Sex addiction is a hotly debated topic in the therapeutic community. It’s also something that’s trivialized by pop culture as being cool and even a bit sexy. Yet there’s no science or clinical evidence to back up the claims that an addiction to sex is the same as being hooked on drugs or alcohol.
The World Health Organization (WHO) actually refuted the concept of sex addiction last year, citing it as being a compulsive behavior or disorder rather than an illness. Silva Neves is a psychosexual and relationship therapist. He’s also part of a growing movement that’s campaigning against the term “sex addiction” in a bid to change our understanding of sexual behaviors—starting with the way we talk about them.
“Changing our language around mental health is so important. We can no longer use ‘hysteria’ when talking about women or ‘manic depressive’ when describing bipolar disorder. Yet the term ‘sex addiction’ has stuck and taken on cultural meaning with no clinical backing—it was first coined in the Midwest of America with the growing fear around AIDS and the ensuing fear around sex, which is no longer relevant.”
The word “addiction” is now misused to justify certain sexual behaviors, such as “porn addiction”. Yet these behaviors indicate a deeper issue that needs addressing—porn or sex is merely a distraction. This is where we need the science of sexual compulsion to shed some light on what’s really going on.
The Science Bit
The WHO defines compulsive sexual behavior as repetitive and unwanted behavior that someone has tried and failed to stop doing. This pattern of failure will manifest over a period of six months or more and will significantly impair other important areas of life, such as family or work commitments, relationships, and health. Most of all, someone will not enjoy these sexual urges.
The reality of compulsive sexual behavior is therefore very different from our popularized idea of sex addiction being something cool or kinky. “Someone showing signs of compulsive behavior will use sex as a soothing mechanism. What’s more, it will be the only thing that soothes them even if they don’t derive pleasure from it.”
Compulsive sexual behavior will also be incongruent with someone’s personal values, as opposed to jarring with social, cultural or religious values. Any distress that’s related to other’s moral judgement or external disapproval points to a different issue. “Say someone regularly cheats on their partner but doesn’t enjoy it; they’d be diagnosed as having a compulsive behavior,” Silva explains.
“Yet if someone regularly enjoys and regrets cheating, this would indicate an “erotic conflict” is at play.” In other words, there’s dissonance between what they desire and what they’ve been told they “should” desire.
Out of Control
Another cultural misconception is that compulsive sexual urges are a sign that someone is out of control—a belief that’s exemplified when sex offenders are sent to sex addiction recovery centers. Yet the opposite is true, says Silva, since those who show signs of compulsive sexual behavior remain in control, no matter how “depraved” society may deem them to be.
“If someone enjoys group sex in a fetish club every weekend, and remains fully functional, they may believe they’re out of control simply because society sees their behavior as unusual or shameful,” says Silva. “But their brain is always in control, even during the group sex. Whereas someone who’s addicted to alcohol or drugs won’t be able to think properly since addiction impairs the brain.”
Sex as an Elastoplast
Treatment for addiction is also very different to treatment for compulsive disorders. The former focuses on the actual behaviors whereas the latter looks at what lies beneath them and tackles the root cause. The former also seems like a preventative measure while the latter promises to deliver a lasting solution.
“Treatment for addiction often prescribes sobriety,” says Silva, “but you can’t be sober from sexual feelings and thoughts that are essentially natural urges. There’s also no clinical evidence that this approach works. Instead it serves to shame people and make them feel like they’re broken in some way—and that’s because enforced sobriety simply pathologizes people when we should be de-pathologizing them.”
Road to Recovery
Compulsive sexual behavior is rarely about sex at all, but facing up to something emotional or mental that’s being ignored and denied. This gives the idea of “recovery” a new slant.
“Finding out what someone is trying to soothe is key. If I can identify the disturbance that’s causing them to use sex as a distraction, I can get to the real issue and work on that. From there we can eventually create an arousal template and find out what it is that really turns them on.”
If you’d like to read more about compulsive sexual behaviors, Silva recommends The Myth of Sex Addiction by David Ley, The Biology of Desire by Marc Lewis, and The State of Affairs by Esther Perel.
Finally, for those who love the science bit, you can read more here.