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Lust discussed: A brief overview of our recent papers on sex addiction

Following my recent blogs where I outlined some of the papers that my colleagues and I have published on mindfulness, Internet addiction, gaming addiction, youth gambling, exercise addiction, and shopping addiction, here is a round-up of recent papers that my colleagues and I have published on sex addiction.

Griffiths, M.D. & Dhuffar, M. (2014). Treatment of sexual addiction within the British National Health Service. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 12, 561-571.

  • At present, the prevalence of rates of sexual addiction in the UK is unknown. This study investigated what treatment services were available within British Mental Health Trusts (MHTs) that are currently provided for those who experience compulsive and/or addictive sexual behaviours within the National Health Service (NHS) system. In March and April 2013, a total of 58 letters were sent by email to all Mental Health Trusts in the UK requesting information about (i) sexual addiction services and (ii) past 5-year treatment of sexual addiction. The request for information was sent to all MHTs under the Freedom of Information Act (2001). Results showed that 53 of the 58 MHTs (91 %) did not provide any service (specialist or otherwise) for treating those with problematic sexual behaviours. Based on the responses provided, only five MHTs reported having had treated sexual addiction as a disorder that took primacy over the past 5 years. There was also some evidence to suggest that the NHS may potentially treat sexual addiction as a secondary disorder that is intrinsic and/or co-morbid to the initial referral made by the GP. In light of these findings, implications for the treatment of sex addiction in a British context are discussed.

Dhuffar, M. & Griffiths, M.D. (2014). Understanding the role of shame and its consequences in female hypersexual behaviours: A pilot study. Journal of Behavioural Addictions, 3, 231–237.

  • Background and aims: Hypersexuality and sexual addiction among females is a little understudied phenomenon. Shame is thought to be intrinsic to hypersexual behaviours, especially in women. Therefore, the aim of this study was to understand both hypersexual behaviours and consequences of hypersexual behaviours and their respective contributions to shame in a British sample of females (n = 102). Methods: Data were collected online via Survey Monkey. Results: Results showed the Sexual Behaviour History (SBH) and the Hypersexual Disorder Questionnaire (HDQ) had significant positive correlation with scores on the Shame Inventory. The results indicated that hypersexual behaviours were able to predict a small percentage of the variability in shame once sexual orientation (heterosexual vs. non-heterosexual) and religious beliefs (belief vs. no belief) were controlled for. Results also showed there was no evidence that religious affiliation and/or religious beliefs had an influence on the levels of hypersexuality and consequences of sexual behaviours as predictors of shame. Conclusions: While women in the UK are rapidly shifting to a feminist way of thinking with or without technology, hypersexual disorder may often be misdiagnosed and misunderstood because of the lack of understanding and how it is conceptualised. The implications of these findings are discussed.

Dhuffar, M. & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). A systematic review of online sex addiction and clinical treatments using CONSORT evaluation. Current Addiction Reports, 2, 163-174.

  • Researchers have suggested that the advances of the Internet over the past two decades have gradually eliminated traditional offline methods of obtaining sexual material. Additionally, research on cybersex and/or online sex addictions has increased alongside the development of online technology. The present study extended the findings from Griffiths’ (2012) systematic empirical review of online sex addiction by additionally investigating empirical studies that implemented and/or documented clinical treatments for online sex addiction in adults. A total of nine studies were identified and then each underwent a CONSORT evaluation. The main findings of the present review provide some evidence to suggest that some treatments (both psychological and/or pharmacological) provide positive outcomes among those experiencing difficulties with online sex addiction. Similar to Griffiths’ original review, this study recommends that further research is warranted to establish the efficacy of empirically driven treatments for online sex addiction.

Dhuffar, M. & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). Understanding conceptualisations of female sex addiction and recovery using Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis. Psychology Research, 5, 585-603.

  • Relatively little research has been carried out into female sex addiction. There is even less regarding understandings of lived experiences of sex addiction among females. Consequently, the purpose of the present study was to examine the experiences of female sex addiction (from onset to recovery). This was done by investigating the experiences and conceptualisations of three women who self-reported as having had a historical problem with sex addiction. An interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA) methodology was applied in the current research process in which three female participants shared their journey through the onset, progression, and recovery of sex addiction. The IPA produced five superordinate themes that accounted for the varying degrees of sexual addiction among a British sample of females: (1) “Focus on self as a sex addict”; (2) “Uncontrollable desire”; (3) “Undesirable feelings”; (4) “Derision”; and (5) “Self help, treatment and recovery”. The implications of these findings towards the understanding and the need for the implementation of treatment are discussed.

