex addiction” or something else, there are a number of people seeking help for this problem. Robert Weiss, an authority on sexual addiction, works with many clients suffering from sex addiction and has written 3 books on the subject (Koenig, 2012). It shouldn’t be dismissed just because it doesn’t meet the criteria for addiction. If it’s not an addiction, in the strict sense of the definition, can it be labeled impulse control or a compulsion problem? More research needs to be done in order to better understand the problem at hand and how to treat it.
Grohol, J. (2008). Is Sexual Addiction Real? Retrieved September 2, 2013, from http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2008/09/30/is-sexual-addiction-real/
Keenan, J. (2013). Is Sex Addiction Real or Just an Excuse? Retrieved September 4, 2013, from http://www.slate.com/articles/double_x/doublex/2013/07/sex_addiction_study_ucla_researchers_find_that_sex_and_porn_might_not_actually.2.html
Koenig, S. (2012). Sex addiction: On the verge of clinical acceptance, but plagued by misunderstanding. Retrieved September 3, 2013, from http://ezproxy.library.nyu.edu:2122/docview/1152064560/fulltext?source=fedsrch&accountid=12768
Sex Addiction a real illness or just an excuse for impish behavior? by by UrbanSculpt Staff Writer Meghan Stone , MSW, MEd is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.
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