A look at sex addiction

Moneybags writer Danielle Van Wyk takes a look into the world of sex addiction. A term historically coined by Patrick Carnes in 1983 and has since been the keystone of a billion dollar industry that thrives on “pathologizing people’s sexuality,” states clinical sexologist, Dr Marlene Wasserman, aka Dr Eve.

What is sex addiction?

Despite us living in a desensitised society where the notion of addiction is not a new one, sex addiction remains one that is still not overtly spoken about. But what categorises sex addiction?

The definition of an addiction is usually an obsession and compulsion, beyond your control, to do something to the point where it interrupts and potentially destroys your daily life.

“Sex addiction represents society’s conflictual relationship with sexuality: it seduces people to be sexual via media and simultaneously, shames people for being sexual. Society stamps a moralistic foot on sexual diversity and expression, deciding what is too much or too little sex,” adds Wasserman.

Is sex addiction real?

While there are many known worldwide support and treatment groups for sex addiction, Wasserman fundamentally disagrees with the sex addiction industry.

“I am a critic of the sex addiction industry. As a clinician and social scientist, I am guided by research that is evidence based. There is no research that has yet been robust enough to support “sex addiction” as a disease. It does not exist in the DSM5. It is euphemistically called “obsessive compulsive sexual behaviour “and treated as an anxiety disorder plus the required 12 step programme, which has never been clinically tested as a successful treatment intervention,” Wasserman continues.

An organisation devoted to sexual health education, the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counsellors and Therapists (AASECT) released a statement in late 2016, declaring that sex addiction does not exist and treatments for it are unethical and harmful.

“AASECT recognises that people may experience significant physical, psychological, spiritual and sexual health consequences related to their sexual urges, thoughts or behaviours. AASECT recommends that its members utilise models that do not unduly pathologies consensual sexual behaviours. AASECT 1) does not find sufficient empirical evidence to support the classification of sex addiction or porn addiction as a mental health disorder, and 2) does not find the sexual addiction training and treatment methods to be adequately informed by accurate human sexuality knowledge. Therefore, it is the position of AASECT that linking problems related to sexual urges, thoughts or behaviours to a porn/sexual addiction process cannot be advanced by AASECT as a standard of practice for sexuality education delivery, counselling or therapy.”

People who are thought to be sex addicts are usually seen as “hypersexual”. “Today the term “hypersexuality’ is used to refer to people, mostly men, who are unable to control or regulate their emotions and turn to sexual behaviour as a means to manage their feelings of anxiety, fear and sadness,” Wasserman explains.

These individuals usually spend hours with online porn and masturbation, online sexting or spend real time with sex workers. Their patterns typically include hook ups, and casual sex with many partners.

“The question however is how many partners is too many? And who decides this? Due to the many health consequences, people know this behaviour to be risky and this is what causes them to potentially distance themselves and disengage from their real lives,” Wasserman adds.

The treatment process

“I work with a lot of men who present to me as “sex addicts”. Often times there are co-morbid conditions, such as out of control alcohol/drug use, high levels of anxiety, rage and fear. There can also be difficulties with intimacy and sexual dysfunctions. The treatment method I use is based on the work of Bessel van der Kolk, who is the leading global psychiatric trauma neuroscientist.

“This is a new area of work I am doing, I have been training in this work for the last two years. What I find is that many of these men have a history of childhood trauma. Van der Kolk states that the majority of addicts have a history of childhood neglect, abandonment and abuse. Hence I treat my clients as trauma survivors, with the goal of rewiring the brain so that the anxiety, depression, and out of control behaviour disappears and people feel more emotionally regulated and thus able to make good decisions about their health, behaviour and lives in general. The results are humbling,” Wasserman says.

Is this an as yet unofficially classified addiction, or is it simply an excuse for promiscuous and possibly risky behaviour?

While the debate around the sex addiction industry rages on, there is very little data as to how many people suffer from this addiction and also the treatment methods around it. Research often refers solely to men, begging the question are women too ashamed to voice their addiction, or is this something viewed as an issue only troubling men?

Wasserman notes that the ongoing debate has done well to “create an unfair breeding ground for any angry, insecure people to easily call their partners a “sex addict” when he/she wants sex regularly, which is also subjective.”

For more information contact Dr Wasserman at dreve@dreve.co.za or call her on +27 21 439 4004. Alternatively contact the Oasis Addiction Treatment Centre on-  Office Hours: +27 (0) 44 5331752 / After Hours: +27 (0) 73 7989699