When Is It Too Much?
A growing group of psychotherapists are questioning the idea that sex can be addictive. I, too, have struggled with the concept of addiction when it comes to sex. Some men (and it is mainly men, so I’ll use male pronouns) do seem truly out of control when it comes to their sexual urges. Often there are co-addictions, like alcoholism, that fuel their behavior.
But other men seem to struggle for other reasons. They don’t know how to communicate their needs to their partner and so they seek satisfaction elsewhere. Or they have money, power, and freedom, perhaps traveling for business and having access to clubs and escorts. Their behavior disturbs their relationships and often, their self-esteem, because these are behaviors that are often shameful and kept secret.
At a recent AASECT conference I was fortunate to sit in on a dialogue between David Ley and Robert Weiss. Both are psychotherapists and both are authors who have been pitched against each other in the media, with Ley questioning the existence of sex addition, and Weiss treating sex addiction as a serious problem.
The dialogue transformed into a meeting of the minds. Ley conceded that there are individuals who struggle with something akin to sexual addiction, and Weiss stated that he wanted to distance himself from sex addiction counselors who treat all sex outside of heterosexual, married relationships as something shameful and dirty–including homosexuality and even masturbation.
What are we looking at, then? The closest is, perhaps, Kafka et al.’s proposed diagnosis of Hypersexual Disorder, a disorder that did not make it into the DSM-5(TM). Hypersexual Disorder is basically defined as having sexual thoughts, urges, or behaviors that interfere with other (non-sexual) important goals or activities; engaging in these sexual thoughts, urges, or behaviors in response to mood states that are uncomfortable or unwanted (e.g., depression); and having little or no success in controlling these sexual thoughts, urges, or behaviors.
Why is this distinction important? Because in the description of Hypersexual Disorder there is no mention of shame, guilt, morality, and so forth. And I think this is important, because for the majority of men, looking at pornography or engaging in sex outside of a committed relationship isn’t a question of morality–though it may be a question of feelings of entitlement. Thus, there may be little shame for a man who is discovered by his partner (generally female) freely downloading porn, engaging in sex chat rooms, or meeting hook-ups they’ve met online.
Yet surely, their behavior is a problem if they cannot stop it–and it is interfering with other things. You know, things like work, intimate relationships, or picking up the kids from soccer. They may not be able to stop it because they’ve become psychologically dependent on it to distract them from things that are unpleasant to think about, like financial pressures or deadlines. Or because the stimulation of sexual material has become so captivating that it is simply difficult to unloose oneself from its ties.
Yet there is a problem with Hypersexual Disorder as well, and this was Douglas Harvey-Braun’s point in his AASECT presentation on out of control sexual behavior. If we help someone control those thoughts, behaviors, and urges–what’s left? What is the alternative to out of control sexual behavior? What does the opposite look like?
I’ll cover that in Rethinking Sex Addiction, Part 2.