Sex Addiction

When I was young, I was a Cosmo Girl. I read Cosmopolitan magazine religiously. That means I can’t resist taking quizzes which promise, in ten short minutes, to reveal some hidden subconscious secret about yourself that you didn’t know. I took the quizzes whether they were relevant or not. So before I’d even been kissed, I learned that my marriage could, indeed, be saved. At thirteen, I was told to dump the loser and move on. So I hope you won’t use it as evidence against me that I took a sex addiction for women quiz the other day. Then I took the sex quiz addiction for men. Maybe I need a quiz addiction quiz.

Crocus buds that have not yet fully opened.I came across the quizzes after following a link from Jack Games over at Step 14. This led me to a criticism of Alcoholics Anonymous on A Healthy Place: Your Mental Health Channel. On the right hand side was a link to a psychological test page. Like the Cosmo Girl I once was, I thought, “Ooh, quizzes.” You will all be glad to know that I don’t have ADHD or OCD. Apparently, I suffer from anxiety and depression, but I already knew that. All the quizzes were for both genders except for the sex addiction quiz. I took them, both the “for men” and “for women” quizzes. I learned that I would have a much bigger problem with sexual addiction if I were a man. I confess, that wasn’t the result I was expecting. Of course, I don’t believe that there is such a thing as sexual addiction, so I shrugged my shoulders and did not make an appointment with a therapist.

Then I came across a post entitled “The Purity Myth” over at Critic of Christianity and I thought maybe our different expectations of men and women’s sexual behavior might be worth discussing.

All of the quizzes were followed by the disclaimer that you can’t diagnose mental illness with an online quiz. However, the sex addiction quizzes had an additional disclaimer.

There is a wide range of prevailing opinions as to what is acceptable sexual behavior.

The Sexual addiction entry in Wikipedia states:

Addiction is the state of behavior outside the boundaries of social norms which reduces an individual’s ability to function efficiently in general routine aspects of life or develop healthy relationships. (emphasis mine)

I’m not sure how social norms interact with, let’s say, heroin addiction, but in the case of sexual addiction, social norms strike me as everything. Despite never for a moment worrying about my sexual behavior or feeling self-destructive or out of control, I came out on both these tests as a sex addict.

Unsurprisingly, I am not the only one with skepticism about sex addiction. Back in 1988, when the idea of sex addiction was still relatively new, Martin P. Levine and Richard R. Troiden published a paper questioning whether such an illness existed. They note that as sexual mores have changed, the definition of sexual pathology has also changed.

…mental health professionals viewed nonmarital and nonprocreative sex as pathological. The first edition of The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, for example, defined masturbation, fellatio, cunnilingus, homosexuality, and sexual promiscuity (e.g., “Don Juanism” and “nymphomania”) as forms of mental illness.

As the counter culture of the sixties and seventies changed the prevailing norms of sexual behavior, the mental health profession followed suit.

Against the backdrop of a (briefly) sex-positive culture, mental health professionals and sexologists re-evaluated professional definitions of erotic control and deviance. ….they depathologized nonmarital and nonprocreative sex. The DSM: III (1980) no longer listed masturbation, fellatio, cunnilingus, homosexuality, Don Juanism, and nymphomania as psychosexual disorders.

Sexually permissive values, however, also provided grounds for adding new psychosexual disorders to the DSM. “Not enough” sex and “inappropriate” sexual response became pathologized. A number of problems of living were transformed into sexual dysfunctions, and were regarded as clinical conditions amenable to therapeutic intervention.

The cusp of the nineteen eighties saw the rise of the AIDS epidemic, a growing dissatisfaction with the self-absorption of the “me decade”, and the rise politicized religious movements broadly known as the “religious right.”

Thus by the 1980s, “too much sex”rather than “not enough sex” began to emerge again as an issue of concern both to the lay public and to mental health professionals. In the permissive climate of the 1970s, it had been unthinkable to argue that there were people who were”addicted to sex” or “out of control sexually.” …. In the increasingly sex-negative 1980s, however, the time had come for the ideas of sexual addiction and compulsion.

