In the popular imagination, compulsive or addictive behaviors such as shopping or sex are regarded as different from chemical dependency on drugs or alcohol. Even some addiction counselors have argued that behavioral addictions are somehow easier to control because they don’t involve an addictive substance. New research, however, demonstrates that, in the brain, sex addiction looks similar to drug addiction.
Sex Addiction and Brain Activity
The study examined the effects of pornography on brain activity in people who have compulsive sexual behaviors. Excessive pornography use is common among people who experience sex addiction. Researchers showed 19 male subjects pornographic images while monitoring their brain activity using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). They then compared the results to the brain activity of an additional 19 men with a history of compulsive sexual behavior.
The men with a history of compulsive sexual behavior had increased brain activity in the ventral striatum, dorsal anterior cingulate, and amygdala. These regions are the same areas that show increased activity during drug use in people who are addicted.
Darren Haber, MA, MFT, a GoodTherapy.org addiction Topic Expert, finds the results unsurprising, explaining, “It’s no surprise that a so-called behavioral addiction mimics drug addiction, especially when that behavior involves something as primally stimulating and rewarding as sex. What troubles me is that our society still seems more interested in playing a semantics game around debating compulsive sexual behavior as ‘addiction, yes or no’ when this enslaving disorder creates such suffering and shame for countless men and women.” Haber emphasizes that our culture often tacitly endorses sex addiction, compounding the problem that those with addiction face. “Porn is a billion dollar business. Soft-core porn is rampant in commercial media. Women are objectified and exploited globally to make a buck, and yet being a (person who is addicted to sex) is somehow shameful or hard to understand,” he says.
What Qualifies as Sex Addiction?
In a sex-saturated society, it can be challenging to draw the line between normal sexual behavior and sex addiction. For those who experience sex addiction, though, sexual behavior feels obligatory rather than enjoyable. Angela Skurtu, MEd, LMFT, a GoodTherapy.org sexuality Topic Expert, explains, “One of the most difficult struggles partners experience with sex and porn addictions is that these behaviors often take place in lieu of a satisfying sex life with one another. The (person with sex addiction) will struggle because he or she doesn’t actually enjoy his or her sexual behaviors. They feel compelled to engage in these behaviors.”
Skurtu cautions that not all use of pornography use indicates sex addiction. “Clinicians must be careful to educate clients about normal sexual behavior, while also being respectful of the client’s personal values. Watching pornography for 15 minutes or so every other day during masturbation is relatively common. As long as the masturbation does not take the place of a healthy sex life for the couple, it should not be considered problematic behavior,” she says.
University of Cambridge. (2014, July 11). Brain activity in sex addiction mirrors that of drug addiction. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/07/140711153327.htm
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