Dhuffar, M., Pontes, H.M. & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). The role of negative mood states and consequences of hypersexual behaviours in predicting hypersexuality among university students. Journal of Behavioural Addictions, 4, 181–188.

  • The issue of whether hypersexual behaviours exist among university students is controversial because many of these individuals engage in sexual exploration during their time at university. To date, little is known about the correlates of hypersexual behaviours among university students in the UK. Therefore, the aims of this exploratory study were two-fold. Firstly, to explore and establish the correlates of hypersexual behaviours, and secondly, to investigate whether hypersexuality among university students can be predicted by variables relating to negative mood states (i.e., emotional dysregulation, loneliness, shame, and life satisfaction) and consequences of hypersexual behaviour.

Van Gordon, W., Shonin, E., & Griffiths, M.D. (2016). Meditation Awareness Training for the treatment of sex addiction: A case study. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, in press.

  • Sex addiction is a disorder that can have serious adverse functional consequences. Treatment effectiveness research for sex addiction is currently underdeveloped, and interventions are generally based on guidelines for treating other behavioural (as well as chemical) addictions. Consequently, there is a need to clinically evaluate tailored treatments that target the specific symptoms of sex addiction. It has been proposed that second-generation mindfulness-based interventions (SG-MBIs) may be an appropriate treatment for sex addiction because in addition to helping individuals increase perceptual distance from craving for desired objects and experiences, some SG-MBIs specifically contain meditations intended to undermine attachment to sex and/or the human body. To date, no study exploring the utility of mindfulness for treating sex addiction has been conducted. This paper presents an in-depth clinical case study of a male individual suffering from sex addiction that underwent treatment utilising an SG-MBI known as Meditation Awareness Training (MAT). Following completion of MAT, the participant demonstrated clinically significant improvements regarding the addictive sexual behaviour, as well less depression and psychological distress. The MAT intervention also led to improvements in sleep quality, job satisfaction, and non-attachment to self and experiences. Salutary outcomes were maintained at six-month follow-up. The current study extends the literature exploring the applications of mindfulness for treating behavioural addiction, and findings of this case study indicate that further clinical investigation into the role of mindfulness for treating sex addiction is warranted.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Griffiths, M.D. (2000). Excessive internet use: Implications for sexual behavior. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 3, 537-552.

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

Griffiths, M.D. (2012). Internet sex addiction: A review of empirical research. Addiction Research and Theory, 20, 111-124.

Griffiths, M.D. (2012). The use of online methodologies in studying paraphilia: A review. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 1, 143-150.

Griffiths, M.D. & Dhuffar, M. (2014). Collecting behavioural addiction treatment data using Freedom of Information requests. SAGE Research Methods Cases. Located at: DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.4135/978144627305014533925

Disfigure it out: A brief look at post-mortem mutilation in murder cases

A body of an adult female of about 25 years old was found dead in a naked condition in a reserved forest area in South Delhi in June, 2006 by police. There was information to [the] police via public call as 2-3 people had killed one lady after [having] sex [with her] and [then running] away. Further enquiry, revealed that they all had consumed alcohol along with the lady. They also had sexual intercourse with her using condom…Following the quarrel they killed her by hitting her head with a heavy stone. After killing her, they also tried to destroy her identity by burning her face with wooden stick and twigs and her clothes. One of them also introduced a wine bottle inside [her] vagina. There were multiple postmortem injuries in particular pattern over left side lower part of chest, abdomen and inguinal regions including upper part of left thigh. All [the] accused were subsequently arrested by the police”.

This shocking account of a brutal murder was the opening paragraph in a paper by Dr. B.L. Chaudhary and his colleagues in a 2007 issue of the Journal of Indian Academy of Forensic Medicine (JIAFM). Although an increasingly common theme in television and film homicides, post-mortem mutilation of a dead person’s body by perpetrators is arguably much rarer than the incidence in fictionalized drama. The JIAFM paper noted that the majority of such cases typically involve body “dismemberment for the purpose of disposing or hiding a body or of preventing identification”.