In the context of national concern about drug use and addiction, sexually transmitted disease, teenaged pregnancy, and an ethic of commitment, “sex addicts” and “sexual compulsives” were mentioned increasingly in professional publications and in mass media. Nonrelational sexual conduct that had been legitimized in the 1970s was reclassified in the 1980s as a symptom of mental disorder.

The upshot is that “sexual addiction” is a term used to enforce conformity in sexual behavior. I don’t think that it’s too much of a stretch to say that society accepts a greater degree of sexual behavior from men than from women. Consequently, I expected that the separate male and female tests would reflect this and that a women’s behavior would be seen as pathological with at a lower level of activity. Boy, was I wrong. That might have been the case if the questions were the same, but they weren’t.

The most prominent difference between the two tests is the phrase “not related to sexual orientation” which appears repeatedly in the test for men but not once in the test for women. For instance, women are asked:

16 ) Do you hide some of your sexual behavior from others?

While men are asked:

9 ) Do you keep the extent or nature of your sexual activities hidden from your friends and/or partners? (not related to sexual orientation)

It’s hard to be certain what prompted this difference, but I’m inclined to think that, since dykes are viewed as sexless, gay women are not seen as having sexual behaviors that need to be hidden.

The women’s questions focused more on relationships while the men’s questions presumed casual sex. So one question on the women’s test that has no analogous question for the men is:

3 ) Have you stayed in romantic relationships after they become emotionally or physically abusive?

Meanwhile, an example of a question that is asked men and not women is:

12 ) Do you believe that anonymous or casual sex has kept you from having more long term intimate relationships or from reaching other personal goals?

Considering how differently I scored on the two tests, it’s not surprising that more men than women are diagnosed as sex addicts.

I don’t want to mock people who feel that they have harmful compulsions that they need to overcome to have the sort of lives they’d like to have. I just don’t want other people imposing their values, values that everyone does not share, on others. I feel that I was fairly fortunate in that I was raised by a mother who felt like she had been harmed by the Catholic Church’s attitudes to sexuality and intentionally tried to avoid passing negative attitudes about sex on to her daughters. I also came of age during the late seventies, that little window of time when our culture was sex positive. Sometimes, when it comes to sex, I feel like I’m living in a foreign culture these days.

The concept of sex addiction is based on values that everyone does not share. The following are some of the values that are implied by many definitions of sex addiction:

    • sex and sexual desire are dangerous
    • there is only one “best” way to express sexuality
    • sex that enhances “intimacy” is the best sex
    • imagination has no healthy role in sexuality
    • people need to be told what kinds of sex are wrong/bad
    • if you feel out of control, you are out of control
    • laws and social norms define sexual health

— From Marty Klein, a sexologist and therapist.

Intellectually, I have a lot of problems with the way society views sexuality these days. I don’t feel out of control, degraded or depressed about my sexual activity.

Unsurprisingly, sexual addiction was first conceived by a group of AA members.

7 comments
  1. criticofchristianity said:

    What an interesting post! Thanks for the link 🙂

  2. Actually, the concept of sex addiction has nothing to do with the implied values. You may want to read more on it before just randomly spouting ‘information’. Sex addiction is an intimacy disorder. It carries profoundly adverse effects for the addict as well as those around them. It involves rejection of true intimacy in favor of a rich fantasy realm, a double life, the ‘real’ one on the surface and the fantasy underneath. The barrier between the two realms is lie and dissociation. The addict desperately wants to cease acting out, but the shame/addiction cycle prevents this until the cycle is broken.

    • fojap said:

      And you might want to get some manners before “spouting” insults on other people’s blogs. I did do some reading, thank you. There is not universal agreement on whether such a thing as “sexual addiction” exists. I didn’t make that up. The people who don’t believe in sexual addiction don’t deny that there are individuals who have a problem with intimacy, they just don’t believe that the source of the problem is an “addiction” to sex. They don’t believe that the addiction model is a useful way to treat people.

      I went to your blog, I’m very sorry that you’re suffering so much. As I said in the post, I don’t want to minimize any real suffering.

      You might want to know that 12 Step programs don’t have a high success rate.

      Washington Post: We’re addicted to rehab
      Psuedoscience in Psych – nothing about sex addiction, but there’s some stuff about AA towards the bottom.

