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
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