A national study carried out in Sweden by Dr. Jovan Rajs and colleagues in the Journal of Forensic Sciences found that only 22 deaths over a 30-year period (1961-1990) had been criminally mutilated and/or dismembered. These were then classified into one of three types: (i) defensive, (ii) offensive (i.e., lust murder) and (iii) necromanic mutilation. They reported that the perpetrators of the defensive and aggressive post-mortem mutilation were typically “disorganized” (i.e., alcoholics, drug abusers, mentally disordered) whereas the lust murderers were typically “organized” with a long history of violent crimes. The JIAFM paper summarized the findings of Raus and colleagues:

“The characteristics of the mutilations were diverse. In cases of murder committed in association with sexual deviation, wounding is usually limited to the breasts and sexual organs. Corpse mutilation can also be of a symbolic nature as in cases of mafia murders (revenge punishment) and then it is associated with torturing the victim and with the motive of destruction of identify of victim”.

In the case of the female victim reported by Chaudhary and colleagues, they reported that it was the victim’s head, face, and chest that were burned, destroyed, and mutilated post-mortem. They speculated that this was done to either (i) to prevent identification of the victim, (ii) to make it difficult to determine the cause of death, or (iii) as an act of depersonalization as it is often seen “when the murder is disorganized and has a close relation to his victim or offensive mutilation as general act of frustration”. Why the men had inserted a foreign object into the woman’s vagina was less clear. The authors speculated that it may have been because of (i) frustration of a non-performing sexual partner because of heavy intoxication, (ii) an extortion demand by victim, (iii) blackmail by the victim, or (iv) psychopathic tendencies of the perpetrators can carried out for sadistic pleasure. However, they also added that:

“In this case as there was alleged history of consensual sexual activity which could be or could not be as body had injuries so it could be non-consensual activity also. Apparently there was no smell in the [gastric] contents but samples were sent for alcohol screening/concentration estimation. In [the medical] literature, various materials and objects like chilly powder, corrosives, metal or wooden sticks are introduced into genitalia as a part of punishment for unfaithfulness or infidelity. Males suffering from depression due to erectile dysfunctions, premature ejaculation and impotency may indulge in extreme frustration cases. In this psychological profiling of the accused can also be helpful in knowing for such abnormal instincts. At times, provocative words by female partner about their malehood could trigger such impulsive murder and mutilation”

Post-mortem mutilation while extreme can sometimes border on the almost unbelievable. For instance, Dr. J. Kunz and Dr. A. Gross published a paper in a 2001 issue of the American Journal of Forensic and Medical Pathology which as Ronseal would claim “does exactly what it says on the tin” as it was entitled Victim’s scalp on the killer’s head: An unusual case of criminal postmortem mutilation”. The paper reported that:

“After killing his father, the son decapitated his body and dissected the scalp free, forming a mask of the father’s head and neck. The young man wore the scalp-mask over his own head to imitate the father. The motive of the murder was revenge, and the postmortem mutilation was the realization of the perpetrator’s fantasies, symbolically representing a penalty for the reprehensible past life of his father”.

Another extreme case of postmortem mutilation following murder was reported by Dr. Tomasz Konopka and his colleagues in a 2006 issue of the Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology. In this instance, a Polish man cut up the corpse and dismembered the body into 850 fragments. He “employed various tools to divide the body into fragments and subsequently boiled the pieces to reduce their volume”. This reduced the body volume by 30kg. The murderer then placed all the body fragments into two large pots in a space under his stairwell and then plastered over the wall to hide the body. Another paper by Dr. Konopka and colleagues in a 2007 issue of Legal Medicine examined 23 cases of dismembered bodies in the 1968-2005 period at the Cracow Department of Forensic Medicine. Of these, 17 were cases of defensive mutilation, three were offensive mutilation and two were dismemberment (decapitation, and direct cause of death). One case remained unclassified where the murderer dissected free skin from the whole torso. They concluded that:

“Apart from rare cases of necrophilia, the victim of dismemberment is always a victim of homicide. Homicides ending with corpse dismemberment are most commonly committed by a person close to, or at least acquainted with the victim and they are performed at the site of homicide, generally in the place inhabited by the victim, the perpetrator or shared by both. Such instances are generally not planned by the perpetrator and rarely serial in character”.

