Serial infidelity or addicted to sex?

Back in January 2010, the mass media was full of stories about the US golfer Tiger Woods checking into a rehabilitation clinic to be treated for his ‘sex addiction’. This isn’t the first time that a celebrity has claimed that an addiction to sex was the reason for their infidelity as similar stories have surfaced for actors such as Michael Douglas and David Duchovny. I was contacted by a number of national newspapers including the Guardian who wanted to know if sex addiction is a real medical condition or is it a convenient excuse for someone to give when they are caught being unfaithful to their partner? The answer to the question is not easy to answer as it depends on both (a) the individual in question and (b) the definition of addiction used.

Even among psychologists there are wide differences of opinion about the existence of sex addiction. Some psychologists adhere to the position that unless the behaviour involves the ingestion of a psychoactive drug (e.g., alcohol, nicotine, cocaine heroin), then it can’t really be considered an addiction. As you will have gathered from other articles written on this blog, I’m not one of those psychologists as my research into a wide variety of excessive behaviours has led me to the conclusion that behavioural addictions can and do exist (e.g., gambling addiction, video game addiction, internet addiction, exercise addiction, sex addiction)

Many individuals have attacked the whole concept of sex addiction saying it is a complete myth. It’s not hard to see why, as many of the claims appear to have good face validity. Many sociologists would argue that ‘sex addiction’ is little more than a label for sexual behaviour that significantly deviates from society’s norms. Similarly, some say that when people claim they have a ‘sex addiction’ it is actually what social psychologists would call a ‘functional attribution’ (i.e., a way of justifying behaviour in cases of, say, infidelity). The most conventional attack on sex addiction is a variation on the position outlined above (i.e., that ‘addiction’ is a physiological condition caused by ingestion of physiological substances, and must therefore be defined physiologically). There are also those researchers within the social sciences who claim that the every day use of the word ‘addiction’ has rendered the term meaningless (such as people saying that their favourite television show is ‘addictive viewing’ or that certain books are ‘addictive reading’). There are also attacks on more moral grounds with people saying that if excessive sexual behaviour is classed as an addiction it undermines individuals’ responsibility for their behaviour.

Despite the idea that sex addiction is a complete myth, there are many therapists worldwide who make a living out of treating the disorder. Arguably the most well known sex therapist is Dr Patrick Carnes who has written many books on the topic (most notably his 1992 best seller ‘Out of the Shadows: Understanding Sexual Addiction’). Dr. Carnes’ treatment programme based in California (http://www.sexhelp.com/) is very eclectic in focus and includes behavioural therapy, trauma counselling, relapse prevention strategies, exercise and yoga classes, in addition to individual sessions in areas such as shame reduction and the setting of sexual boundaries. Carnes claims that up to 6% of the US population suffer from sex addiction. Carnes also claims that sex addictions often co-occur with other addictive behaviours. Such dual addictions include sexual addiction and chemical dependency (42%), eating disorders (38%), compulsive working (28%), compulsive spending (26%) and compulsive gambling (5%). Carnes also reports that a large number of sex addicts say their unhealthy use of sex was a progressive process. It may have started with an addiction to masturbation, pornography (either printed or electronic), or a relationship, but over the years has progressed to being increasingly dangerous.

However, the empirical base for all these claims are constantly challenged by addiction researchers as there has been no national prevalence surveys of sex addiction using validated addiction criteria, and many of Dr Carnes’ claims are based upon those people who turn up for treatment at his clinic. Furthermore, if up to 6% of all adults were genuinely addicted to sex, there would be sex addiction clinics and self-help support groups in every major city and that just isn’t the case. However, that doesn’t mean sex addiction doesn’t exist, only that the size of the problem isn’t on the scale that Carnes suggests. In the UK, there are certainly a number of sex addiction specialists along with ’12-Step’ self-help support groups such as Sexaholics Anonymous – but these are few and far between.

Carnes claims there are a number of ‘warning signs’ that indicate someone might be addicted to sex. These are based on the consequences of other more traditional addictions and include some of the core components of addiction including conflict, mood modification, tolerance, relapse, and loss of control. Most sex therapists that treat sex addiction claim that it is primarily a male heterosexual phenomenon, but these data are biased by those people who turn up for treatment. For instance, females with sexual addiction problems may not want to seek treatment because of their perception of what the therapist might think about them. They may feel more stigmatized than men in seeking help for their addiction – something that is common among other addictions too.

