What Is Sex Addiction?

Despite a wide acceptance by the media, there is no agreement among bio-medical and social science researchers regarding sex addiction. It’s been a popular concept for decades but still hasn’t made it into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Some debate the proper definition and others believe that the very idea of an addiction to sex is misguided and not helpful to those who need help.

There is general agreement that some people have problems controlling their own sexual activities or behaviors despite many efforts and obvious negative consequences of the behaviors. These problems may be mild or seriously debilitating. While there is no doubt that some people engage in out-of-control sexual behavior, there is enormous disagreement about whether or not such behavior should be called sex addiction.

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he ‘Popular Definition’ of Sex Addiction

You may have read about sex addiction in the media, either in the context of one celebrity having a sex addiction, or in an article about how the Internet is turning us all into sex addicts.

The definition of sex addiction most often used in this context developed out of a vocal movement of therapists, community organizations, and religious groups led by Patrick Carnes who first articulated his vision of “sex addiction” in his book Out of the Shadows: Understanding Sexual Addiction.

On Carnes’ website he describes sex addiction this way:

“Sexual addiction is defined as any sexually-related, compulsive behavior which interferes with normal living and causes severe stress on family, friends, loved ones and one’s work environment.Sexual addiction has been called sexual dependency and sexual compulsivity. By any name, it is a compulsive behavior that completely dominates the addict’s life. Sexual addicts make sex a priority more important than family, friends and work. Sex becomes the organizing principle of the addict’s lives. They are willing to sacrifice what they cherish most in order to preserve and continue their unhealthy behavior.”

The main feature of Carnes’ definition is inability to control one’s sexual behavior, which also includes thinking and fantasizing about sex too much. In this formulation sexual activity and even the desire for it creates a “high” which Carnes and his colleagues equate with a drug high. The addiction is evidenced by the fact that people will engage in risky, hurtful behaviors despite understanding the negative consequences that will result.

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There are many problems with the concept of sex addiction. Most importantly, there is not enough empirical research to back up this definition and the majority of “evidence” given by those who subscribe to this definition consist of stories from therapists who, we’re told, have worked with clients and successfully treated them.

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How Common Is Sex Addiction?

If you’re someone who is worried about their ability to control sexual thoughts, desires, and activities, this may be something you want to know, but unfortunately there isn’t a good answer. First, it’s impossible to know how many people share an experience (like sex addiction) if we don’t agree on what that experience is. Secondly, the unscientific estimates vary wildly from therapist to therapist and from one newspaper article to the next. Estimates from the sex addiction camp range from 6–10% to 45% of the American population having a sex addiction.

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