Finally, I came across an interesting 2009 paper by a Finnish team led by Dr. Häkkänen-Nyholm in the Journal of Forensic Sciences. The authors noted that research relating to mutilation of bodies by murderers was “sparse”. They estimated the rate of mutilation of the victim’s body in Finnish homicides. To do this they examined all crime and forensic reports of homicide offenders from 1995–2004 (n = 676). Only 13 murders (2.2%) involved postmortem mutilation. They concluded that:

“Educational and mental health problems in childhood, inpatient mental health contacts, self-destructiveness, and schizophrenia were significantly more frequent in offenders guilty of mutilation. Mutilation bore no significant association with psychopathy or substance abuse. The higher than usual prevalence of developmental difficulties and mental disorder of this subsample of offenders needs to be recognized”.

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

Further reading

Chaudhary, B.L., Murty, O.P. & Singh, D. (2007). Foreign objects in genitalia: Homicide with destruction of identity – A case report. Journal of Indian Academy of Forensic Medicine, 29(4), 135-137.

Häkkänen-Nyholm, H., Weizmann‐Henelius, G., Salenius, S., Lindberg, N., & Repo-Tiihonen, E. (2009). Homicides with mutilation of the victim’s body. Journal of Forensic Sciences, 54(4), 933-937.

Hladík, J., Štefan, J., Srch, M., & Pilin, A. (2000). A rare case of evisceration. International Journal of Legal Medicine, 113(2), 107-109.

Konopka, T., Bolechala, F., & Strona, M. (2006). An unusual case of corpse dismemberment. The American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology, 27(2), 163-165.

Konopka, T., Strona, M., Bolechała, F., & Kunz, J. (2007). Corpse dismemberment in the material collected by the Department of Forensic Medicine, Cracow, Poland. Legal Medicine, 9(1), 1-13.

Kunz, J. & Gross, A. (2001). Victim’s scalp on the killer’s head: An unusual case of criminal postmortem mutilation. American Journal of Forensic and Medical Pathology, 22(3), 327-31.

Rajs, J., Lundstrom, M., Broberg, M., Lidberg, L., & Lindquist, O. (1998). Criminal mutilation of the human body in Sweden: A thirty year medico-legal and forensic psychiatric study. Journal of Forensic Sciences, 43(3), 563-80.

Simonsen, J. (1989). A sadistic homicide. The American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology, 10(2), 159-163.

Türk, E. E., Püschel, K., & Tsokos, M. (2004). Features characteristic of homicide in cases of complete decapitation. The American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology, 25(1), 83-86.

The must of lust discussed: Why isn’t sex addiction in the DSM-5?

Please note: A shorter and slightly different version of this blog first appeared on addiction.com

Sex addiction appears to be a highly controversial area among both the general public and those who work in the addiction field. Some psychologists adhere to the position that unless the behaviour involves the ingestion of a psychoactive substance (e.g., alcohol, nicotine, cocaine heroin), then it can’t really be considered an addiction. But I’m not one of them. If it were up to me, I would have given serious consideration to including sex addiction in the latest (fifth) edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). Given that ‘gambling disorder’ was reclassified from a disorder of impulse control to a behavioural addiction in the DSM-5, there is now no theoretical reason why other behavioural addictions can’t be added in the years to come. So why wasn’t sex addiction included in the latest DSM-5? Here are some possible reasons.

Some researchers think that sex addiction just doesn’t exist (for moral and theoretical reasons): Many scholars 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. The most conventional attack on sex addiction is a variation on the position outlined in my introduction (i.e., that ‘addiction’ is a physiological condition caused by ingestion of physiological substances, and must therefore be defined physiologically). 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 (although this argument could be said of almost any addiction).

The word ‘addiction’ has become meaningless: 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 favorite television show is ‘addictive viewing’ or that certain books are ‘addictive reading’). Related to this is that those that work in the field don’t agree on what the disorder (e.g. ‘sex addiction’, ‘sexual addiction’, ‘hypersexuality disorder’, ‘compulsive sexual behaviour’, ‘pornography addiction’, etc.) should be called and whether it is a syndrome (i.e., a group of symptoms that consistently occur together, or a condition characterized by a set of associated symptoms) or whether there are many different sub-types (pathological promiscuity, compulsive masturbation, etc.). 

