Sex Addiction – what it isn’t
A lot of people worry about whether they are sex addicts or not, and you may be reading this because the headline rang a bell for you. You may be doing things, looking at things – or even just thinking things – that you feel you cannot share with anyone else because you’re not sure of their reaction. Such is our society’s shame-based confusion around sexual behaviour that many people fear that they may be somehow abnormal. One of the quickest ways to contain your sense of perceived abnormality is by calling yourself an addict.
The Addiction Industry
‘Sex And Love Addiction’ has become a global concept. The media loves it because it feels on-trend, has an air of danger, and pushes buttons deep in us all. And the idea of attending 12-step meetings as the only way to fix ourselves has become a powerful meme. To be ‘needy’ is to be stigmatised out there in the world, the story goes – but in the safety of a meeting you will find a community where you can express your true self. There is nothing wrong with reaching out to a group of people that share a common issue. But by accepting a label you are also paying a price, and in saying ‘it’s not me, it’s my illness’ there is always a risk of remaining in a state of helplessness that is increasingly hard to come back from.
The Addict as Anti-Hero
It is also tempting to identify with the addict as a kind of maverick or renaissance person. There is a strong subconscious (and cultural) narrative in which the addicted person (whether to drugs or anything else) is a prodigal child who is too creative for this earth, fundamentally different from others, and even a shaman. This kind of identification is an effective way of feeling in control of needs that may be making you feel guilty, whether they are in fact doing harm in your life or not.
20 Things that are not Sex Addiction
Such is the push-pull between obsession and denial that almost any behaviour connected to sex whatsoever can be enlisted in support of the sex addiction model. I’ve seen a concerning number of activities and behaviours named as possible symptoms all over the internet and in other media. Here is a roundup:
(1) Thinking about sex a lot
(2) Having sexual fantasies
(3) Having a lot of partner sex
Societal codes dictate all sorts of highly unrealistic attitudes about numbers of previous partners. Numbers do not make you an addict.
(4) Having group sex
(5) Frequent masturbation
How frequent is frequent? This would be my first question.
(6) Being a particular gender and liking sex a lot
A woman is expected to have very few sex partners before her character is called into question and she may be labelled a ‘nymphomaniac.’ She is liable to be labelled an addict by others before a man is, or encouraged to label herself as one. A man may be more likely to self-diagnose as an addict as this self-label may help with fears of helplessness which are seen as insufficiently masculine.
You entered into a relationship without first reflecting on your or your partner’s needs, and you find you cannot stay within the agreed terms of it (if there even were any). It does not make you an addict. The social primacy of the closed couple may simply not be for you.
(8) Being LGBTQ+
Othering of people who are not heterosexual or cisgender often involves a critique of presumed sexual behaviours. This particularly applies to bisexual people, for being ‘greedy’. Trans people are sometimes accused of something similar.
(9) Being polyamorous or in an open relationship
Non-monogamists are sometimes thought to be sex addicts because there must be only one reason for having more than one partner, and that is to have more sex.
(10) Having a fetish
Having an erotic focus on a particular object, form of dress, or experience is fairly common and does not make you a sex addict.
Wearing clothes commonly associated with a gender other than the one you were assigned at birth does not make you a sex addict.
(12) Being into kink/BDSM
Negotiating boundaries and consent before having intimate contact is not addiction, and neither is giving or receiving extreme sensation or enjoying power exchange. People into kink may be labelled addicts because they actually talk about the sex and intimate contact they are about to have before doing it. One of the rules of normative sex is that you do not talk about it, thereby denying all responsibility for your feelings about it.
(13) Using porn
Porn use can become problematic, but one of the main reasons is our abysmal record on sex and relationships education for children and young people. It is shame based rather than pleasure based. Hand in hand with this is the denial that puts the porn industry in the shadows. There is nothing wrong with wanting to watch people having sex. At best, porn can also be educational and an aid to solo or partner sex.
Plus, don’t forget how many people skip work and partner/family time to watch or listen to sport. No one calls them a ‘sport addict’ and packs them off to a meeting (although I suspect there will be a clinic for it somewhere).
Enjoyment of looking at people being sexual is not sex addiction.
Enjoyment of being looked at while being sexual is not sex addiction.
(16) Visiting sex shops and websites
Where else do you obtain sex toys and other sex-related material?
(17) Visiting (or working in) lapdance/strip clubs
Being involved in, or enjoying, sex-based entertainment does not make you an addict.
(18) Attending (or running) swinging/kink/fetish parties
Hosting, or attending, sex or kink-focused gatherings does not make you an addict.
(19) Paying for sex or kink
Paying for sex does not make you an addict.
(20) Receiving money for sex or kink
And neither does receiving money for it.
Lest I labour the point even further, none of these things in themselves are indicators that someone has a problem that needs fixing.
‘But my sexual behaviour is causing me a lot of problems, so I must be an addict. Are you saying my feelings are wrong?’
Your feelings are not wrong. As a therapist I would be failing at my job if I did not acknowledge someone’s own account of their situation. There is an increasing movement towards self-definition, of sexuality and of gender – so why not this too? My issue here is that sexual behaviour is too individualised to be labelled an addiction. In this model, we are very few steps from labelling some sexual behaviours an illness and even a pathology. Overall, too often (as my list above illustrates) this is no more than ill-founded moral judgement. In fact, sexual self-expression can go to all sorts of extremes and still be completely healthy and non-damaging.
When someone does feel out of control, it’s important to look at the reasons that may be underlying this rather than stick a label on them.
If you have stopped taking responsibility for yourself, and are harming others, this may be a warning sign, along with:
- Regularly missing work or appointments
- Neglecting those closest to you
- Behaving non-consensually
- Draining your or someone else’s finances
- Putting your or someone else’s health in danger
However, the problem is as much to do with any other aspect of you as it is about sex. It may be to do with numerous other aspects of your life, or past events that you have not fully integrated. [Of course there is a red flag in here – it does not automatically follow that a person who has a lot of sex, or participates in non-normative practices, has been abused.]
If we compulsively return to a behaviour that is not serving us (whether sexual or not), it may be because nothing else in our lives is satisfying us or making us feel held.
Repeatedly doing something that takes pain away, even when the positive feelings are very short lived, may well be a sign of underlying unease. Examining harmful patterns with deep roots that we feel helpless to change is one of the main reasons people come for therapy. It does not make anyone an addict – or otherwise we are all emotion addicts.
Am I saying sex addiction can’t exist at all, ever? No, but I find that the term is being misused to the point where it is unhelpful.
Seeing a therapist can help you gain some clarity about what’s going on for you. You may, for example, have grown up with the message that you were ‘too much’ as a child. That you took up too much of everyone’s space and time, and that everything you do is wrong. It may also have left you with the sense that you are doing ‘too much’ of something – therapy may help clarify whose version of ‘too much’ that is.
Also, there is nothing wrong with questioning an aspect of your sexual life, identity or practice, that is starting to feel intrusive or ‘not you’ any more, and taking it to therapy. Please bear in mind, however, that conversion therapies are increasingly outlawed and no reputable therapist will suggest them.
- To find out how I work, and what areas I specialise in, go here.
- You can find more of my published writing, in the Lancet and elsewhere, here.