Sexual addiction is a controversial pathology. Numerous celebrities, tainted by sex scandals, have declared themselves sex addicts to justify their behaviors. Between 3 and 6% of the French population appears to be affected by this disorder. It may not be regarded as an addiction in the clinical sense, but sex addiction still leads to suffering.
This article also exists in French "Dépendance sexuelle : un véritable addiciton ?", translated by Timothée Froelich.
What is it like to be a sex addict?
Sexual addiction is the loss of control of a sexual behavior. It can take several forms: compulsive masturbation, pornography addiction, etc. The term is vague and often used to describe behaviors of obsessive seduction without taking action, or of unrealistic fixation on an unattainable person. Sex addiction is not a new pathology, but it is encouraged by the great accessibility of pornographic content via the internet.
“Sex addicts use sex as a crutch. For them, it’s like taking a hit,” explains Laurent Karila, a Parisian psychiatrist and addiction expert specialized in sexual addiction. The addiction to sex seems to affect more men than women, but the number of female sex addicts could be underestimated, as they are less likely to seek help for it. “According to an American study, hypersexuality can be established on the basis of one or two hours of paraphilia each day, and seven orgasms a week over six consecutive months, but in reality, there are no clear standards,” explains Yann Hodé, psychiatrist and neurobiologist. Other criteria related to hypersexuality, like the loss of time and money, have to be taken into account to define this addiction.
A controversial addiction
Just like the so-called behavioral addictions (compulsive shopping, gambling issues, etc.), hypersexuality is not regarded as a clinical disease, but as an obsessive-compulsive disorder. Although it was suggested that it should be included in the DSM-V, the diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, this idea was recently rejected. However, according to Yann Hodé, “in the official definitions, you only have to replace the “product” word [like cocaine, alcohol, cigarettes] with the “behavior” word to get the definition of a behavioral addiction.”
A recent study published in Socioaffective Neuroscience & Psychology (available on MyScienceWork) compares the encephalographic reaction of sex addicts to the presence or absence of pornographic images. As is the case for drugs, “if these people were really dependent, their [response] to the sexual stimuli should diminish throughout the experiment,” explain the researchers who conducted this study. The results show that they do not diminish. The brain response keeps increasing. The study concluded that hypersexuality is more similar to a high sexual desire than to an addiction.
Sex as a true hell
Whether considered a mental disorder or not, sexual addiction leads to suffering. The desire and the act bring shame, guilt and despair upon sex addicts and can quickly lead to depression. In addition, their behaviors increase the risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases: “They experience a great urge that pushes them to take more risks to have sex,” explains Laurent Karila.
Sex addicts live their sexual life in parallel with their daily life. “Addicted people see things through the prism of their desire,” says Laurent Karila. It affects their family and their work suffers. In 80% of cases, people end up consulting an expert because of issues involving their partner. Their addiction takes up a huge amount of their time and energy. “Some sex addicts can roam through a red light district for five, six, seven, even ten hours before actually taking action,” relates Laurent Karila.
Heading for an efficient treatment?
Scientists struggle to demonstrate the efficacy of treatments for sexual addiction. “If it were only about hormones, sexual addiction would have disappeared a long time ago!” says Laurent Karila. Treatment starts with behavioral therapy and couple’s therapy, depending on the situation. These therapies are often accompanied by drug treatments based on antidepressants used off-label to reduce sexual desire. “Of course, the objective is not complete abstinence,” says Laurent Karila. “We are trying to reduce the risks.” At the end of the treatment, psychoanalysis helps the patient to seek out the origin of the behavior.
Everyone reacts differently to sexual addiction. “People who have been sexually abused in their youth or confronted with sexual images at a very early age will be more vulnerable as adults. But nothing can really predict this kind of behavior,” states Laurent Karila.
To find out more:
What is sexual addiction ?, PsychCentral.