There is a lack of empirical evidence about sex addiction: One of the main reasons that sex addiction is not yet included in the DSM-5 is that the empirical research in the area is relatively weak. Although there has been a lot of research, there has never been any nationally representative prevalence surveys of sex addiction using validated addiction criteria, and a lot of research studies are based upon those people who turn up for treatment. Like Internet Gaming Disorder (which is now in the appendix of the DSM-5), sex addiction (or more likely ‘Hypersexual Disorder’) will not be included as a separate mental disorder until the (i) defining features of sex addiction have been identified, (ii) reliability and validity of specific sex addiction criteria have been obtained cross-culturally, (iii) prevalence rates of sex addiction have been determined in representative epidemiological samples across the world, and (iv) etiology and associated biological features of sex addiction have been evaluated.

The term ‘sex addiction’ is used an excuse to justify infidelity: One of the reasons why sex addiction may not be taken seriously is that the term is often used by high profile celebrities as an excuse by those individuals who have been sexually unfaithful to their partners (e.g., Tiger Woods, Michael Douglas, David Duchovny, Russell Brand). In some of these cases, sex addiction is used to justify the individual’s serial infidelity. This is what social psychologists refer to as a ‘functional attribution’. For instance, the golfer Tiger Woods claimed an addiction to sex after his wife found out that he had many sexual relationships during their marriage. If his wife had never found out, I doubt whether Woods would have claimed he was addicted to sex. I would argue that many celebrities are in a position where they were bombarded with sexual advances from other individuals and succumbed. But how many people wouldn’t do the same thing if they had the opportunity? It becomes a problem only when you’re discovered, when it’s in danger of harming the celebrity’s brand image.

The evidence for sex addiction is inflated by those with a vested interest: One of the real issues in the field of sex addiction is that we really have no idea of how many people genuinely experience sex addiction. Sex addiction specialists like Patrick Carnes claims that up to 6% of all adults are addicted to sex. If this was really the case I would expect there to be sex addiction clinics and self-help support groups in every major city across the world – but that 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. Coupled with this is that those therapists that treat sex addiction have a vested interest. Out simply, there are many therapists worldwide who make a living out of treating the disorder. Getting the disorder recognized by leading psychological and psychiatric organizations (e.g., American Psychiatric Association, World Health Organization) legitimizes the work of sex addiction counselors and therapists so it is not surprising when such individuals claim how widespread the disorder is.

There may of course be other reasons why sex addiction is not considered a genuine disorder. Compared to behavioural addictions like gambling disorder, the empirical evidence base is weak. There is little in the way of neurobiological research (increasingly seen as ‘gold standard’ research when it comes to legitimizing addictions as genuine). But carrying out research on those who claim to have sex addiction can face ethical problems. For instance, is it ethical to show hardcore pornography to a self-admitted pornography addict while participating in a brain neuroimaging experiment? Is the viewing of such material likely to stimulate and enhance the individual’s sexual urges and result in a relapse following the experiment? There are also issues surrounding cultural norms. The normality and abnormality of sexual behaviour lies on a continuum but what is considered normal and appropriate in one culture may not be viewed similarly in another (what is often referred to by sociologists as ‘normative ambiguity’). Personally, I believe that sex addiction is a reality but that it affects a small minority of individuals. However, many sex therapists claim it is on the increase, particularly because the Internet has made sexual material so easy to access. Maybe if sex addiction does eventually make it into future editions of the DSM, it will be one of the sub-categories of Internet Addiction Disorder rather than a standalone category.

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

Further reading

Dhuffar, M. & Griffiths, M.D. (2014). Understanding the role of shame and its consequences in female hypersexual behaviours: A pilot study. Journal of Behavioural Addictions, 3, 231–237.

Dhuffar, M. & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). A systematic review of online sex addiction and clinical treatments using CONSORT evaluation. Current Addiction Reports, DOI 10.1007/s40429-015-0055-x

Goodman, A. (1992). Sexual addiction: Designation and treatment. Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, 18, 303-314.

Griffiths, M.D. (2000). Excessive internet use: Implications for sexual behavior. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 3, 537-552.

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

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

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

Griffiths, M.D. (2012). Internet sex addiction: A review of empirical research. Addiction Research and Theory, 20, 111-124.

Griffiths, M.D. & Dhuffar, M. (2014). Treatment of sexual addiction within the British National Health Service. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 12, 561-571.

Kafka, M. P. (2010). Hypersexual disorder: A proposed diagnosis for DSM-V. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 39, 377–400.

Orford, J. (2001). Excessive sexuality. In J. Orford, Excessive Appetites: A Psychological View of the Addictions. Chichester: Wiley.

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.