Between celebrity affairs, sex rehab shows on TV, and the eruption of Internet pornography, sexual addiction has become a household phrase. In fact, the media has hijacked this term to create interest, and possibly rationalizations, for public figures’ involvement in affairs and indiscretions, (think Anthony Weiner) as well as to explain the ‘newly evolved’ predicament of the modern ‘porn surfer’. While some therapists and coaches believe that anyone could fall prey to this “condition,” there are others who believe that there is no such thing as sex addiction. Their positions basically describe it as just a justification for self-indulgent behavior. And while it might be true for some, there are those who have great difficulty controlling their sexual behavior and suffer consequences to their personal and work lives, their health, and their finances.
The controversy stems from the word “addiction” not the word sex. In the narrowest sense, addiction occurs in response to a substance, with a pattern of tolerance and withdrawal. Although some forms of desensitization and withdrawal have been witnessed in relation to excess sexual behaviors, many people consider this more of a compulsion than an addiction. Others regularly refer to an adherence to a certain behavior as more of a habit than an addiction, while yet others see no difference. This has caused intense discussion not only as to how to define it, but also how to deal with it.
Keep in mind that there are people who absolutely cannot control their hypersexual behavior. Examples of these would be the hyper sexuality that is often seen in a severe manic episode, ‘Kluver-Bucy Syndrome’ (which occurs when both temporal lobes of the brain are damaged by trauma or disease), methamphetamine use, and some other neurological conditions as well as certain kinds of brain trauma. All of these are attended by discrete and conspicuous changes in personality and activity levels. Treatment in any of these cases would require continuing treatment with a psychiatrist or a neurologist, and medications specific to the condition are used. Clearly, these are not the typical types of “sex addiction” you read about or see on the news.
Excluding people with clear medical conditions, I believe excess sexual behavior to be a compulsion for some and an impulsive behavior for others. It varies by the person. By compulsion, I mean that the person feels driven to act out this behavior and feels quite anxious or uncomfortable if they cannot act accordingly. (Think of the person who cannot leave the house because they have to continue to check to make sure the stove is off.) Viewed this way, you can start to make distinctions between excessive, compulsive sexual behaviors, and other impulsive sexual behaviors. Those people tend to use sex in an impulsive way; not feeling compelled to act, but wanting to do it anyway. For them is remains a choice.
Another difficulty with the use of the term “sex addiction” is that it has become a catch all term that can include anything from excess masturbation, to excess time viewing pornography, to promiscuous sexual activity with one or more partners, or any combination of the list. The reasons why someone might engage in impulsive or compulsive sexual activity are different. Some people operate this way because it is the only way they feel comfortable with closeness to another person, while others have low self-esteem and are trying to get approval, and yet others find that they get a much quicker arousal response from intense stimuli or interactions finding this easier than the lower intensity of a long-term relationship.
You can see with all this dissimilarity, treatment is rarely simple and usually requires interventions on both a behavioral level and a psychological level. This is not a coaching candidate for the most part. For this reason, there are many who believe that simple 12-step programs or quick “rehabs” are an over-simplified approach to a multi-factorial problem. The other issue is that sex is a normal part of our lives for which we have natural cravings and direct physical responses.
Because of this, those that understand the complexity of treating eating disorders have a much better appreciation for the complexity of excessive sexual behaviors. For the rest of us we can continue to view it with amazement and at times horror for the afflicted and their families. Regardless of which camp you fall in hyper sexuality is real, and for some, it can destroy an otherwise productive life.
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Frank Hopkins is a life coach in Baton Rouge who is certified as a Professional Coach (CPC) by the Institute for Professional Excellence in Coaching (iPEC). Frank has helped numerous people to go through emotional change in a way that is positively transformative.