The controversy surrounding sex addiction
While controversy over its definition – and even its very existence – continues to foment, sex addiction, all too often steeped in shame and guilt, is a very real problem that has a spectacular ability to destroy lives and relationships.
Krafft-Ebing’s ‘Psychopathia Sexualis’
Sexologists have been using the term ‘hypersexuality’ to define dysfunctional sexual behaviours since the late nineteenth century when Richard von Krafft-Ebing, an Austrian psychiatrist, described several cases of extreme sexual behaviour in his highly influential 1886 book, Psychopathia Sexualis. Krafft-Ebing considered any sexual behaviours that weren’t for procreational purposes to be ‘perverse’ . . . luckily society has progressed a lot since the 19th century!
The Don Juans and nymphomaniacs of the world are often explored and exposed in popular culture, but what does sex addiction mean for real people? This is where researchers run into some difficulties.
Sex addiction is a highly controversial subject and its existence is fiercely debated by experts in the field and members of the public alike. Critics argue that sex addiction is not a real disorder and dismiss it as a new-wave addiction; a way for scoundrels and philanderers to excuse their lotharious behaviour, to shirk responsibility, and avoid blame for their actions.
The American Psychiatric Association publishes the Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), a set of widely accepted definitions of mental health disorders. In it’s latest incarnation, the DSM-IV published in 2013, sexual addiction was rejected for inclusion. A member DSM team stated that “Although hypersexuality is a proposed new addition….[it] was not at the point where we were ready to call it an addiction.”
Moreover, cultural norms of sexual behaviour are so strikingly different that it’s almost impossible to say what is abnormal and what isn’t – behaviours that might be deemed appropriate in one culture, religion or social group, could be condemned as abhorrent in another.
Clearly sex addiction is not a chemical dependence in the same way as alcohol or drug addiction – instead it’s a behavioural addiction, much like gambling. This said, powerful chemical substances such as dopamine and oxytocin are released during sex and orgasm and so it’s not unreasonable to assume that these have the potential to become addictive.
The Addiction Recovery Network accurately asserts that sex addiction “involves frequent self-destructive or high-risk activity that is not emotionally fulfilling, that one is ashamed of and that one is unable to stop, despite it causing repeated problems”.
But perhaps the most useful definition, offered by Relate, is that sex addiction encompasses any sexual activity that feels “out of control” to the individual. This could be sex with multiple partners, viewing pornography, compulsive masturbation, visiting prostitutes, or using sex chat lines. Sex addicts are unable to control their urges and actions, despite the devastating effects it can have on their relationships, finances and professional lives.
Sex addiction as anaesthetic
Unfortunately, empirical research in the area of sex addiction is relatively weak. Given its subjective and personal nature, not to mention the stigma preventing sufferers from coming forward for help, the intricacies of sex addiction remain clouded to many researchers.
However, limited research that has been undertaken suggests that the causes of sex addiction are often rooted in childhood or adolescence, with early trauma, neglect and depression all being pegged as potential risk factors. One US study reported that 80% of participants with a sex addiction suffered emotional trauma or abuse during childhood.
Most crucially, sex addiction is not simply about desire – as with other addictions it often serves as anaesthetising behaviour, practised in order to avoid accepting of confronting some painful underlying emotion.
So while controversy over its definition and its very existence continues to foment, sex addiction, all too often steeped in shame and guilt, is a very real problem that has a spectacular ability to destroy lives and relationships.