Can you really be addicted to sex?

Emily Bobrow in The Economist:

Adiction-headerAndrew was in his late 30s when he started feeling that his masturbation habit was getting out of control. He was indulging several times a day, while using pornography. These regular sessions were easy to schedule, as he was single and working from home. But his preoccupation with porn was getting in the way of the rest of his life. He wasn’t going out with friends or pursuing leads for work. “It inhibited my income,” he says. “It inhibited my relationships.” Feeling increasingly isolated and ashamed, Andrew tried raising these problems in therapy, but his therapist was uncomfortable talking about sex. When a friend mentioned he was going to 12-step meetings for sex addiction, he was fascinated, even relieved. It was the early 2000s and he wasn’t aware that such a thing existed. “I thought, ‘Wow, there’s this thing called sex addiction? That sounds like what I have’,” he recalls. Andrew started going to 12-step meetings and found it “tremendously useful” to have a place where he could talk about his problem and plan constructive ways to address it. He became more introspective, masturbated less and eventually stopped using porn. He felt so grateful for these changes that he decided to become a certified sex-addiction therapist himself.

For people like Andrew who are troubled by the scale or nature of their sexual desires, the notion that they are suffering from a disease can be a comforting one. After all, the sick cannot be held fully responsible for their actions; addiction blurs the line between culprits and victims. That may help explain why Harvey Weinstein, who spent decades abusing women without showing signs of remorse, is reported to have checked into sex-addiction rehab when the storm broke. Yet a growing number of therapists and addiction specialists are questioning whether these problems should be seen as an addiction at all. They argue that by pathologising certain sexual desires, we are failing to deal with the underlying causes of this behaviour. Given how often the term is bandied about in the news and on therapists’ couches, it is worth probing what we are really saying when we label someone a sex addict. More importantly, what does using this label encourage us not to explore, not to say?