Is Sex Addiction Real or Just an Excuse?

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
July 24 2013 11:49 AM

Is Sex Addiction Real or Just an Excuse?

A new study suggests that there’s no such thing as a clinical addiction to sex.

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“We don't have a lot of information about what constitutes normative sexual behavior, so how can we conclusively determine what is deviant?” said Dr. Rory Reid, a neuropsychologist at UCLA and the principal investigator for the DSM-5 field trial on hypersexual disorder. “I don’t think there is enough evidence to conclude that patterns of hypersexual behavior constitute a bona fide disorder in the scientific realm, but we also don’t have enough evidence to dismiss that possibility. It certainly warrants further research and discussion.”

Dr. Eli Coleman, who directs the program in human sexuality at the University of Minnesota Medical School, argues that any study that looks at compulsive sexual behavior from a traditional addiction model may be missing the mark.

“One of the big problems with the term ‘sex addiction’ is that it immediately assumes that you can apply the same kinds of research methodologies and treatments that you would use for substance addiction,” said Coleman. “There are no sex receptors in the brain to develop tolerance and dependence, as there are with alcohol and drug addiction.” Hypersexuals don’t experience seizures or other physical symptoms of withdrawal when they abstain, for example, like alcohol and drug addicts do. Coleman suggests that for many people, hypersexual behavior seems to be a problem of impulse control or compulsive drive rather than a neural addiction. But, he added, even that explanation is probably too simplistic: Some people use sexual behavior to modulate mood states, and in others hypersexuality looks almost like attention deficit disorder. “It’s really very complex,” said Coleman. “And there has not been enough research to fully examine all of the underlying mechanisms.”

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Previous investigations into sex addiction have only measured the brains of sexual compulsives at rest (that is, without exposure to sexual imagery) or relied entirely on self-reported questionnaires, which are likely to be influenced by social ideas about what constitutes “normal” degrees of sexual behavior or desire. This new study is the first time that scientists have measured the active responses of hypersexual brains to sexual stimuli, which seems closer to the mark if scientists want to prove or dispel the clinical case for sex addiction.

“The field is very strange, because experimental work is very rare in this area. Many people report feeling out of control sexually, but when we actually look for evidence of that in a lab, we can’t find it,” said Prause. “That’s why I’m aghast that we’re not doing more research in this area. Questionnaires are valuable, but we need to do more work to determine if what people are reporting is actually true.”

Prause points out why there haven’t been funds directed toward scientific research that might challenge the existence of sex addiction: If something is a disease, there is money to be made from treating it. (One Christian organization, for example, charges $1,275 for a three-day seminar called “Every Man’s Battle” that claims to treat men who “find themselves pulled into the use of pornography” or who “seek out sexual gratification through compulsive masturbation.”)

But Prause also emphasizes that despite the results of last week’s study, it is too early to declare the theory of sex addiction debunked. “We have not put the nail in the coffin on sex addiction,” she told me. “Because this is the first time we’ve tried to monitor brain response in this population, there may be things we missed. But I’d say this is a strong challenge to the addiction model.” So all those athletes and actors might have impulse control disorders. They might have high libidos. They might just have really good publicists. But according to this study, at least, they might not have a neural addiction to sex.

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