It seems that the signs of sex addiction are all around us. Politicians are willing to sacrifice their careers and families for sex, while everyday people regularly destroy their lives because they fail to remain faithful to their spouses.
There’s no denying that compulsive sexual behavior can risk lives, but not everyone is sold on the concept of sex addiction. (Even mental health’s bible, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, has yet to recognize sex addiction as an actual “disorder.”) Some sex activists argue that sex addiction is really just a label for non-normative sexual behavior. A new study backs up some of their claims, emphasizing that what some call sex addiction might not function like addictions.
In generations past, doctors believed that addiction was little more than a character deficit. Addicted people were addicted because they refused to stop engaging in compulsive behavior. We now know, however, that addiction brings about real changes in the brain. That’s why addicted people often go through withdrawal and struggle to quit, even when they’ve experienced serious addiction-related consequences.
A UCLA study, however, found that so-called sex addicts don’t display the sorts of brain changes we’ve come to associate with addiction. Researchers showed erotic images to 39 men and 13 women, all of whom claimed to have problems with hypersexuality. However, the participants’ brain patterns were different from those commonly associated with addicted people. Researchers speculated that a person addicted to sex would show a much more charged response to visual imagery, but the subjects showed no such increase in brain activity.
While scientists are examining the brain effects of sex addiction, sociologists and some activists are examining the social consequences of the sex addiction label. Sex advice columnist Dan Savage has pointed out that the criteria for sex addiction are so broad that almost everyone could qualify for a diagnosis with the condition. He also emphasizes that certain types of sexual behavior—such as having multiple partners or engaging in kinks or fetishes—is sometimes labeled as sex addiction, when there’s little evidence that the behavior harms the so-called “addict” or anyone else.
Sex therapist Marty Klein published an article in The Humanist agreeing with Savage. He emphasizes that people often label themselves sex addicts when they regret their sexual behavior, but regret and addiction are not the same thing. They may struggle to give up their sexual behavior, but be too afraid to quit because there’s some sort of reward—a distraction from loneliness, a temporary boost in self-esteem, or even just acclaim from friends.
When Sex is a Problem
Even if sex addiction is not real, this doesn’t mean that sexual behavior is never a problem. It simply means that sex doesn’t function like other addictions in the brain. A person who has sex with numerous partners every day and who wants to stop may have a problem if he finds himself unable to stop. But the problem could be that he has nothing else fulfilling going on in his life, that he is lonely, or that he doesn’t really want to stop—but thinks he should want to. Sex addiction may also be correlated with drug or alcohol abuse, and in these cases, it’s likely that the drug addiction is the problem that fuels the sex. If this addiction goes away, the sex “addiction” might go away, too.
Other people labeled as sex addicts may simply have different approaches to sexuality than most people. Just a few decades ago, homosexuality was a mental health diagnosis, but now few people would label homosexuality as disordered behavior. It could be that the behavior that looks like sex addiction now could just be another form of sexual expression.
- Clark-Flory, T. (2009, December 20). Is sex addiction real? Salon.com. Retrieved from http://www.salon.com/2009/12/21/sex_addiction/
- Klein, M. (2012, July/August). You’re addicted to what? The Humanist. Retrieved from http://thehumanist.org/july-august-2012/you’re-addicted-to-what/
- Logarta, M. (2013, July 21). Sex addiction may not be real mental disorder—UCLA study.GMA News Online. Retrieved from http://www.gmanetwork.com/news/story/318509/scitech/science/sex-addiction-may-not-be-real-mental-disorder-ucla-study
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