By Anthony Easton/flickr: PinkMoose (http://www.flickr.com/photos/pinkmoose/2611293086/) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Source: By Anthony Easton/flickr: PinkMoose (http://www.flickr.com/photos/pinkmoose/2611293086/) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

For decades, the idea that sex and porn are like drugs has permeated the world of pop psychology. Despite a great deal of evidence that sex and masturbation, and even pornography, are actually very healthy, there has been a long held belief that too much sex is unhealthy. In fact, men who have more sex live longer than others, women who have more sex tend to have smaller waistlines and healthier relationships, and daily sex appears to serve a biologically-important role in conception. So, the field of sex addiction has long struggled to identify what they mean by “too much sex.” Researchers in this area often arbitrarily decide that the top few percent of the bell curve of sexual activity represent “hypersexuals,” assuming that highly sexually people are most likely to be those experiencing “too much sex,” and the apparently negative consequences of it.

Research keeps building though, pointing out that alleged sex and porn addicts don’t actually have more sex or watch more porn than other people. In the 2013 proposal to create a psychological disorder based upon the concept of sex addiction or the related idea of hypersexual disorder, initial proposals argued that setting the TSO (total sexual outlet, a measure first used by Kinsey to describe average sexual activity within a week) at 7 would capture the idea of “too much sex.” So, if a person is usually having a daily orgasm, the argument holds that this is hypersexual, and a component of unhealthy sexuality/sex addiction.

Now, research by European sexuality researchers has investigated sexual frequency in both sex addicts and other men. Results show that not only is TSO a poorly discriminating variable, but that self-identified sex addicts are actually having LESS sex than many other men. In this research, a TSO of 7 or higher was present in 69% of men identified as having high libido, and in 41% of normative men (men with no problems related to sex, nor other indicators of problematic sexuality or high libido). Surprisingly, only 50.9% of hypersexuals/sex addicts in this research had a TSO greater than 7. So, there is no validity, in this research, to the idea that how much sex a person is having actually has anything to do with any sex-related problems in their life, nor with the identity of sexual addict.

//creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Middle-Ages Scolding/Shaming Mask
Source: See page for author [CC BY 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

So, what is it then, which leads a person to identify themselves as a sex or porn addict? In this research by Stulhofer, Jurin and Briken, 68% of men with high libido, versus 44.4% of hypersexuals (defined in this study using a screening tool based on the concept of hypersexual disorder) described themselves as addicted to sex. Surprisingly, 20% of normative men (who didn't screen in as hypersexuals or high libido) also described themselves as sex addicts.

Many sex addiction therapists believe that they are being client-centered in treating clients based on the client’s own identification of having a problem. These findings demonstrate the inherent flaw in this - because the sex addiction concept has become so popular in the media, many people have incorporated the label of sex addict into a general sense of shame about their own sexuality, regardless of any problems related to their sexual behaviors. Other research has demonstrated that this self-identity is unhealthy, and iatrogenic, actually causing more distress and depression.

While sex addicts and high libido men appear in this most recent research to be two separate groups, the differences are NOT in terms of their sexual behavior or their use of porn - instead the differences all lie in their negative attitudes towards sex.

Very powerfully, this European psychological research shows that men who are classified as sex addicts/hypersexals perceive their sexuality as out of control, even though they don't actually use porn more than others, don't have more sex-related problems, and don't have more sex than other people. Numerous other studies (in New Zealand, Canada and in the US) have found similar results, that many more people fear their sexuality, or feel that they have difficulty controlling their sexuality, despite a lack of evidence of sex-related problems. Thus, we must begin to examine what are the variables which lead people to fear their sexuality, and to feel that it is out of control?

Research now consistently demonstrates that these men who fear their sexuality, feel that it is difficult to control, and embrace the identity of sex addict have a few consistent characteristics:

  • They tend to be more religious;
  • Have more negative attitudes towards sex and porn;
  • Grow up in more conservative cultures and communities;
  • Are more likely to have a history of non-heterosexual behaviors.

When a client presents to a therapist, reporting that they feel they are addicted to sex, the therapist's first and most primary intervention should be one of shame reduction, sexual education and values conflict exploration and reconciliation. Focusing on their sexual behaviors, and telling people to change or reduce their sexual behaviors is a distraction, and dangerously harmful one at that, perpetuating sexual shame. 

Remember, there are many people out there having MORE sex than most sex addicts, and not having the same problems. How can these sex addicts learn from that, and find ways to incorporate their sexuality as an accepted, healthy and ethical part of their life? If they are being unfaithful in their marriage, can these men be helped to understand their desires and needs, and make conscious, honest choices of negotiation, rather than blaming their infidelity on their addiction?  

It's NOT the sex people are having, but the way they feel about it, that is the problem in sex addiction. And the way they feel about it is driven by their social and religious values and attitudes towards sex.

Consistently, research on those who are called sex addicts is demonstrating the degree to which the concepts of hypersexual disorder and sex addiction are actually medicalizing moral/value conflicts and sexual attitudes. The idea that “too much sex” is unhealthy is not scientifically supportable, and is a diagnostic concept with dangerously poor validity and discriminative value – it “diagnoses” people whose problems truly lie in their moral and values towards their own sexual desires and behaviors. These people deserve treatment that helps with their real struggles.

Follow David on Twitter at DrDavidley

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