      If you want to discuss whether or not sexual norms are culturally determined, whether or not behaviors can be usefully considered addictions, whether or not 12 Step programs like SA are successful at treating such addictions, you’re welcome to come back and discuss them. However, if you insult me again I will delete all future posts.

      There were polite ways to suggest additional sources.

  3. I did not insult you in any way. Your lack of background on the topic was evident in your post. I have a lack of background in Chinese literature and many other things. It is fact, not insult. None of us is omnipotent.

    Sexual norms are absolutely culturally determined, which is why they vary so much across cultures, religions, and eras of time. No argument there.

    Using drugs is a behavior. Using alcohol is a behavior. Using sex is a behavior. Using food is a behavior. Using gambling is a behavior. Behavior can be addictive/unhealthily addictive, providing the user with a neurochemical fix. There is a fair amount of data on this with regard to sex addiction and moreso with other addictions, and as sex addiction becomes more prevalent and more discussed, the research is increasing in that realm. http://www.socioaffectiveneuroscipsychol.net/index.php/snp/article/view/11814/19312 is one reasonably recent article to start with, though there are many more out there.

    I also never commented regarding 12 steps or the efficacy thereof. The research I have read indicates that 12 steps alone may well be less than effective. However, combining 12 step programs (ie a community, which then helps with the intimacy and shame factors), with individual therapy (addressing etiology of the addictive behaviors, important given 60-80% of sex addicts indicate history of being victims of sexual abuse as children.. depends on the study you read), as well as group therapy (more community/connection growth), medications (SSRIs), and marriage counselling/supportive spouse seems to give best results. Success is tough to measure, unfortunately, unlike drug and alcohol, as there’s no pee test for sex addiction. Just like meds are not the best way to treat diabetes, but meds in conjunction with support groups, glucose testing, diet monitoring and information, working out, etc provide the best long term results. Few conditions have monotherapies as the most effective means of treatment.

  4. fojap said:

    Yes, you did insult me. You’re showing your lack of manners again by your inappropriate response to being informed that you hurt someone’s feelings. Even without manners basic empathy should prompt you to a more conciliatory reply. Personally, I think I was incredibly restrained in my response. As I said, I read your blog so I know that you have great difficulty stringing two coherent sentences together. Hang onto that man. A rude, mean, sexually inhibited, illiterate, neurotic woman like you is unlikely to find another. Uneducated and condescending at the same time. Wowsa, what a twofer.

    I bet your husband would make a good roll in the hay for someone like me. Then afterwards we could laugh about what stupid sucker you are. Boo-hoo-hoo, baby. It’s an addiction. That’s why you came back so quickly isn’t it. You need to believe the addiction is real, because if it isn’t you’re throwing away good money after bad. Bad news, hon, even if the addiction model is true, he’ll never be cured and he’ll always be in danger of a relapse. You’ll never be able to take that course.

    I’m not nice. I sleep with stupid women’s husbands. I do no laundry. I cook no meals. I don’t worry about their emotional state. I don’t sit up wondering where they are when they come home from work late. And I get physical pleasure, which is all I want from them.

    You, on the other hand, are alienating your female friends with your “drama” and you can’t finish your Associate’s Degree because you have to babysit your lout of a husband. Then you rescue a guinea pig and you think it’s all okay. Jesus. Was having a baby to save your marriage too much of a cliche?

    I had a friend like you once. She would call me up with endless crying about how her boyfriend still hadn’t left his wife like he had promised. Finally, I said to her that she shouldn’t be surprised that he treats her like a doormat if she lays down in front of him. I said, “Grow a spine!” Well, that pretty much ended the friendship. No loss really. I don’t like whiney women that take abuse for years on end and that means I don’t like you. You’re a pathetic, dysfunctional mess. You made your bed, now lie in it. You’re not welcome here any more.

      • fojap said:

        That was three years ago. As I recall, that woman was in Ireland. The woman in the story to which you linked was in Pennsylvania.

        Even if they’re the same person, what I wrote did not contribute to her death. If anything, I told her her husband was a “lout.” I hardly advised her to stay with her husband who sounded like he was just using her for her money. The argument with her was three years ago. Her relationship was so crazy, I remember it despite that. Am I supposed to never argue with anyone because they might die one day?

        What makes you think they’re the same person?

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