The Great Sex Addiction Epidemic

5 years ago

The Sex Epidemic. Those are the words Newsweek used to headline their article about sexual addiction two weeks ago. While the piece does a decent job of describing hypersexuality -- thereby destroying the ability of those caught red handed to claim sex addiction as a way to get off scot-free -- it discredits itself by being so quick to point to the internet as a main cause of the problem.

The title itself is problematic. The word "epidemic" suggests an illness that is contagious, but there is no data supporting this statement. In fact, there is very little data in the article at all. Chris Lee, its author, prefaces the estimate that over 9 million people could meet the criteria for sex addiction with the statement, "reliable figures for the number of diagnosed sex addicts are difficult to come by." So are there or aren't there millions of sex addicts out there?

"Love in A Car" via Shutterstock.

In a television interview on Tuesday, Lee confessed to MSNBC news anchor Thomas Roberts that experts still can't seem to agree on what actually classifies someone as a sex addict, though he was quick to point out that everyone who knows anything about its treatment agrees that the internet is responsible for the increase in the as-of-yet undefined problem.

"What is fueling it is the digital era," Lee said, echoing the tone of his article for Newsweek. "Pornography once upon a time used to be the province of dirty bookstores or XXX movie theaters and people had to be really motivated to seek it out, whereas nowadays it's ubiquitous online, it's anonymous, it's available for free."

He elaborates:

You have applications like the smartphone app Grindr, which can enable anonymous gay hookups with just the click of a GPS of your smartphone or the website which is the world's leading married dating website, which advertises affairs guaranteed. So you have America's sexual metabolism revved up to fever pitch, mainly through the information age.

The experts I've spoken to said basically because this is available to so many people, people have become accustomed to using online pornography, and what you do online leads to offline activities. This is a generation that's coming of age and has grown up with unlimited access to pornography, so people know no difference and they develop a tolerance and sort of immunity to hardcore sexualized images and it's sexualizing people in a very strange way. It's changing everyone's social mores in the country.

"Not everyone who looks at a nude image is going to become a sex addict. But the constant exposure is going to trigger people who are susceptible," Dr. David Sack, chief executive of Los Angeles's Promises Treatment Centers, is quoted as saying in the article. But the way Lee is telling it suggests the opposite: sex addiction is a contagious disease that is largely cybernetically transmitted.

This disregard for any evidence renders the article as helpful as those that excuse cheating celebrities as victims of sex addiction. What is this "sex addiction," exactly? Stanton Peele, who blogs for Psychology Today’s blog network described it best in the post Why Anthony Weiner Is Not A Sex Addict:

The definition of addiction (or dependence) according to the American Psychiatric Association diagnostic manual (on which I was an adviser) focuses on the extremity of the negative consequences of a substance involvement. Despite these health, family, legal, job consequences, the addict is still not able to desist. And they try.

Recognizing their behavior is hurting them, they attempt to quit or to cut back, but repeatedly fail at such efforts. Think of gay men who haunt anonymous sexual meeting places, risking life-endangering infections, public embarrassment, and violent assaults. Still, they continue in their addictive pursuit, even as they regret it and may hate themselves for it.

Sex addiction is not giving in to desire. It's the inability to break a sexual pattern that negatively impacts the rest of your life. And while pornography, dating sites, and hookup sites can be abused, are we confusing symptom with cause? (This is entirely anecdotal, but as a recovering alcoholic, I would never blame my problem on the number of bars in my city.)

This isn't the first time such things have been cited as the root of such evils. Pornography in particular seems to have the worst reputation. In Pornography: Beneficial or Detrimental, for Psychology Today’s "The Porn Factor" series, Gad Saad, Ph.D., author of The Evolutionary Bases of Consumption cites a 2009 paper, "Pornography, public acceptance and sex related crime: a review" by Milton Diamond, which reviewed the findings of a large number of studies on the effects of pornography on society.

