Is Sex Addiction Real?
Remember when Emily wrote, “For the last time: sex addiction is real.” Yeah, well, she lied. Not about sex addiction being real, but about it being the last time anyone would have to defend its realness.
A new study published last month in the journal of Socioaffective Neuroscience and Psychology has everyone asking the question people seem to love asking: Is sex addiction real, or is it a myth? The study documented how participants with “hypersexual brains” responded to visual stimuli, presuming that if sex addiction were a real addiction, then “hypersexual brains” would respond the way alcoholic brains respond to visual stimuli -- which, according to these researchers, they didn’t.
The study wasn’t saying that sexual compulsivity isn’t a problem, it was just saying that the addiction model doesn’t fit. Despite its familiarity in pop culture, sex addiction is not a disease in the way alcoholism is a disease -- not technically, according to the DSM-5— and this study supports the differentiation. And yet an article on Slate dangerously extrapolated the findings to suggest that sex addiction might “just [be] an excuse” and that “if we turn every single quirk of human sexuality into a ‘disease’... then we’re all screwed.” (You see what they did there?!)
The Huffington Post also called out by name a bunch of male celebrities who’ve cited sexual compulsivity as a source of struggle in their lives, saying this study means they had better find something else to blame.
Why people are so threatened by the notion of sex addiction that they have to make a joke of it -- minimizing it by describing sexual compulsivity as a “quirk of human sexuality” or shutting it down entirely by calling it a myth -- is a question worth asking, certainly as valid as people’s constant questioning as to whether or not the sex addict exists.
I’m an alcoholic and a sex addict, now six years sober in a program of recovery. At the time I entered recovery, signing myself up for an outpatient rehab and turning myself over to more than a couple different twelve step programs, I wasn’t the picture of your typical drunk (not in my mind, at least).
I was a grad student at a prestigious enough university and a writer, working on a book, who just happened to spend a lot of time at the bar -- because that’s what writers do, amiright? -- and who just happened to have a lot of sex, including sex for money, because I loved sex very, very much, and because how else would I fund my alcoholic -- excuse me, writerly -- lifestyle, and because I was a SEX-POSITIVE FEMINIST SEX WORKER and fuck anyone who had anything to say about that.
I can think of a lot of words to describe my lifestyle at the time -- sad, desperate, delusional and dangerous spring quickly to mind -- but one word I would definitely not use is “quirky.” When the media does, I worry it makes it easier for people in the pain I was in to minimize their truths.
Let’s look at little closer to that study. Set aside the fact that the study tested just 13 women and 52 participants in total. (According to the Huffington Post article, 16 million Americans are affected by sex addiction). The methodology describes itself as studying "cues" rather than "consumption" or "experience" -- which, they say, is consistent with drug cue research. In recovery speak, we might call those cues "triggers." Seeing a beer bottle glistening in the cooler, for example, or walking past your favorite dive bar and suddenly feeling an overwhelming urge to drink. These cues, according to researchers, set off an activation of memories and associations in the brain that are somehow measured neurologically.
Thing is -- and here’s where my problem with this study begins -- I’m not typically triggered by visual stimuli. I mean, I don’t know how my brainwaves would respond if you put a shot in front of me -- I don’t have the fancy equipment to measure that -- but, anecdotally speaking, it wasn’t a picture of a glass of wine that made me want to drink. It was walking into a party and not knowing anyone, or the feeling of not-knowing anyone, even when I knew everyone in the room. Or the anxiety of having to give a reading, present a paper in class, have a conversation with a stranger, email someone in a position of authority -- any activity, really, that caused any amount of stress (social anxiety was a big one for me).
I drank to turn down the noise inside my head. To make bad feelings go away. I drank to make good feelings even better (although toward the end of my drinking career, it is difficult to remember any good feelings). I drank because alcohol was a drug and I liked its effects. I didn’t drink because a margarita looked good.
Similarly, I’m not so hot and bothered by a dick pic. I mean maybe, sometimes, certain kinds of images turn me on, but just as my alcoholism wasn’t an obsession with the look and taste of booze, my sexual compulsivity has less to do with sex than it has to do with using my sexuality to regulate feelings.
