You may have heard the term “sex addiction” or “porn addiction” in passing, and you want to be a stronger ally for your peers who struggle with addiction. Or perhaps you’ve noticed patterns of compulsivity in your own sexual behavior, and wonder if you should be attending meetings for addiction.
However you gained awareness of the concept of sex/pornography addiction, think twice before taking it at face value. Sexuality organizations including the Center for Positive Sexuality (CPS), The Alternative Sexualities Health Research Alliance (TASHRA) and the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom (NCSF) argue that the addiction model may be doing more harm than good when applied to sexual behavior, and here’s why:
The concept of sex addiction was born out of social conservatism
Researchers found that the concept of “sex addiction” emerged in the 1980s in response to cultural anxieties surrounding the decline of social conservatism. The medicalization and pop cultural acceptance of the concept of “sex addiction” validated what was essentially a made up disease aimed at distinguishing between “approved” and “disapproved” sex.
Doug Braun-Harvey, author of “Treating Out of Control Sexual Behavior,” argues for a redefining of sex addiction to seeing compulsive sexual behavior as a sexual health problem, rather than an addiction. Braun-Harvey’s argument is congruent with CPS, TASHRA, and NCSF, as well as other allied sexual health organizations who believe that pathologizing sexual behavior, or defining it under the terms of a mental illness, neglects to capture the important variety of human beings’ sexualities. Using the addiction model makes it difficult to account for cross-cultural differences, those who fall outside the perceived sexual “norm,” and subjectivity of experience.
Those who are considered “addicted” to sex or pornography do not exhibit the same neural responses as substance addicts when interacting with stimuli
Proponents of the sex/pornography addiction model rely on correlational data, but when researchers exposed self-proclaimed sex addicts to stimuli, the neural response patterns didn’t align with what occurs in other known addictions. Certainly most subjects experienced a spike in dopamine levels, but this is considered normal brain behavior during sexual activity.
When reading the list of characteristics of sex and love addiction on SLAA’s website, most of them describe codependent behaviors or anxious attachment, which are both issues that often manifest after traumatic experiences, and may not indicate a physical dependency, but rather an emotional need that is being unaddressed.
Sex may be a positive coping mechanism
Sex addiction models do not take into account the possibility that sex may be a healthy, even beneficial coping mechanism. Assuming that sex as a coping mechanism is correlated with addiction disregards the reality that sex is a natural and healthy part of human existence. Addictive substances do not typically carry any salubrious benefits, but sex and masturbation do. Treating a natural behavior as addictive might contribute to shame and stigma, especially for those whose sexualities violate “approved” sexual behavior.
Of course, this is not to invalidate those who experience compulsive sexual behaviors, or “out of control” sexual behaviors, and the very real effects they have! Rather, these organizations believe that better treatment is available with professionals of sexual health, rather than addiction. A more subjective approach is encouraged – how does your behavior affect your life and relationships? The very first of the 8 Dimensions of Positive Sexuality is that “the ‘Positive’ of ‘Positive Sexuality’ refers to Strengths, Well-Being and Happiness,” rather than only focusing on the deficits and problems in an individual’s situation. The addiction model might unintentionally and unnecessarily demonize healthy behaviors, instead of seeking the root of the individual’s problem.
By redefining the terms from “sex addiction” to “out of control sexual behavior,” the subject is able to seek treatment based on the individual experience of the problem, rather than trying to force the problem into specific paradigms or treatment plans. One person’s “out of control sexual behavior” may be another person’s normal – and there’s no shame in either.
Written by our intern, Olivia Poulin, with a minor additions by Victoria Reuveni.
You can also take a look at the joint statement against the addiction model for sexual activity and porn viewing written by the Center for Positive Sexuality in conjunction with our partners TASHRA and NCSF.