From Tiger Woods to Michael Douglas, from Rob Lowe to Charlie Sheen: Celebrities who come out with sex addiction give a glamorous facade to the so-called illness. People who overuse pornography or have trouble controlling their sexual urges will often use the “sex addict” label to explain and rationalize their behavior.
Except, as the experts at the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists declared in December 2016 : “[We do] not find sufficient empirical evidence to support the classification of sex addiction or porn addiction as a mental health disorder.”
So, if your partner tells you they’re a sex addict, there are a few things you need to know to clarify the situation and get the help you need. It might just have nothing to do with addiction, though.
1. “Sex addiction” isn’t real
The word “addict” has tons of negative connotations in our culture. It can be interpreted morally: “you’re weak and a bad person.” This is a very traditional view of addiction, and one that was eliminated by scientists a long time ago. From alcohol to cocaine abuse, addictive behavior has nothing to do with a person’s morality.
There’s also nothing inherently addictive about sex. In fact, sex fails on one of the hallmarks of addiction, habituation (the need for an always bigger dose to get the same high). Having five orgasms one day will not make the next day’s orgasms less pleasant.
But saying to your partner, “Sex addiction isn’t a thing,” is not going to help them. If they’re talking to you about it, it means that they are distressed about their own behavior and want help stopping it. That’s a good thing. You don’t want to dismiss or invalidate their feelings by saying, “It isn’t real.” Consider simply listening to them to begin with. But knowing that sex addiction isn’t technically an addiction can help you get started on the right path toward helping your partner deal with their actions.
2. “Sex addiction” is more often a symptom of other issues
In psychology, we use the word “comorbidity” to talk about causes that often come together, like depression and anxiety. In the same way, people who complain of sex addiction usually come with hosts of other problems, like actual substance abuse (Michael Douglas, Charlie Sheen, Russell Brand and Amy Winehouse are “sex addicts” who also had drug addictions) or emotional problems linked to relationships and intimacy.
Is your partner developing alcoholism? Are they using drugs? Substance abuse often causes lapses in judgment and an inability to control urges, which can translate into promiscuous behavior. In this case, dealing with the sex addiction means dealing with the underlying substance abuse problem.
Sober people can also be promiscuous; Tiger Woods is one famous example. In this case, there’s usually a deeper emotional problem related to commitment, faithfulness and intimacy. Seeking anonymous sex is often a way for people to escape the pressure of committed relationships, especially when they are not emotionally mature enough for them. They may also have linked their self-esteem to sex, which means that any problem in the main relationship can lead to seeking sexual partners outside of it.
Either of these explanations requires support and therapy. You cannot treat the “sex addiction” without treating the underlying issues, whether they are substance-related or emotional.
3. “Sex addiction” as a symptom of a sex-negative culture
In our sexually shaming culture, having an overly strong appetite for sex (especially women) can often cause people to call it “addiction” to relieve the stress from the messages around them and avoid shame for themselves and their families. When we internalize the shame surrounding sex, it makes sense that one of the ways we might rationalize our behavior is by calling it “addiction.”
Except, some people have strong libidos. That’s just how they’re wired. There is nothing wrong with them at all. People raised with more conservative and sex-negative values may want to label their sex drive “sex addiction” because they have not been taught that sex is a natural, positive thing.
Lack of proper sex education and a sex-negative culture cause physical and emotional harm. Slapping a scientifically unfounded “sex addiction” label on people with healthy sex drives is just one of the many ways this harm manifests itself.
What can I do?
My advice is first to listen to your partner. Sex addiction not being real doesn’t mean they’re not in pain. Remember that it’s not about you.
Then, depending on the underlying problem (substance abuse, emotional issues or plain sexual shame), you can seek out the right kind of therapy and support.
Most important, avoid sex addiction treatments. They are not supported by science or the AASECT.