"Indeed, the data reported and reviewed suggests that the thesis [that pornography is linked to various ills] is myth and, if anything, there is an inverse causal relationship between an increase in pornography and sex crimes," Diamond writes in his conclusion. "Further, considering the findings of studies of community standards and wide spread usage of SEM [sexually explicit material], it is obvious that in local communities as nationally and internationally, porn is available, widely used and felt appropriate for voluntary adult consumption. If there is a consensus against pornography it is in regard to any SEM that involves children or minors in its production or consumption. Lastly we see that objections to erotic materials are often made on the basis of supposed actual, social or moral harm to women. No such cause and effect has been demonstrated with any negative consequence."

Saad then zeroes in on effects on individuals:

Are women who view pornography terrorized beyond redemption? Do they descend into a well of despair and self-doubt about their sexuality? Do men become misogynist monsters upon viewing pornographic material? Do they develop debilitating penis insecurities at the sight of well-endowed male porn actors? Let's see what Gert Martin Hald and Neil M. Malamuth found in their 2008 paper titled "Self-Perceived Effects of Pornographic Consumption". I should mention that Neil Malamuth is a highly regarded scholar of pornography who has often argued for its supposed ill effects. Hence, if there exists a possibility of an a priori bias here, it would be in hoping to find that pornography yields negative consequences.

In their survey of 688 young Danish adults (men = 316; women = 372), Hald and Malamuth found that respondents construed the viewing of hardcore pornography as beneficial to their sex lives, their attitudes towards sex, their perceptions and attitudes towards members of the opposite sex, toward life in general, and over all. The obtained beneficial effects were statistically significant for all but one measure across both sexes. Now here is the kicker: A positive correlation was obtained between the amount of hardcore pornography that was viewed and the impact of the benefits reaped. This positive correlation was found for both sexes. In other words, the more that one watched porn, the stronger the benefits (for both sexes)!

Jason Goldman reported on the Danish study above as well as another one in a post about the effects of pornography on individuals. He cites a 2008 study that surveyed 2000 Croatian men and women between the ages of 18 and 25 to find whether pornography led to unrealistic expectations and lower sexual satisfaction:

They found no group differences in terms of sociodemographics. Paraphilic porn users [individuals who prefer kinky porn] reported significantly higher masturbation frequency and a higher number of lifetime sexual partners. Paraphilic users consumed pornography more extensively as well: 44 percent reported using it three or more hours per week. They also reported higher levels of sexual boredom, greater acceptance of sexual myths, and a higher average score on the sexual compulsiveness scale. The paraphilic group had a greater overlap between the scripts. That is, they thought that great sex and great porn were more similar than those with self-reported preference for vanilla [mainstream] porn.

I'll spare you the complicated path models. Here's the take-home message: pornography use impacted on sexual satisfaction only for the paraphilic [kinky] porn users, but not for the users who preferred vanilla [mainstream] porn. That said, the observed effects were small or marginal.

Then, there is the problem with the term "addiction." Following the 2004 testimony of a Senate subcommittee on the dangers of pornography addiction, Erick Janssen, a researcher at the Kinsey Institute pointed out that there is no evidence that suggests a progression to more and more extreme material among pornography consumers in the same way that drug addicts need more and more of a drug to achieve the same high.

It's worth noting that the American Psychiatric Association, which publishes the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) included a reference to sexual addiction in 1987, which is no longer present in the current version, though the description "distress about a pattern of repeated sexual relationships involving a succession of lovers who are experienced by the individual only as things to be used" can be found under the section "Sexual Disorders Not Otherwise Specified."

Darrel Regier, the vice chair of the DSM-5 (which is due out in 2013) told USA Today last year that sexual addiction "was not at the point where we were ready to call it an addiction."

Of course, that is not to say that a pattern of sexual relationships or abuse of pornographic material that negatively impacts an individual's life doesn't indicate a problem. It simply means the medical profession has not yet arrived at a conclusive way to categorize it, and certainly not decided on what causes it. It is for this reason that it seems irresponsible that a publication like Newsweek would be so quick to print and publicize the notion that sexual addiction is fueled by the information age.

AV Flox is the section editor of Love & Sex on BlogHer. You can connect with her on Twitter @avflox, Google Plus +AV Flox, or e-mail her directly at av.flox AT

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