Is Sex Addiction Real?

sb10064105t-001It 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.

The Study

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.

Other Perspectives

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.


  1. Clark-Flory, T. (2009, December 20). Is sex addiction real? Retrieved from
  2. Klein, M. (2012, July/August). You’re addicted to what? The Humanist. Retrieved from’re-addicted-to-what/
  3. Logarta, M. (2013, July 21). Sex addiction may not be real mental disorder—UCLA study.GMA News Online. Retrieved from

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  • Leave a Comment
  • tally

    August 1st, 2013 at 11:14 AM

    I would be willing to bet that this is an issue that is very much divided along gender lines.
    I think that is you took a poll that a lot more men than women would be willing to go out on a limb and say that they are willing to accept that sex addiction is a real thing while I think that more women would say that they think that that is just as term that is used as an excuse for bad behavior.
    I can actually see it both ways, but I hate to see it just used as an excuse because I think that then it does take away from some of the validity of those who do have a bona fide problem with addiction in that area.

  • Owodunni olalekan

    August 1st, 2013 at 3:34 PM

    Everything learnt can also be unlearnt. Such is the nature of addictions to sex or drugs, it’s a matter of a change of attitude and perception and a willingness to effect a change .


    August 1st, 2013 at 7:48 PM

    Addiction or not, anything that causes harm in excess needs to be controlled! And if people are throwing their lives away due to this then it is a problem. Whether you call it an addiction or stupidity or whatever else, it is a problem and for the individuals affected it is something to try and get rid of! Plain and simple.

  • Jon

    August 2nd, 2013 at 4:18 AM

    Yeah, ask Tiger and Elin
    totally different answers I suspect ;)

  • Millicent

    August 2nd, 2013 at 10:36 AM

    As long as there is continual disagreement in the medical community as to whether or not sex addiction is a valid diagnosable disease, then I think that you will also continue to see a disagreement in the general public over the same thing.

    Those of us who are not in the know, we just want some general consensu, some corroborating proof over what is real and what isn’t. I think that there are some very real arguments on both sides as to what to believe and what not to believe. I do think that there are some people who have been abused and who have very real issues with sex and knowing how to keep it as a healthy part of their lives. But there are also those who use it as an excuse for instant gratification and I think that those are the people who we get tired of hearing about and get fed up with pretty quickly.

    I don’t think that it is that most of us don’t believe that this isn’t something real, because addiction could happen to anyone with pretty much anything. But you have to admit to it having that power over you and seek help for it, just like with any other adidction in order to make amends and move forward.

  • frances

    August 3rd, 2013 at 4:25 AM

    So I am not sure I understand how this can be qualified as an addiction if the changes in the brain that are normally there with another addict are not there with a “sex addict”? Then how do you know that this is what you are facing? Just the hypersexuality is what is supposed to clue you in?

  • Jansen

    August 6th, 2013 at 3:14 PM

    Like others here it is hard for anyone who feels like they have these tendencies to know where to turn. Should they seek help for the drinking or the sex? And if they get help for the drinking but then the sexual urges don’t go away then I guess then is the time to get treatment for that too?? But then you won’t know that until you have gone through all this for the drinking which you thought was fueling all of this in the first place? Just as confused as ever!

  • emily

    August 7th, 2013 at 4:21 AM

    Ask me if it is real, and I will emphatically say yes.

    I lost my husband to a world of sex that I never had any real way to compete with. He was lost to an online world of porn and women he had never met and would never meet but somehow I would never have a way to measure up to what he felt like they gave him that I could not.

    So is it real? In our case it was real enough for us to lose our marriage over, so I would say for us it definitely was, and for him I think that he is still battling it even now years later.

  • BeenAround

    August 11th, 2013 at 6:18 PM

    When Derek Jeter was single and had a different woman every night, he was just a single man living a single lifestyle. When Tiger Woods did it, he was a sex addict…right.
    Just a lame excuse for errant behavior imo.

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