Feeling self-conscious? Flirt with some guy who’ll make you feel desirable. Fear that you are unworthy and unlovable? Rope that guy into taking you home. So what if you’re both in other relationships?! For the sex addict, sex produces a synthetic feeling of security -- until it’s over, that is. Feeling uncomfortable afterwards? Justify your shitty conduct! Do it again! Feeling any sort of feeling? Fuck it away!
To put it simply, the way a twelve-step program would, you are a sex addict when the pursuit of sex and love makes your life unmanageable. “Unmanageable” as in: You said wouldn’t cheat on your boyfriend and here you are in a bathroom with his best friend. Or you’re being spoken to by your supervisor for sexually harassing a married co-worker (you thought it was harmless flirting). Or you’d even consider selling sex again -- even though the act, when it’s over, leaves you feeling dead inside, and even when it could mean being humiliated on the cover of yet another newspaper and losing yet another job.
You know you’re a sex addict when you’re hungry, angry, lonely or tired but all you feel is horny, sexual urges that feel so out of control it is physically uncomfortable. When you sometimes require such a high frequency of sex that you fuck until it physically hurts, and you are attracted to risky sex because you’ve done it all and so it takes greater and greater risks to get off.
This is what I mean when I say “sex addict.” This is what researchers are talking about when they describe “sexual compulsivity.” These behaviors, all of which I have experienced -- some even in recovery -- are a result of my “hypersexual brain.” I don’t know what’s happening in my brain, I only know what happens in my life.
I know that, before recovery, there were significant consequences due to my sexual conduct that I felt no ability to control. I made promises that I broke, again and again. As other sex addicts have described, sex was never about love and even pleasure, it was all about power and winning. Even now, with six years in recovery, it is an everyday practice to know who I am and what I’m good for besides my outsized sexual identity.
I recently published a personal essay on the Fix about the steps I’ve taken to address my sexual compulsivity. The essay received comments like:
“There is no such thing as a sex 'addiction'. You just like to fuck a lot of different guys, but don't want to admit it because you feel guilty about it for some reason.”
“Why does everything have to be a "problem/addiction"? I like to fuck...it feels good. I'm engaging with willing partners. They enjoy it. We're hurting no one. Jesus H. Christ, let's stop inventing problems...We have enough real ones to deal with.”
Most people who commented on my article seemed to agree that sex addiction is a made-up concern. Except for one commenter, who thinks I'm living in serious denial and have "not yet unveiled for [my]self the true horror of this addiction." A couple commenters went so far as to say my story was a probably a work of fiction that was written by a man.
I don’t know why I’m still surprised by comments like this. To be fair, public reactions to women's stories of sex addiction are consistent with reactions to narratives concerning any of our sexual experiences. Putting aside the ironic outcry over how boring women are when we write about sex, the response to women who write about sex typically ranges from "You're wrong" and "What you believe about yourself is not true” to “YOU DON’T EXIST.” No wonder I spent so long living in denial!
If I AM wrong about how I perceive myself and my experience -- which could certainly be true, God knows it’s been true in the past -- I’d say my unknowing has to do with the lack of public discourse on women's sex lives, a problem hardly solved by telling the author of one such story that she’s wrong/her story’s made up/she’s living in denial/she’s unable to know/she needs try harder or just not try at all because, anyways, her story is boring/ she ought to shut up.
Maybe, as the study suggests, sex addiction is a problem of impulse control or compulsive drive rather than a neural addiction. You can call it an addiction, you can call it compulsive behavior -- whatever, the distinction is semantics. Regardless of what you call it, it’s a problem.
I call it an “addiction” because twelve-step recovery helps. I credit my recovery to the grace of God, even if this means sounding like a weirdo Jesus freak. I talk about my sexual experiences, including my experiences selling sex, even if it means giving sex work a bad rep. Even if it means that I’m not being entirely “sex positive” -- which, I understand, is a pretty unpopular opinion. Even if it might mean emboldening men who’ve been caught abusing or misusing women in the name of this affliction, I continue to testify to this affliction’s realness.
It’s real, and it’s no joke.