As the number of reports and accusations of inappropriate sexual behavior grows, so does the number of high-profile offenders seeking help for their “sex addiction.” Our society tends to be more sympathetic to those whose transgressions are caused by a disease, than to those who have no such excuse. It can be comforting for everyone involved to believe that a problematic sexual behavior is a treatable addiction. Recent articles in the Wall Street Journal and The Economist 1843 magazine examined the issue and came to similar conclusions.
The psychotherapy community is divided about whether sex addiction exists. Those who think it does believe that sex addiction is a brain disease. They cite the similarities between drug and alcohol addicts and people with out-of-control sexual behavior. Both groups engage in behavior that is “obsessive, rewarding, and punishing” even as it has a detrimental effect on the quality of their lives. There are reports that the brain activity of sexually compulsive people is similar to that of drug addicts when presented with relevant stimuli.
However, in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, sex addiction is not listed. Some psychiatrists say that there is not enough scientific evidence that compulsive sexual behavior changes the brain in the same ways as drug and alcohol addiction. Others are skeptical of the idea that people can be addicted to something, like food or sex, that we are genetically designed to consume to survive.
What is not in dispute is the size of the industry that has grown up to treat those who have, or think they have, a sexual addiction. From glitzy residential treatment centers to 12-step programs in church basements, there is no shortage of support options for those that desire treatment.
Some therapists worry that labeling compulsive sexual behavior as sex addiction may prevent treatment of the underlying causes. While there is no standard treatment, therapy should start with a review of the history of the behavior, and any emotional triggers. The person’s mental health should be considered, as a disorder may be the cause, as should their current relationship.
Other factors may contribute to a person’s feeling that their behavior is an addiction. This feeling is often driven by shame. Research has shown that religious people are far more likely to believe that they are addicted to porn than non-believers, regardless of the amount that either group is watching. Young people often grow up thinking that certain sexual behaviors, like watching porn and masturbating, are shameful, and the feeling that they should be hidden, even from your partner, never really goes away. It can be easier to accept the “addict” label than to talk about or examine the underlying problems.
Most (80% by some estimates) “sex addicts” are men. Boys and girls tend to get different messages about sex. Girls are warned about the risks and consequences and encouraged to find partners that they trust and hopefully love. Boys get much less guidance and seem to be left to figure it out for themselves. Americans use sex to sell everything, but still have trouble taking about it.
It can also be dangerous to pathologize sexual behavior. Attempts by therapists to “cure” masturbation and homosexuality are not long in the past. There is also the altogether subjective concept of what is normal. As famous sex researcher Alfred Kinsey noted a half-century ago, “a nymphomaniac is someone who has more sex than you do.”
Both articles agree that more research need to be done before compulsive sexual behavior can be characterized as an addiction. Identifying and treating the underlying causes should be the focus of any treatment program, and are likely to be more helpful than just applying the sex addict label to those with problematic sexual behavior. Since we deem addicts as being not entirely responsible for their own behavior, care should be given before routinely dropping that label on those who behave badly.
Pecos Law Group has often seen “sex addiction” arise in the context of a divorce. One party may use “sex addiction” as a defense for poor behavior; the other party may use it as a factor in child custody or allege the behavior has caused financial damage to the community. If you are considering, or are already involved in, a divorce, it may be wise to consult with an attorney before applying the “sex addict” label to either party.