The psychiatric community itself can’t seem to answer that question. Sex addiction is not yet an official disease in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Yet rehab centers now find themselves filled with self-proclaimed sex addicts, especially in the wake of Tiger Woods very public declaration of his own addiction.
The American Psychiatric Association (APA) hasn’t jumped on the growing sex addict bandwagon. Dr. Charles O’Brien, chair of the substance-related disorders work group for the APA, explains that there may be similarities between drug addicts and “in those people who are called ‘sex addicts,’ but it hasn’t been studied or demonstrated.” While pending further research and evaluation, the DSM will create a new category called hypersexual disorder. But that’s the only concession they’ll make until larger studies can be conducted by researchers who aren’t themselves involved in treating this particular disorder – a clear conflict of interest. Dr. O’Brien further elaborates, “Good evidence that [sex addiction] should be classified with addictions doesn’t exist. Established professionals won’t use that term.”
Sex addiction counselors take a different view, outlining key differences between people who simply love sex and those with a sexual addiction. Robert Weiss, licensed clinical social worker, certified sex addiction therapist, and founder of the Sexual Recovery Institute in Los Angeles, explains that this addiction isn’t actually about sex itself but rather the obsessive behavior pattern than goes along with it. This is similar to other “process addictions” like gambling, over-exercising, and impulsive spending. It’s an addiction to a set of rituals instead of a mood-altering substance like drugs or alcohol. “Most [addicts] have difficulty tolerating day-to-day stressors and use fantasy and intense arousal to distract themselves,” according to Weiss.
Weiss also adds that 25% of male sex addicts and 75% of female sex addicts have experienced “overt sexual traumas like sexual abuse or incest during their childhood.” Of course, statistically 75-80% of all sex addicts are men, as many would expect. The surprising part is that most of these men aren’t horny teenagers or 20-somethings but instead tend to be heterosexual men in their late 30s who have been married 8-10 years and typically have two kids under age five.
So what exactly is a sex addict? Let’s face it, those horny teenagers and 20-somethings are preoccupied with sex, but if that was the sole definition every man (and many women) on the planet would be classified as a sex addict at some point in their lives.
Dr. Jeff Gardere, a psychologist, tries to explain how it differs from someone with a healthy sex drive, “With a sexual addiction, you become so preoccupied that everything else in your life is put on the backburner, including relationships, family, jobs, and even your health.” Two warning signs can help reveal a possible sexual addiction. First, obsession – when sex becomes your only goal, consumes your thoughts, and everything you do is about getting sexual satisfaction to the extent that it causes problems in other areas of your life. And second, lack of control – when you know you shouldn’t be doing anything sexual but can’t stop yourself, such as masturbating at work, spending so much time looking at porn on the Internet that it interferes with your other responsibilities (like work or family commitments), or spending every cent you have on prostitutes even when you don’t really have money to spare.
The final stage, one where it becomes impossible to ignore there’s a problem, is truly self-destructive behavior. This could be anything from losing your job and/or spouse to having risky unprotected sex, or even masturbating to the point that the organs become raw or painful.
So even though the APA may not believe in sexual addiction, many professionals do think a line exists between a healthy (even robust) sex drive and something far more harmful. If you think you’ve crossed that line, you can find numerous programs to help you, although the debate on treating sex addiction is even more heated than the debate over whether or not it exists in the first place. But if you simply enjoy sex and it doesn’t dominate your life, then don’t worry – you’re probably okay.