Q&A: How Legitimate Is Sex Addiction?

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QUESTION: Various male celebrities have been said to have checked themselves into a clinic for sex addiction. How legitimate is sex addiction?

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Handcuffed

Photo: Mark Coggins (flickr.com)

Some people develop a strong urge to masturbate in public. Others may find it difficult to stop having sex with strangers, or to stop having affairs, even though they want to stop.

Scientific Definition

Many research scientists who study sex struggle with the concept of sex addiction. Although the term “sex addiction” is often used in the media, it is not used as commonly among scientific circles.

That’s not to say that sex researchers and therapists don’t encounter people with problems related to sex. In fact, it’s quite clear that a small proportion of people – more so men than women – experience their sexuality in a way that may feel out of control or addictive to them, even if it is not a “true” addiction.

Addictive Behaviors?

Some researchers feel that there is a gray line between describing something as an “addiction” versus a bad habit or a behavior that has gotten out of control in someone’s life.

For example, some years ago the media used to talk a lot about “shopping addictions”. These days, people may describe themselves as having an addiction to their technology such as to their Blackberry, iPhone or Facebook. However, feeling obsessed with or tied to something is not the same as an actual addiction.

If someone had to go a few days without shopping or checking their online profile, they may not like it but they wouldn’t exhibit the signs of withdrawal that people who are addicted to drugs or alcohol do.

The Rules of the Relationship

The idea of sex addiction is also challenging because it seems to be influenced by what is acceptable behavior within a person’s relationship or social circle.

For example, some women say that they feel their husband has a sex addiction because he continued to masturbate even after they got married. Others have expressed concern that their partner has a sex addiction because he or she watches porn regularly even though they’re in a relationship.

However, just because someone doesn’t like or approve of their partner’s behavior does not make it an addiction. After all, someone else might accept or even feel turned on by the idea that their partner masturbates on their own or watches porn. People differ. So, is the problem the behavior or how a couple negotiates and communicates about the behavior?

Legitimate Concerns

That said, there are other cases that are more extreme in which people find it very difficult to stop a sexual behavior that is causing them great distress or problems in their personal or professional life, or even legal problems.

Some people develop a strong urge, that may even feel uncontrollable, to masturbate in public or to masturbate throughout the day, even while at their desk at work. Others may find it difficult to stop having sex with strangers, or to stop having affairs, even though they want to stop.

Finding Help

If a sexual behavior is causing distress or is problematic in a person’s life, a sex therapist can often help. Though some sex therapists use the term “sex addiction” others describe it as hypersexuality or as an impulsive-compulsive behavioral issue. The term, however, is less important than seeking quality help from a trained professional when needed.

You can find a sex therapist in your area through the web site of The Society for Sex Therapy and Research.

Dr. Debby Herbenick (M.P.H., Ph.D.)

is a sexual health educator at The Kinsey Institute, Associate Director of the Center for Sexual Health Promotion at Indiana University and author of several books including Sex Made Easy and Because It Feels Good: A Woman's Guide to Sexual Pleasure and Satisfaction.
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Comments

  • Sonya S.

    We totally just broached this topic in class yesterday. I will be forwarding it to my students!

  • akajeff

    I don't get it; you didn't add anything substantial to a very heated discussion!
    Yes, it is important to get help for those struggling with behaviors that are interrupting their lives, but labels often direct and guide diagnosis and treatment. This is exactly why some in the related professions are so vociferous regarding the specific definitions appropriate to the behaviors. Further, it's got to obvious by now that there is a lot of plain ol' exploitation in the treatment of “Sex Addiction” — there's money to be made!
    The best commentary I've read on this topic is from Dr. Marty Klein.
    reference: http://www.sexed.org/archive/article08.html
    reference: http://www.sexualintelligence.org/newsletters/i…

  • lizzie73

    You hit the nail on the head. The problem is what you vs others find acceptable. So the big question is why do people get involved with someone he/she knows is outside of his/her moral group, ie why would a man/woman knowingly lie to a partner about his/her habits. A partner who is hiding stuff is probably hiding more stuff and hasn't come to accept him/herself.

    If you know for a fact that X is uncomfortable with porn it is wrong to bring it into his/her world. It's a violation of boundaries for that individual. While there are no rights and wrongs about sexual preferences passively forcing someone into an experience he/she clearly doesn't want is a lack of respect for that individual's emotional health.