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Is Sex Addiction Real?

Problems With the Sex Addiction Model

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Updated February 06, 2012

Despite a lack of empirical evidence and scientific agreement on whether sex addiction is real, a vocal and lucrative sex addiction industry has developed in the last 15 or so years. There are websites, books, support groups, educational videos, touring speakers and countless religious organizations all claiming an epidemic of sex addiction is on the rise -- and that anyone with a computer and an interest in sex is in danger.

To make matters more confusing, the mainstream media has been easily wooed by the simple and provocative message of those who believe in something called sex addiction. As a result, reporters by and large print their claims as fact, without doing a lot of checking.

Yet there are many professionals, both sex therapists and sex researchers, who argue that sex addiction as it is presented in the media and to the public through self-help books and talk show appearances doesn’t really exist. They do believe that there are people who have problems with out-of-control sexual behavior, but believe that the sex addiction model makes matters worse for those people by not recognizing the complicated nature of the problem. Here are some of the main arguments made against the idea of sex addiction.

Sex Addiction Takes Sexuality Out of Context
In the sex addiction model, the individual is powerless against their addiction. All that exists is their internal needs and their external actions. The sex addiction model ignores important social and relational factors in the meaning of sex for an individual. Instead of understanding that sexuality and sexual behavior are tied to many of our core values and beliefs, the sex addiction model isolates sexuality from the rest of our lives and in so doing will likely result in incomplete or ineffectual treatment.

Lack of Empirical Evidence and Testable Definitions
Most of what is written about sex addiction comes from therapists working one-on-one with clients, and not from the clients themselves. The movement has failed to produce enough well-designed empirical evidence, and their use of moralistic and vague terminology results in statements that are difficult to test by others hoping to better understand whether the addiction model is applicable.

Sex Addiction Pathologizes Healthy Sexuality
Sex addiction proponents suggest that some sexual behaviors (like viewing pornography or paying for sex) are inherently dangerous. Similarly, most sex addiction material refers to masturbation more than once a day as a sign of problem and to other sexual activities (e.g. sex outdoors, BDSM, sex outside a relationship) as signs of addiction. There is no research to suggest that masturbating more than once a day is unhealthy, and some current research on BDSM suggests that it may actually be associated with greater sexual health and satisfaction.

Misleading or Misunderstanding the Science of the Brain
Consider this sentence taken from an article published in an addictions journal:

Addiction in women is a growing problem in the United States and is recognized as a very serious disease. Today researchers are able to document the neurochemistry of addiction in the brain. It has been found that sexual activity can create a “high” equal to that of crack cocaine.

Sounds pretty scary. The problem is that it is an inaccurate description of the actual research and it takes that mistake and further confuses it with a leap in logic. It’s true that some studies show that brain activity (although not neurochemistry as suggested in the quote) is present in similar areas during cocaine craving and orgasm. But this in no way means that the experiences are equal. Here’s another quote that is typical of what is written by both addiction proponents and media reports:

"The amygdala is the center for sexual arousal and desire and is also the part of the brain that processes drugs such as crack cocaine."

What are some problems with this claim? First, there isn’t agreement on what region of the brain is most important for sexual arousal. Second, the fact that two completely different experiences (sexual response and drug use) are both processed in the same region doesn’t mean that there are any similarities between these two experiences. What this author fails to mention is that the amygdala is also responsible for processing fear. Should we infer then that there is an inherent relationship between fear and sex and drug use?

Addiction Is a Bad Analogy
There remains a debate about whether or not it’s reasonable to call out-of-control sexual behavior an addiction. Sex -- even if it is engaged in excessively -- isn’t in and of itself harmful (and who gets to determine what excessive is?). Some argue that the comparison of a biological drug dependency to something as multi-faceted as sexual experience doesn’t make sense and results in missing the point when people are having real problems controlling their sexual activity.

Sex Addiction Is a Moral Term not a Scientific One
Sex therapist and author Marty Klein is one of the most vocal critics of sex addiction and refers to it as “a set of moral beliefs disguised as science.” Klein points to the three fundamental concepts of sex addiction:

  • Sex is most healthy in committed, monogamous, heterosexual relationships
  • There are "obvious" limits to healthy sexual expression (for example, masturbation more than once a day)
  • Choosing to use sex to feel better about yourself or to escape from problems is unhealthy.

Klein points out that these concepts are inaccurate and not supported by sexual science. They are, however, strong moral positions and ones shared by many on the religious right who often use the concept of sex addiction as a political tool.

Sex Addiction Is Culturally Bound
This critique is more about the advocates of sex addiction than the term itself. In descriptions of sex addiction, the problem is described as being biological and never is the cultural context referred to. The premise of sex addiction is that too much sex is bad for you and certain kinds of sex are bad for you. These beliefs are deeply tied to religion and culture, and yet that qualification is absent in the most prominent writing about sex addiction.

Sex Addiction is Too Blunt a Measure
The sex addiction literature describes a wide array of behaviors and patterns (everything from masturbation to child molestation) as being a sign of sex addiction. A significant problem with this approach is that it misses the complicated and sometimes subtle overlap in expressions of mental health issues. Behaviors or thoughts that could be called sex addiction may actually be a manifestation of depression, OCD, or another mental health issue that’s gone undiagnosed and untreated. Some clinicians argue that the sex addiction model is simply too blunt a tool to be useful.

Sex Addiction Leads to Improper Treatment
This is perhaps the greatest problem with the concept of sex addiction. In trying to fit what are likely a myriad of sexual problems people have into one simple model, and by proposing a cookie cutter approach to treatment, the sex addiction model may be making the situation worse for people who are already dealing with a very serious problem. People who experience feeling out-of-control about sexual behavior may not be helped by forcing themselves to not think about or engage in sex. In fact, stifling your sex drive may cause more harm than good.

Sources:

Bancroft, J. & Vukadinovic, Z. “Sexual Addiction, Sexual Comulsivity, Sexual Impulsivity, or What? Toward a Theoretical Model” The Journal of Sex Research Vol. 41, No. 3 (2004): 225-235.

Gold, S.N. & Heffner, C.L. “Sexual Addiction: Many Conceptions, Minimal Data” Clinical Psychology Revie Vol. 18, No. 3 (1998): 367-381.

Klein, M. “Sex Addiction: A Dangerous Clinical Concept” Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality Vol. 5 (2002) Accessed September 26, 2008.

Langstrom, N.L. & Hanson, R.K. “High Rates of Sexual Behavior in the General Population:Correlates and Predictors” Archives of Sexual Behavior Vol. 35, No. 1 (2006): 37–52.

Roller, C.G. “Sex Addiction and Women: A Nursing Issue” Journal of Addictions Nursing Vol. 15 (2004):53–61.

Salisbury, R. M. “Out of Control Sexual Behaviours: A Developing Practice Model” Relationship Therapy Vol. 23, No. 2 (2008): 131-139.

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