By Timothy Dillon
Photo courtesy of Bryan Brenneman.
What is sex addiction?
In the 2011 Steve McQueen film, Shame, we get a glimpse into the life of Brandon, played by Michael Fassbender, who is a sex addict. While it is important to keep in mind that art isn’t life, it’s safe to recognize when art is trying to imitate life. In this film we see Fassbender struggle with intimacy, personal relationships, pornography, and consistent sexual promiscuity.
These are some of the characteristics of someone who suffers from sexual addiction. The most important criteria though is a person who continues to engage in sexual behavior despite detrimental consequences. Consequences can be anything from losing a friend or accumulating multiple sexually transmitted diseases. This is not an addiction in the conventional sense, where a person introduces something to their body causing dependence and possible withdrawl.
Yet when considering actual sexual addiction, it important to note that this is a behavioral disorder, and that while sex is extremely chemical in the neurological sense, sex addicts aren’t people hooked on love potion number nine. To begin discussing sex addiction it would be good to look at another behavioral addiction– gambling.
Pathological gambling, better known as gambling addiction, is characterized not by biological symptoms, but rather, social and emotional symptoms. Like sex addiction, gambling addiction takes root in reasoning ability and affects the daily lives of those afflicted. Gambling is a pleasurable activity, when winning, and sex too is something that brings people joy (in case you aren’t aware). So it would follow that sex could easily be considered in the same arena: something one could be addicted to, right? Wrong.
Controversy Surrounding Sex Addiction
Sex addiction has not been incorporated into the Diagnostic Statistical Manual for Psychiatric Disorders (DSM-V). For a type of behavior that would seem an obvious candidate for addiction it has not been widely accepted by the psychological community.
Gracie Landes, a LMFT/CST certified sex therapist located in Manhattan, has been running her own private practice for seven years and has spent much of that time working with couples and the occasional individual to work on sexual issues. In that time, Landes has never once encountered someone with sex addiction.
“I know that’s controversial. I’m just going to speak from my own experience and knowledge,” says Landes.
Landes discusses her practice and the bulk of her work as trying to negotiate mismatched interest in sex. Relationships, after all, are between two people, and their sex is suppose to happen when both parties are interested. Their matched desire is relatively easy in the beginning of a relationship, but as it progresses, past two years Landes explains, sexual interaction changes. For long term couples or even couples with different backgrounds, finding times where both parties are sexually ignited, can be a balancing act.
The couples Landes has encountered in her practice often have conflicting sex drives, where one has more interest in regular sex than another. That said, none of the patients with a strong sex drive who are with partners with a wavering sex drive would be, as Landes considers, sex addicts. In fact she subscribes to a more traditional view of addiction. Gambling is a specific form of behavior based on risk taking and reward, but sex, is natural, and Landes doubt that anyone can be truly addicted to intercourse.
But Pornography is a different story.
Monkey See, Monkey Do…
Like sex addiction, you won’t be finding porn addiction in the DSM 5. The role the internet has played on psychology is definitely apparent to the everyday person, but to psychiatrist, the jury is still out. Practically speaking though, internet pornography has changed the way people interact.
“Some of this is so new, we don’t know how it’s going to play out yet. I get a lot of complaints from females in heterosexual couples that the guy is doing something that doesn’t have much to do with her. It’s not that he’s being mean, its more that he’s just not there,” explains Landes. She has had to address several issues with patients using pornography as their sexual inspiration.
As Cindy Gallops outlined in a recent TED Talk, due to the dramatic increase of internet pornography, there has been a growing trend of hardcore pornography becoming youths de facto sexual education. In it, Gallops explains that young men have had their perception of what healthy sex actually is. For Landes pornography addiction is something very real in practice, but not something recognized fully by the medical community, nor is it something recognized by health insurers.
“It’s not awful to watch porn and its not awful to take pointers from a variety of sources. I think the biggest thing is to learn what it is your partner wants and be very clear on what you like. If you only watch one kind of porn, your life is going to get very bland very quickly,” explains Landes.
One of the risks, she explains, is that people will engage in behavior that is more about an idea they got from porn and less about cultivating a healthy sexual relationship with the partner. Pornography has played a role is perverting sexual expectations. That is not to say that these sexual desires are perverted, on the contrary, they just don’t line up with a partner’s needs and likes.
Malady or Myth
The key, for Landes, to a healthy sexual relationship is open communication, and making time for intimacy, and not just between the sheets. “Set time for one another, even if you don’t have sex, you have a regular time just for the two of you.”
Sex addiction, which is what we call lust these days, is still in the shadows of the psychology world. While there has been a growing support for this being considered a psychological disorder, critics cite factors like a lack of definition of what sexually positive behavior looks like as well as socially conservative views of sex. But it is also considered to a condition that has to be seen to be believed.
Beneath this disorder there are obviously other issues, like depression and anxiety, especially with interpersonal relationships. So while you can’t receive treatment for the specific behavior, there is hope in talk therapy and possibly medication… and not just the kind that will prevent your groin from itching.