how to know if you’re addicted to love
Those caught with their pants down often seek treatment for sex addiction. But is sex addiction real, and does it mean they weren't responsible for their actions?
Today, people are talking about sex more than ever, even while younger generations are buttoning down and having fewer partners. In aggregate, that’s a good thing. It’s easier than ever to find answers to pressing questions and better reproductive education often means fewer unplanned pregnancies and STIs, better relationships, and the attendant health benefits of a stable, more rewarding sex life. But we’re also talking about some of the darker sides of sexuality, specifically whether one can be addicted to sex the same way people can be addicted to drugs or abuse alcohol to the addict’s professional and mental self-destruction.
Now, obviously, you can argue that everyone is addicted to sex because that’s how our species keeps propagating. But generally, we’re talking about a compulsion to engage in sexual acts rather than just getting aroused. Stories of men and women losing control of their libido and going through partners like some people go through popcorn at the movies, losing their ability to have a relationship built on pretty much anything other than bedroom activities are legion. Yet, psychologists have debated the idea of adding sex addiction, also known as hypersexuality, to the DSM, the official catalog of mental disorders and criteria for diagnosing them, but ultimately decided not to.
Unfortunately, psychology has a long history of pathologizing sexuality. For example, until fairly recently, BDSM was considered to be a symptom of stunted development or abusive upbringing, despite field research showing that perfectly healthy people engage in it and good experiences with it can foster closer, more trusting relationships. Pick a preference for any sexual activity other than missionary with the intent to conceive, and at some point, there was probably a DSM entry labeling it a disorder. Having learned from their past mistakes, psychologists are more loath to label something a disorder, lest they allow societal stereotypes substitute for a scientific basis again. This is also a very welcome and positive development.
The argument in favor of adding sex addiction is simple. Hypersexuality that interferes with one’s daily life can meet 10 out of 11 criteria for an addiction disorder. Isn’t that close enough for a professional to intervene? The answer from the mental health community seems to be yes, but not for the reasons you’d think. There’s an ecosystem of rehabs and 12-step programs modeled after Alcoholics Anonymous focused exclusively on hypersexuality, but their success rate is abysmal. Programs which deal with it the same way one would deal with eating disorders are marginally better, but still not the solution for many. Instead, professionals say, hypersexuality is a symptom of another problem, or isn’t really a pathology in the first place.
They’re not just saying that either. Their data shows that patients seeking help for hypersexuality usually don’t consume an excessive amount of porn or have danger sex with outrageous frequency on average. If anything, they cut back. What kind of addiction leads addicts to consume less of what they’re addicted to, they ask. Secondly, for people from strict backgrounds, any interest in any activity a little more kinky than shown in softcore porn, or same-sex attraction provokes feelings of panic, sending them looking for a therapist to say there’s something wrong with them. (Sadly, there are therapists who go along with this line of thought and offer pseudoscientific treatments to distraught and confused patients to their further detriment.)
What many of these patients have is not a disorder, but a discomfort with who they are. This doesn’t mean they don’t need counseling or professional help because they most certainly do. But that help will focus on making them feel more at ease in their own skin and help them channel their libidos in healthy ways instead of perpetuating their self-pathologizing.
That said, there are patients who have no hang-ups about their sexual drive and identity, but engage in objectively problematic hypersexual behaviors. In their case, the consensus seems to be that their problem is OCD or an anxiety disorder, and their sexual activity is a self-soothing ritual. This would explain why current programs don’t seem up to snuff. Whatever is causing them to seek out sexual contact never gets resolved and comes back to haunt them, triggering a relapse into the very same behaviors they found problematic and turning sex addiction clinics and programs into a revolving door of “addicts” who only stay “sober” for so long.
There’s also a moralistic argument against considering hypersexuality as a disorder in the eyes of some experts and pundits. If sex addiction is a disease, then the addict may not be responsible for their actions while in the throes of their disorder to others. Yes, they may have harmed people along the way, but their disease was in control, as those 12-step programs teach them. Certainly, they should make amends, and apologize for their actions, but again, as we’re so often told, they were in the backseat as their demons took the wheel. With that handy excuse, is it any wonder that Weinstein booked it to a sex addiction clinic as soon as he realized he was cornered?
An even better example of the moral complexity of pathologizing sexuality is Josh Duggar because his story has a mix of just about everything we discussed so far. His incestuous child molestation was a red flag, but his family belongs to a religious cult according to which, this sort of thing was a) not that big of a deal, b) happened all the time, and c) could be dealt with by some light labor and prayer. When addressing the situation, they seemed way more worried about not getting their show cancelled and looking for a conspiracy against them than dealing with the problem.
Of course, Duggar was later revealed to have paid porn stars for unprotected sex and tried to cheat on his wife using Ashley Madison, so obviously all that religious counseling that he supposedly received didn’t do much. He had very obvious issues, but his family’s beliefs stood in the way every time. Yet, if it sounds like he’s somehow a victim in all this, consider the fact that he hid his actions and pretended to be a devoted “family values” activist. He knew what he was doing was wrong and contrary to his public image, yet did it anyway. Legally and ethically, he would be culpable for not getting help and allowing himself to get worse and worse.
We’re so familiar with the language and philosophy of the 12-step program in pop culture that we tend to forget that unless those in question have some sort of schizophrenic disorder and lose touch with right and wrong, and reality in general, or suffer from aggressive dementia or mental retardation, unable to understand if their actions are appropriate, they still have agency, meaning that it’s fair for them to face the consequences of their actions. Yes, they may be in need of therapy, but as long as they know they’re doing something that’s detrimental to others and refuse to get help, they own every bit of the damage they cause.
Likewise, without a history of demonstrated anxiety disorders, sex addiction becomes an excuse for inappropriate behavior that sounds serious enough to elicit sympathy. Or, at least try to because, rightly, very few people are buying it anymore. There’s no chemical imbalance or physical discomfort forcing them to engage in sexual contact in inappropriate situations, much less push them to create a pattern of predation by abusing their positions of power.
We want to make sure we’re helping people who feel like they lost control of their sexuality and have a real mental illness that needs treatment. We also need to avoid giving predators a handy get-out-of-trouble card to go off on an expensive vacation while the media coverage of their misdeeds cools off and get back into their routine after they come back rested and “treated for their unfortunate problem” of being unable to keep their hands to themselves and their urges under control. Knowing where pathology ends, and excuses begin, are critical to make that determination.