In the case of high-profile celebrities like Tiger Woods who are allegedly addicted to sex, it may be the case that they were simply in a position where they were bombarded with sexual advances, and they succumbed. How many people wouldn’t do the same thing if they had the same opportunities as a Hollywood A-lister? In these situations, it only becomes a problem when the person is discovered. Whether these instances are really a sex addiction divert us from the fact that a small minority of people do seek professional help for a behaviour that they feel is genuinely addictive.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Griffiths, M.D. (2001). Addicted to love: The psychology of sex addiction. Psychology Review, 8, 20-23.

Griffiths, M.D.  (2001).  Sex on the internet: Observations and implications for sex addiction. Journal of Sex Research, 38, 333-342.

Griffiths, M.D. (2004). Sex addiction on the Internet. Janus Head: Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature, Continental Philosophy, Phenomenological Psychology and the Arts, 7(2), 188-217.

Griffiths, M.D. (2009). The psychology of addictive behaviour. In M. Cardwell, M., L. Clark, C. Meldrum & A. Waddely (Eds.), Psychology for A2 Level. pp. 436-471. London: Harper Collins.

Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Addicted to sex? Psychology Review, 16(1), 27-29.

Kuss, D.J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Internet sex addiction: A review of empirical research. Addiction Theory and Research, DOI: 10.3109/16066359.2011.588351.

Sussman, S., Lisha, N. & Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Prevalence of the addictions: A problem of the majority or the minority? Evaluation and the Health Professions, 34, 3-56.

About drmarkgriffiths

Professor MARK GRIFFITHS, BSc, PhD, CPsychol, PGDipHE, FBPsS, FRSA, AcSS. Dr. Mark Griffiths is a Chartered Psychologist and Professor of Gambling Studies at the Nottingham Trent University, and Director of the International Gaming Research Unit. He is internationally known for his work into gambling and gaming addictions and has won many awards including the American 1994 John Rosecrance Research Prize for “outstanding scholarly contributions to the field of gambling research”, the 1998 European CELEJ Prize for best paper on gambling, the 2003 Canadian International Excellence Award for “outstanding contributions to the prevention of problem gambling and the practice of responsible gambling” and a North American 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award For Contributions To The Field Of Youth Gambling “in recognition of his dedication, leadership, and pioneering contributions to the field of youth gambling”. His most recent award is the 2013 Lifetime Research Award from the US National Council on Problem Gambling. He has published over 430 research papers, three books, over 120 book chapters, and over 1000 other articles. He has served on numerous national and international committees (e.g. BPS Council, BPS Social Psychology Section, Society for the Study of Gambling, Gamblers Anonymous General Services Board, National Council on Gambling etc.) and is a former National Chair of Gamcare. He also does a lot of freelance journalism and has appeared on over 2000 radio and television programmes since 1988. In 2004 he was awarded the Joseph Lister Prize for Social Sciences by the British Association for the Advancement of Science for being one of the UK’s “outstanding scientific communicators”. His awards also include the 2006 Excellence in the Teaching of Psychology Award by the British Psychological Society and the British Psychological Society Fellowship Award for “exceptional contributions to psychology”.

Posted on December 14, 2011, in Addiction, Psychology, Sex, Sex addiction and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Interesting argument; I met 3 sort of people: addicted or not but enjoying sex to e degree that he/she could not resist the challenge, 2) escaping into sex to change mood (and this is addiction in my view as only momentary relief is gained through sexual behaviour), and 3) using the condition as an excuse for infidelity and as such not being independent of point 1. There is huge difference among the sex addict using prostitutes (instant gratification) and sex addicts going into relationships several parallel relationships for obtaining love and affection or boosting self confidence… The two are not the same?! All this is only food for thought ._)

  2. Very interesting, our work with gamblers focuses much on the chemical rewards people gain from the behaviour, chiefly dopamine and adrenaline. Professor Robin Murray used to state that he would prefer schizophrenia to be re-termed DDD – Dopamine Dysfunction Disorder, as it more accurately described the root of the difficulty. Surely sexual addiction is similarly a chase for the highs provided by these and other neurotransmitters/hormones. Can we not have a category for ‘non-specific dopamine addiction’ diagnosis?

  3. Just wish to say your article is as astounding. The clarity on your submit is just excellent and i could assume you’re a professional on this subject. Fine along with your permission allow me to grab your RSS feed to keep updated with drawing close post. Thanks one million and please continue the rewarding work.

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