Eden Caceda and Whitney Duan investigate the legitimacy of sex addiction.
Lisa* is a sex addict. A former lapdancer, model and softcore pornstar, Lisa has spent the past two years in therapy trying to recover from her addiction to all things sex related. “I suspected a long time ago that I might be a sex addict, although I never really much did anything much about it”, she says on her personal blog.
Described as being unable to control sexual urges, behaviours or thoughts, sex addiction is one of the most newly diagnosed mental disorders internationally and one of the most controversial dependences in recent years. Indeed, sex addiction is also not limited to sexual intercourse; addicts have compulsive needs to masturbate, view pornography or be in sexually stimulating situations, making the diagnosis personal and particularly difficult. In fact, the legitimacy of addiction to sex is of constant debate among psychologists, sociologists and medical professionals.
Having lost her virginity at only 13, Lisa makes a point of the fact that she had never been sexually assaulted or had a bad initial experience with sex (something that many people attribute to sex addiction later in life). Despite her addiction, Lisa has been in a relationship for five years and is the head of her own business. “I’m happy at where my life is despite my addiction. I’m not on the street. I’m thriving and trying to change my ways.” In fact, statistics have determined that approximately 10 per cent of the adult population around the world are like Lisa.
The concept of sex addiction first emerged in the mid 1970s when members of Alcoholics Anonymous sought to apply the principles of the 12 steps towards sexual recovery: This was in response to serial infidelity and compulsive sex behaviours which are similar to the feelings of powerlessness experienced by alcoholics and compulsive gamblers. However, unlike other addictions, the amount of people who identify with having a sex addiction has increased exponentially in recent years.
Many sociologists have determined that celebrities including golfer Tiger Woods, comedian Russell Brand, singer Casey Donovan and actor David Duchovny have raised the profile of the addiction by declaring themselves addicts. And in a world of constant exposure to, and widespread worship of sex-related ideas on the Internet, on television and in daily life, people are likely to be reminded about sex more frequently. The Internet has made information about sex more readily available with the alluring promise of anonymity for those curious.
While important information about sexual health and consent is now accessible online, the web has also opened up perhaps more ominous doors to pornography and explicit sexual content. Porn is no longer confined to the glossy sealed adult magazines on petrol station shelves; youths are now able to access enormous archives of hardcore pornographic videos at any time, warping ideas about sexuality at a young age. Approximately 40 million people in the United States are sexually involved with the Internet and 25 per cent of all search engine requests are pornography related. Individuals have simply become more involved with sexual behaviour and content.
Furthermore, progressive thinkers of the 21st Century have embraced previously stigmatised human sexuality rather than suppressing or condemning it, allowing sex to become more accessible and more involved with popular culture. Apps like Grindr and Tinder have openly condoned and facilitated sexual interactions online, while films exploring human sexuality, like Lars von Trier’s Nymphomanic, have moved out of the niche genre with audiences unashamedly intrigued by sexual psychology. The widespread interest and knowledge of sexuality has opened questions about the individual’s own sexual behaviour, boosting popularity in sex addiction forums and self-help books.
Gender and Cultural Studies Associate Professor Kane Race from the University of Sydney also has his own theory on the rise of sex addiction. “It is mainly a creature of popular discourse and the self-help literature. I don’t doubt that some people find their sexual desires, impulses or activities difficult to control. But I think the terminology of addiction is a very particular way of understanding what is going on and not necessarily an unproblematic or always helpful one.”
The issue of legitimacy of sex addiction mainly revolves around the idea that addicts are hypersexual and/or promiscuous beings seeking justification and that ‘addiction’ to sex is more of an intense liking rather than a medically curable compulsion. Last year the University of California released results from a study that concluded that many people who claimed to be sex addicts simply had high libidos which explained their hypersexual behaviour. Much of the debate revolves around the use of the word ‘addiction’ itself. “The terminology of ‘addiction’ might be thought of as replacing previous diagnoses of ‘sin’ or ‘weakness’ and it gives the condition an air of quasi-medical authority,” says Race on the use of the word. “The problem with the concept of addiction is that it tends to prescribe individual solutions to problems that might otherwise be subject to collective re-thinking and critique.”
Currently in Australia, there are two diagnostic manuals that are used to help health professionals diagnose mental disorders: the International Classification of Diseases: Classification of Mental and Behavioural Disorders (ICD) and the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Though sex addiction appears in the ICD, it isn’t considered a valid disorder in the more recent fifth edition of the DSM. The lack of recognition by DSM V, which is the only diagnostic manual used in the United States, means that it is hard to seek help as a sex addict simply because many psychologists and medical professionals don’t see it as legitimate.
However, regardless of the exact terminology, there is a continuing trend of sex addiction in recent years and the development of sex addiction is of interest to many psychologists. “It is no more about sex than an eating disorder is about food or pathological gambling is about money,” says Rory Reid, PhD, LCSW, a research psychologist at UCLA’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behaviour talking to WebMD.
While from the outset an addiction to sex may not be taken as seriously, it is a highly dangerous and destructive condition that influences an addict’s mental health, personal relationships, quality of life and safety. For Lisa, her sex addiction allowed her to participate in many deviant sexual practices. “I liked the loss of control when being dominated, and became more and more aware that fear and submission were emotions that really turned me on. I was only 17 years old, and I was letting a guy hold a replica gun to my head, or a very real knife to my throat, and mock force me to do what he pleased. But the thing is that I liked it,” she says. In other reported cases, sex addicts have had relations with underage children, animals or objects.
Fortunately in Sydney, there are a number of support groups and therapists to help sex addicts manage and try to overcome their sexual behaviour. Sex Addicts Anonymous is an organisation of men and women who share their experience and help others recover from sexual addiction or dependency and is one of the prime sex addiction management groups. Likewise there are support groups for more specific sexual behaviours including pornography and masturbation.
Unlike most addictions, treatment for sex addiction cannot require the addict to give up sex for the rest of their lives. In the recovery process, it is essential that sex addicts learn the difference between healthy and unhealthy sexual behaviour.
Despite her addiction, Lisa is committed to repairing her life and changing her mentality on sex. “I want to be able to see sex in a positive light and I want to rebuild my life. I don’t want to be haunted by my addiction so I need to change my life.”
*Names have been changed.
Published in BULL Magazine, September 15, 2014.