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Is Sex Addiction a Real Thing?

The problem with defining “excessive” sexual behavior.

Key points

  • The concept of sex addiction is controversial in part because it is difficult to define.
  • Many people who engage in “excessive” sex—as defined by professionals—experience no distress on account of it.
  • Restrictive sexual attitudes underlie the definition and diagnosis of sex addiction.

Sex addiction is a proposed psychological disorder in which people engage in excessive sexual behaviors that lead to a negative impact on their lives. Although it's a commonly used concept among laypersons and professionals alike, not all psychologists agree that hypersexuality is a disorder. It’s not mentioned in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) published by the American Psychiatric Association. It is, however, a similar disorder known as compulsive sexual behavior disorder is included in the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11), published by the World Health Organization.

Sex Addiction Is Hard to Define

Why is there such disagreement among professionals? It turns out that the two of the criteria used to define sex addiction—negative impact and excess—are hard to pinpoint.

First, it’s not clear that the negative impact reported by self-identified sex addicts actually stems from their sexual behavior. Plenty of people with high levels of sexual activity seek out therapists with symptoms of psychological distress, but there are also plenty of others who feel quite satisfied with their highly active sex life.

For instance, watching porn, masturbating, having casual sex, and visiting sex workers are considered typical behaviors of sex addiction. However, many people who engage in these activities experience no distress. Thus, people’s attitudes about sexuality are important in determining whether they will judge their own sex behaviors as having a positive or negative impact on their lives.

Second, there’s the question of how much sex is too much. Many therapists and researchers dealing with sex addiction define “excessive” as engaging in more than seven sexual acts leading to orgasm per week. This includes both solo masturbation and partnered sexual activity.

The reason that professionals settled on seven-plus as their definition of “excessive” is that patients seeking help for their sexual addiction typically report sexual activity in that range. However, Carleton University (Canada) psychologist Joshua Peters and colleagues point out that it’s quite likely a fairly large percentage of the population would meet this criterion for sex addiction.

High Sex Drive without Distress

In an article they recently published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, Peters and colleagues report on a study they conducted that involved over a thousand North American participants, ranging in age from 18 to 87, with roughly equal numbers of males and females. The key question was how frequently each participant achieved orgasm, either through solo masturbation or partnered sex.

Some of the results were predictable. For instance, men reported more frequent orgasms than women, both through partnered sex and through solo masturbation. While this finding is consistent with plenty of other research, it’s still not known whether this sex difference is due to biology—that is, women having an inherently lower sex drive than men—or due to social influence, in which women are taught to suppress their sexuality while men are encouraged to express it.

Also consistent with previous research, the data from this study showed that the frequency of orgasms decreased as people got older, especially after around age 45.

Other results were surprising. In particular, the researchers found that frequency of orgasms through solo masturbation and partnered sex were positively correlated. That is, people who had lots of partnered sex also masturbated a lot.

Traditionally, masturbation has been seen as a substitute for partnered sex. That is, people have solo sex simply because they have no partner. But if this were the case, we would expect the frequency of masturbation to decrease as the frequency of partnered sex increased.

Instead, the finding that solo and partnered sex are positively correlated suggests that sex drive is an underlying factor. In other words, people vary in how often they want to have sex. Those with relatively low libido can meet their needs either through partnered sex if they have a partner or through solo sex if they’re single. However, those with a high sex drive need a sexual outlet beyond what their partner can provide for them.

An Undercurrent of Sexual Negativity

So, what percentage of the population has this sort of high sex drive? The data from Peters and colleagues’ study showed that up to a quarter of males and a tenth of females reported a total sexual outlet (orgasms achieved through either partnered or solo sex) greater than seven times per week. If a quarter, or even a tenth, of the population experiences orgasms at this rate, there’s no justification for calling this “excessive.”

Whenever we talk about “normal” behavior, we have to keep in mind that this term entails a wide range of values. Some people have little or no interest in sex, others want it once or more per week, and still others want it once or more per day. There is simply no reason, other than a negative attitude about sexuality, to deem a certain frequency of orgasm as “excessive.”

American culture is often portrayed as sexually liberated. In fact, however, a strong undercurrent of sexually negative attitudes pervades the country. Although we’re certainly more sexually open than we were even 60 years ago, many people still see sex as “naughty” rather than “natural.” And as a society, we continue to view casual sex, pornography, masturbation, and consensual sex work—that is, any sex outside a committed relationship—as evils to be rid of rather than as expressions of normal human sexuality.

People pick up on the sex-negative attitudes that pervade their society, and they feel guilty about their natural sexual desires. Health-care professionals, in turn, focus on the “excessive” sex behaviors of their patients, seeing that as the problem rather than helping them embrace their sexuality as not only normal but also healthy.

Humans are by nature a highly sexual species. To deny our sexuality is to deny our humanity. Only by embracing our sexuality in its full expanse can we come to terms with what it means to be human.

References

Peters, J. R., Pullman, L. E., Kingston, D. A., & Lalumière, M. L. (2022). Orgasm frequency (total sexual outlet) in a national American sample. Archives of Sexual Behavior. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-021-02241-z

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