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Is Sex Addiction Real?

Sex addiction as a consequence of a rigid gender system

When a famous athlete or Hollywood actor or politician has been caught cheating or is rumored to have been serially cheating or has been arrested on solicitation charges, there is usually a media feeding frenzy. There’s nothing more satisfying than a juicy sex scandal. Many project an attitude of disapproval with a candy coating of prudishness, yet they keep following the developing story.

I always wonder how long it will take before the cheater plays the sex addiction card. Making such a claim twenty years ago would have been unthinkable but now it has become a go-to maneuver. Some wonder if it isn’t just an excuse for bad behavior.

Since neither sex addiction nor hypersexuality appears in the DSM-5, some might be tempted to claim that neither is real. Neither even made it into the section three holding pen of disorders needing further research. Some of the experts of the American Psychiatric Association have spoken. But many people who do identify as sex addicts or as having hypersexual disorder and the people who treat them beg to differ. Theirs are important voices.

Many sex addicts and therapists will appeal to the behavioral criteria that define substance use disorder and addictive behavior such as gambling. These behaviors must recur over a specified time period and comprise a pattern. Self-identified sex addicts will claim that sexual behavior or thinking/fantasizing about sex dominates their lives and that they experience alterations in their moods as a consequence. Furthermore, they develop a tolerance such that it takes more for them to reach a pleasure or release threshold. They become far less able to control or cut down on their impulses to engage in these behaviors. Sexual behavior becomes the axis around which their lives turn.

I imagine neuroscience will more fully enter the fray at some point, and provide further evidence. Perhaps that will prompt reconsideration of the reality of sex addiction.

I’ve avoided using pronouns so far. Did you notice? There’s a reason for this. The vast majority of people who identify as sex addicts are male. This prompts me to wonder if the characteristics of sex addiction presently skew significantly towards men and more stereotypical male behaviors.

It also makes me wonder if the terms “hypersexuality” and “sex addiction” are really code for “hypermasculinity.” Sex addiction and hypersexuality may be consequences of a very rigid gender system. This is deeply worrisome for many reasons.

There are not many studies about sex addiction available, so I need to be careful about the scope of my claims. The evidence suggests that 3% – 6% of the US population have a sexual addiction. Of that, 80%-85% are adult males. Furthermore, males seek treatment at a much higher rate than women.

That males seek treatment at a much higher rate than women means that the descriptions of the behaviors of sex addiction will reflect male experiences and be more directly tied to masculine traits or behaviors. These behaviors include heightened sexual activity, masturbation, viewing pornography, having multiple partners, engaging in sexual risk taking, visiting strip clubs, and using the internet for cybersex.

Rigid gender roles make it difficult if not impossible to draw the line between what is “normally” expected for male sexuality and what is disordered. We live in a culture that glorifies masculinity and expects men to be “real men” who constantly think about beer and babes and who try to score as often as they can. There's very much an "Atta boy!" kind of attitude.

Hypermasculinity is becoming the norm, which means that men are encouraged to act in ways that toe right up to if not cross the line into hypersexuality or sex addiction. Many men will not want to do this while others will feel pressured to do so. They know their masculinity will be called into question if they do not behave in certain ways.

What about women? Women are as subject to the rigidity of femininity as men to masculinity. Some powerful expectations of femininity are that women should be male-identified, seek male approval, and not feel complete unless they have a man. Women are also taught to subsume their interests to the men in her life.

Sex has been a way for a woman to get and hold onto a man. Given all this, it doesn’t seem outrageous to say that some women are engaging in all sorts of sexual behaviors that perhaps they would not in the absence of sexism and rigid gender roles.

Thus, women’s sexuality is as informed by rigid gender roles as men’s. The forms that sex addiction takes for women may differ in some significant ways from male sex addiction though these will be harder to identify for a variety of reasons.

Shame surrounds women’s sexuality in ways that it doesn’t male sexuality. Only women have the “walk of shame.” Shame is a powerful weapon in silencing.

Women’s sexuality is also subject to greater judgment and sanction than men’s. Both men and women level judgments against women who appear to violate any sexual norms. The problem is that many of those norms are double standards. A man who has many female partners may be regarded as a “player.” A woman with the same number of male partners may be called a “slut.” Even having one partner may earn a woman that label.

This is a harsh reality of sexism.

May there be much research on the reality and complexities of sex addiction. But such research must attend to the dynamics of these rigid gender roles and the system of sexism that undergirds them.

Karila L, Wéry A, Weinstein A, Cottencin O, Reynaud M, Billieux J Sexual Addiction or Hypersexual Disorder: Different Terms for the Same Problem? A Review of the Literature.Curr Pharm Des. 2013 Aug 29.

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