I hear this question quite often from partners of sex addicts. Mostly, the partners are really asking if calling it an addiction is just an excuse for cheating, looking at pornography, masturbation, flirting, cyber-sex, peeping, and other bad behavior.
Sex addiction has been in the news quite a bit lately. A UCLA study published by Socioaffective Neuroscience and Psychology suggests that there is no such thing. It was a small study of only 52 people who reported having problems with porn. The study measured the brain waves of these people as they looked at porn. The researchers were trying to find physical reactions in the brain. A major shortcoming of the study, besides being such a small sample, is that the researchers didn’t take into account that a behavioral addiction may not produce a physical reaction in the brain in the same way that chemical addictions (drugs and alcohol) do. In other words, the study was trying to identify if there was a physical dependency followed by physical symptoms (think seizures or DT’s) when one is withdrawing from alcohol.
Behavioral addictions, like gambling, shopping, and overeating, are quite different from the substance abuse addictions. The reason that the American Psychiatric Association excluded sex addiction from the DSM 5, the new bible of mental disorders, is that people who stop their compulsive sexual behaviors do not exhibit physical withdrawal symptoms. So the study compared apples to oranges, or, in this case, it compared two different types of addictions, physical and behavioral, as if they were necessarily the same in the brain.
From my work helping people affected by sex addiction, I believe they have a real addiction, a behavioral addiction. Consider the markers of an addiction:
Tolerance—over time, the addict needs increasing amounts of the behavior to achieve the desired effect. Again, this is not a physical tolerance but behavioral. More and different types of porn, or new sexual experiences, generally riskier and more dangerous.
Withdrawal—while there may be no physical symptoms, there may be an emotional withdrawal, say depression or anxiety, when the behavior is stopped for a period of time.
Increasing time spent in the addictive behaviors (in this case, sexual activities).
Attempts to stop or reduce the behavior have been unsuccessful.
The addict takes more time to recover from addictive activities (sexual encounters or the behavior). Examples of after-effects might be bad feelings about self, withdrawal from activities, or fear of social contacts. It may take time for the addict to feel normal again or engage in normal activities.
Problems come up in work, school, relationships, or social activities because of the (sexual) behavior.
The addict continues the behavior despite the fact that it is causing problems.
The sex addiction cycle works like this:
Preoccupation—the individual is preoccupied with sex, thinking about it all of the time. Sexual activities have been used to reduce anxiety or other bad feelings in the past, so thinking about and planning the next encounter becomes part of the high . Thinking becomes distorted, as all thoughts move toward sex. For example, a simple, friendly smile from an acquaintance can be enough to make the addict think that something sexual may happen.
Sexual behavior becomes ritualized. Ritualized behavior is when a person feels compelled to do the same thing, the same way, in the same order, at the same time—for example, using substances with sex, heavy flirting after drinking, always using porn after church, or wearing specific clothing while masturbating.
The addict “acts out,” engaging in the addictive behavior, which can include: compulsive masturbation, strip clubs, anonymous sex, peeping, non-consensual touching, exhibitionism, and other activities.
Shame—after acting out, the addict has intense shame about the behavior. The shame starts the cycle again.
The mainstream media is catching on the topic of sex addiction; the film Thanks for Sharing depicts three disparate characters who are learning to face a challenging and often confusing world as they struggle together against a common demon: sex addiction.
Click here to read more about the signs of sex addiction.
What do you think? Is sex addiction real? If you've seen the movie, did it help you have new understandings about sex addiction?