Sex and gambling addictions: Is there a relationship?

From a psychological perspective it was Freud who made the first serious contribution to the psychology of gambling by claiming that gambling was a repetitious substitute for masturbation. He argued there were many parallels between the two behaviours including the importance of ‘play’, the exciting and frantic activity of the hands, the irresistibility of the urge, the intoxicating pleasure, the repeated resolutions to stop the activity, and the enormous feelings of guilt once the activity was completed. Freud also made reference to the privacy, solitude, manipulation, and specificity of the two activities. Other psychoanalysts claimed that gambling was analogous to foreplay, winning with orgasm, and losing with castration and defecation. Freud and his followers argued that gamblers had an “unconscious desire to lose” and that losing money was an act of masochistic self-punishment known as the “pleasure-pain tension”.

Believe it or not, Freud’s theories on the psychology of gambling stemmed from just one single case study – the Russian novelist Dostoyevsky. What’s more, Freud never even met him and based his ideas on the reading of Dostoyevsky’s semi-autobiographical novel The Gambler. As a psychologist rooted in the scientific method, I think Freud’s theories are little more than an amusing historical footnote. However, there are two aspects of Freud’s thinking that deserve further exploration. Firstly, Freud passionately believed that many of our motivations and desires are unconscious. Having spent many years asking gamblers why they do the things that they do, it becomes obvious that many gamblers can’t put into words their primary reasons for engaging in the activity they love so much. To me, there do appear to be inexplicable unconscious motivations. Secondly, there are many anecdotal observations on the relationship between gambling and sex.

Gambling lore holds that some heavy gamblers experience orgasm while being totally absorbed in the gambling experience. Whilst I have never come across such a case there are many examples of gamblers who make such comparisons. For instance, an infamous problem gambler known as ‘Charlie K’ claimed “every time I tapped out at a racetrack, it was just like a massive orgasm”. Actual orgasm during gambling is most probably a myth or unusual personal peculiarity although the ‘thrill’ and ‘high’ that many gamblers report while gambling, may be similar to the emotional arousal experienced during sex. On the other hand, it is perhaps worth noting that there are case studies in the psychological literature suggesting that one of the side effects of problem gambling may be impotence!

There is also the language of gambling. Psychoanalysts claim that the language used by gamblers gives clues to both the anal and genital sexuality of gambling. Dice playing is known as ‘craps’ and players use the phrases “to come” and “come-line”. The numbers ‘10’ and ‘4’ are known as “Big Dick” and “little Dick” respectively. The combined stakes are known as “the pot” and there are enema overtones in the phrase “to be cleaned out” when the gambler loses everything.  A show-off gambler is described as “cocky” or a “Posing Dick”. Furthermore, many card games bring sex to mind including ‘poker’ (male genitalia), ‘stud poker’ (intercourse) and ‘solo’ (masturbation). In addition, gamblers often express their feelings using sexual analogies. Gamblers often claim that they get the same kick out of gambling as they do about sex or comment on how they “would like to get a piece of Lady Luck”. Conversely, sex for the gambler can take on gambling overtones with men who “chase women” or try to “score with women”. Easy ‘pick-ups’ are referred to as “a safe bet” or “sure fire winner”.

There is very little in the way of anthropological research on sex and gambling. However, a number of psychologists and sociologists have made reference to the Mojave, a tribe where gambling involves strict sexual segregation. Here, women and male transvestites (called “lucky gamblers”), play a specialised gambling game called ‘Utoh’ that is steeped in sexual ritual. The game consists of four wooden dice painted red and black (symbolising boys and girls) which are thrown with the aim of landing them all with the same colour. To affect an opponent’s luck, players shout such phrases as “you have a big penis” and engage in activities such as “anus goosing” and “genitalia grabbing”. The Mojave also believe that sexual dreams bring good luck in gambling. Men of the tribe will go as far as wagering their own wives, who if husbands lose, become sexual mates of the winners

Although the case of the Mojave is interesting, it is clearly untypical of society at large. However, evolutionary psychologists claim that successful male gamblers should attract more attractive female sexual partners. The (somewhat) simplistic argument for this is that over time, males who have successfully gambled – that is, taken more risks – will have accumulated more resources and therefore (in evolutionary terms) be more attractive to females. This certainly seems to fit the James Bond Hollywood blockbuster image of a gambler. It is not uncommon to see such gamblers portrayed as ‘macho’, heroic, virile, and dominant. Unfortunately, such a theory has little validity in Western society as there are numerous less risky ways to accumulate wealth and resources.

Finally, there have also been a few studies (all based in North America) that have looked at the comorbid relationships between gambling addiction and sex addiction. Back in 1991, Henry Lesieur and Richard Rosenthal reported two conference papers of small samples of adult gambling addicts in which 12% and 14% were potentially sexually addicted. In a bigger (and much more recent) study by Jon Grant and Marvin Steinberg, one on five (19.6%) met the criteria for sexual addiction among their 225 adult pathological gamblers. Otto Kausch reported that among 94 adult gambling addicts, just below a third (31%) suffered from sexual addiction. Patrick Carnes and colleagues reported that among a sample of 1,604 adult residential treatment sex addicts, 6% reported addiction to gambling, Obviously there are major methodological shortcomings of all these studies particularly because they include small, non-representative, and self-selected samples. However, they do suggest that there may be some relationship between addictive gambling and addictive sex for some people.

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

Further reading

Carnes, P.J., Murray, R.E., & Charpentier, L. (2005). Bargains with chaos: Sex addicts and addiction interaction disorder. Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity, 12, 79-120.

Freud, S. (1928). Dostoyevsky and parracide. In J. Strachey (Ed.). The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud. Hogarth Press: London.

Grant, J.E., Steinberg, M.A. (2005). Compulsive sexual behavior and pathological gambling. Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity, 12, 235-244.

Kausch, O. (2003). Patterns of substance abuse among treatment-seeking pathological gamblers. Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, 25, 263-270.

Lesieur, H.R., & Rosenthal, R. J. (1991). Pathological gambling: A review of the literature (Prepared for the American Psychiatric Association Task Force on DSM-IV Committee on Disorders of Impulse Control Not Elsewhere Classified). Journal of Gambling Studies, 7, 5-39.

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 Behavioural Addiction 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 600 research papers, four books, over 130 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 20, 2011, in Addiction, Gambling, Psychology, Sex, Sex addiction and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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