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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.

shutterstock_cybersex

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

Further reading

Bocij, P., Griffiths, M.D., McFarlane, L. (2002). Cyberstalking: A new challenge for criminal law. Criminal Lawyer, 122, 3-5.

Cooper, A., Delmonico, D.L., & Burg, R. (2000). Cybersex users, abusers, and compulsives: New findings and implications. Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity, 6, 79-104.

Cooper, A., Delmonico, D.L., Griffin-Shelley, E., & Mathy, R.M. (2004). Online sexual activity: An examination of potentially problematic behaviors. Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity, 11, 129-143.

Cooper, A., Galbreath, N., Becker, M.A. (2004). Sex on the Internet: Furthering our understanding of men with online sexual problems. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 18, 223-230.

Cooper, A., Griffin-Shelley, E., Delmonico, D.L., Mathy, R.M. (2001). Online sexual problems: Assessment and predictive variables. Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity, 8, 267-285.

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.

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. (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.  (2005). A ‘components’ model of addiction within a biopsychosocial framework. Journal of Substance Use, 10, 191-197.

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

Griffiths, M.D. (2016). Compulsive sexual behaviour as a behavioural addiction: The impact of the Internet and other issues. Addiction, 111, 2107-2109.

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.

Kraus, S., Voon, V., & Potenza, M. (2016). Should compulsive sexual behavior be considered an addiction? Addiction 111, 2097-2106.

Orzack M.H., & Ross C.J. (2000). Should virtual sex be treated like other sex addictions? Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity, 7, 113-125.

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.

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, 5, 363–372.

 

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.