More mass debating: Compulsive sexual behaviour and the internet
The issue of sex addiction as a behavioural addiction has been hotly debated over the last decade. A recent contribution to this debate is a review by Shane Kraus and his colleagues in the latest issue of the journal Addiction that examined the empirical evidence base for classifying compulsive sexual behaviour (CSB) as a behavioural (i.e., non-substance) addiction. The review raised many important issues and highlighted many of the problems in the area including the problems in defining CSB, and the lack of robust data from many different perspectives (epidemiological, longitudinal, neuropsychological, neurobiological, genetic, etc.).
As my regular blog readers will know, I have carried out empirical research into a wide variety of different behavioural addictions (gambling, video gaming, internet use, exercise, sex, work, etc.) and have argued that some types of problematic sexual behaviour can be classed as sex addiction depending upon the definition of addiction used. I was invited by the editors of Addiction to write a commentary on the review and this has just been published in the same issue as the paper by Kraus and colleagues. This blog briefly looks at the issues in that review that I highlighted in my commentary.
For instance, there are a number of areas in Kraus et al.’s paper that were briefly mentioned without any critical evaluation. For instance, in the short section on co-occurring psychopathology and CSB, reference was made to studies claiming that 4%-20% of those with CSB also display disordered gambling behaviour. I pointed out that a very comprehensive review that I published with Dr. Steve Sussman and Nadra Lisha (in the journal Evaluation and the Health Professions) examining 11 different potentially addictive behaviours also highlighted studies claiming that sex addiction could co-occur with exercise addiction (8%-12%), work addiction (28%-34%), and shopping addiction (5%-31%). While it is entirely possible for an individual to be addicted to (say) cocaine and sex concurrently (because both behaviours can be carried out simultaneously), there is little face validity that an individual could have two or more co-occurring behavioural addictions because genuine behavioural addictions consume large amounts of time every single day. My own view is that it is almost impossible for someone to be genuinely addicted to (for example) both work and sex (unless the person’s work was as an actor/actress in the pornographic film industry).
The paper by Kraus et al also made a number of references to “excessive/problematic sexual behavior” and appeared to make the assumption that ‘excessive’ behaviour is bad (i.e., problematic). While I agree that CSB is typically excessive, excessive sex in itself is not necessarily problematic. Preoccupation with any behaviour in relation to addiction obviously needs to take into account the context of the behaviour, as the context is far more important in defining addictive behaviour than the amount of the activity undertaken. As I have constantly argued, the fundamental difference between a healthy excessive enthusiasms and addictions is that healthy excessive enthusiasms add to life whereas addictions take away from them.
The paper also appeared to have an underlying assumption that empirical research from a neurobiological and genetic perspective should be treated more seriously than that from a psychological perspective. Whether problematic sexual behaviour is described as CSB, sex addiction and/or hypersexual disorder, there are thousands of psychological therapists around the world that treat such disorders. Consequently, clinical evidence from those that help and treat such individuals should be given greater credence by the psychiatric community.
Arguably the most important development in the field of CSB and sex addiction is how the internet is changing and facilitating CSB. This was not even mentioned until the concluding paragraph yet research into online sex addiction (while comprising a small empirical base) has existed since the late 1990s including sample sizes of up to almost 10,000 individuals. In fact, there have been a number of recent reviews of the empirical data concerning online sex addiction including its treatment including ones by myself in journals such as Addiction Research and Theory (in 2012) and Current Addiction Reports (in 2015). My review papers specifically outlined the many specific features of the Internet that may facilitate and stimulate addictive tendencies in relation to sexual behaviour (accessibility, affordability, anonymity, convenience, escape, disinhibition, etc.). The internet may also be facilitating behaviours that an individual would never imagine doing offline such as cybersexual stalking.
Finally, there is also the issue of why Internet Gaming Disorder was included in the DSM-5 (in Section 3 – ‘Emerging measures and models’) but sex addiction/hypersexual disorder was not, even though the empirical base for sex addiction is arguably on a par with IGD. One of the reasons might be that the term ‘sex addiction’ is often used (and arguably misused) by high profile celebrities as an excuse to justify their infidelity (e.g., Tiger Woods, Michael Douglas, David Duchovny, Russell Brand), and is little more than 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 are bombarded with sexual advances from other individuals and have succumbed. But how many people would not do the same thing if they had the opportunity? Sex only becomes a problem (and is pathologised) when the person is found to have been unfaithful. Such examples arguably give sex addiction a ‘bad name’, and provides a good reason for those not wanting to include such behaviour in diagnostic psychiatry texts.
Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
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