New Perspective on Sexual Addiction

Sexual addiction, also known as hypersexuality or compulsive sexual behavior, is a common term for patterns of sex-related thought and action that roughly approximate the patterns found in people addicted to alcohol or drugs.

This condition is not officially recognized by the American Psychiatric Association (APA), which provides the mental disorder definitions commonly used in the US by doctors and insurance companies.

According to the results of a study published in July 2013 in the journal Socioaffective Neuroscience & Psychology, people identified as hypersexual don’t experience the brain changes that typically signify the onset of addiction. However, they do have higher basic sex drives than the general adult population.

Addiction Basics

Addiction has different definitions in different contexts. In its classic medical sense, the term refers to changes in normal brain chemistry that alter the ability to experience pleasure and lead to a compulsive pursuit of activities that promise a heightened pleasure level. At one time, doctors and researchers thought that these brain changes only occur in people who consume excessive amounts of alcohol or misuse certain illicit drugs and medications. However, they now know that certain patterns of thought and behavior can also produce the brain changes associated with addiction. In recognition of this reality, the American Psychiatric Association officially recognizes addictions to a wide array of substances (known as substance use disorders), as well as a non-substance-related addiction to gambling (known as gambling disorder).

Some mental health professionals also use the term addiction to refer to compulsive behavior that doesn’t involve any change in brain chemistry. Under this definition, addicted people act out of a desire to reduce their stress levels or avoid unpleasant emotion, not out of a need to obey involuntary, pleasure-related changes in their mental function. Despite the lack of physical dependence, affected individuals still engage in behaviors that decrease their ability to meet their daily responsibilities or otherwise follow the routines needed to sustain everyday life.

Sexual Addiction Basics

The term sexual addiction is commonly used to identify patterns of sexual behavior that mimic certain aspects of substance or gambling addictions. Specific features of addiction-like behavior that can appear in affected individuals include the presence of uncontrollable sexual urges, compulsive involvement in sexual activities that don’t bring pleasure, use of sex to escape stress or an unwanted emotional state, an inability to form close or intimate relationships with others, and continued participation in sexual activities that could potentially endanger one’s health, work opportunities, social standing, or legal status.

Prior to the 2013 release of the new edition of its diagnostic guide for mental health professionals, the American Psychiatric Association considered adding sexual addiction to the list of officially diagnosable mental conditions under the heading of hypersexual disorder. Ultimately, the APA chose not to recognize the disorder. It also failed to add hypersexual disorder to a shortlist of unofficial conditions specifically designated for future research and further review.

Current Findings

In the study published in Socioaffective Neuroscience & Psychology, a team of researchers from the University of California Los Angeles examined the question of whether sexual addiction produces the brain changes that occur in the classic medical model of addiction. They did this in two stages. First, they gave a detailed sex-related questionnaire to 52 adults between the ages of 18 and 39 with self-described problems controlling their sexual behaviors. Next, the researchers used a machine called an EEG (electroencephalograph) machine to examine the brain waves of the study participants after exposure to sex-related imagery.

After reviewing the responses to the preliminary questionnaire, the authors of the study concluded that their pool of participants had issues with sexual self-control that firmly placed them in the same mental/behavioral range as people who commonly seek help for sexual addiction from their doctors. After reviewing the participants’ brain responses to exposure to sexual imagery, the authors also concluded that the average sex addict apparently does not experience a spike in brain activity that commonly occurs when classic addicts gain access to the substance, activity or behavior that drives their compulsion.

Significance

According to the traditional model of addiction and the framework used by the American Psychiatric Association, the findings presented in Socioaffective Neuroscience & Psychology strongly indicate that people identified as sexual addicts don’t have an actual dependence on participation in sex-related thoughts or behaviors. Instead, the authors of the study concluded, hypersexual people appear to be affected primarily by the presence of unusually strong (but not strictly abnormal) sexual libidos. This conclusion does not necessarily mean that sexual addiction doesn’t exist. However, it does mean that supporters of the concept of sexual addiction will likely need additional research findings to bolster their point of view and improve the chances for future recognition of hypersexual disorder or an equivalent condition.

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