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What Really is Sex Addiction?

By: Leah Hovey

the feet of a couple lying in bed

Recently there have been countless news stories of individuals who have an addiction to sex. Whether scandals such as Harvey Weinstein's are brought to your attention, or you hear the constant stories of people who use sex addiction as an excuse for their infedlity, the topic has a lot of discourse surrounding it. But what really is sex addiction?

There are some individuals who believe sex addiction isn’t real. It is not listed within the DSM-5, and many believe that because sexual pleasure or sexual instinct is natural, it is therefore impossible to actually be addicted to sex. Dr. Chris Donahue is a sex therapist and activist who has gone over this subject countless times. He believes that because individuals are pathologizing sex, it creates a discourse that too much sex or “abormal” sex is wrong. It controls individuality and creates an atmosphere of repression and anxiety about sexual desires (Sex Outside the Lines, 2015). Dr. Donahue and other therapists do agree that sex needs to be normalized within our society, and that loosely labeling individuals as sex addicts is adding to the problem. I can see the point here: that stripping individuals of their ability to enjoy pleasure or limiting the amount of sex one should be having is very detrimental to a person's mental health and self-esteem.

On the other side, there are some who believe that sex addiction very valid and a real problem within our society. A large argument on the side of sex addiction is that while this disease is fairly new, drug and alcohol addiction was also viewed as a moral failing. It wasn’t until recently that the science behind addiction was proven to support its status as a disease (Philips et al., 2015). Many believe that sex addiction is within the same era as alcohol addiction was.

So what is the true consensus here? Is sex addiction invalid due to our natural instinct to have sex and enjoy sex? Or is it valid due to the negative discourse of current addictions? The answer, as I see it, lies more towards the validity of sex addiction. Many compare sex addiction to drug or alcohol addiction to prove the invalidity of the disease. Alcohol or drugs are chemicals that can physically cause a dependence to these items. Sex is natural and necessary for reproduction. Therefore, it is understandable that the comparison of these two addictions seems slightly off-balance.

However, addiction is not as simple as a chemical dependence. It has been proven that a person can become dependant or reliant on various items or actions throughout our world. Individuals can be addicted to food, shopping, technology, and even gambling, as the DSM-5 now specifies. These addictions are not chemical or substance related, but they have just as big of an impact as substance addiction does. Researcher and Sex Addiction expert Paula Hall (UKCP Reg, BACP Acc, COSRT Acc, ATSAC) provides us with an interesting comparison between sex addiction and other addictions. She explains, “The type of behavior is not what defines it as an addiction, but the dependency on it. When we talk about alcohol addiction, we don't differentiate between those who drink whisky or beer or tequila. Alcohol addiction is defined as a dependency on alcohol to make life feel more manageable. And of course, there are a lot of people who can drink alcohol recreationally, maybe even a little too much at times, but they don't become dependent on it” (TEDx, 2016). She makes the point that regardless of what substance, action, or object you prefer, when someone overuses or negligently uses said item, it can cause a serious disruption in their life.

Even food can be addictive. There are individuals who binge on food, eat themselves into a severely unhealthy state, or grow a dependance on the food they love to the point where it becomes an addiction. They cannot just stop eating food in order to conquer their addiction, but with the proper resources they can manage their food intake. The same can be said for sex. While it is unrealistic for us to give sex up (as someone may be married, may want to procreate, etc.), there are ways to manage their urges to overindulge. When you overindulge in anything, there can be severe consequences or you can grow to be addicted to that thing.

Individuals who typically have addictions use them as a means of coping or numbing the serious problems occurring within their personal lives. This is a common pattern within any addiction, and it has been proven that individuals often have underlying trauma, mental illness, or problems within themselves they have not sought help for (Garami, et al., 2019). Just as with substance abuse, an individual can use sex, pornography, or other sexual consumptions to distract themselves from what is really going on inside. This is why sex addiction needs to be taken seriously.

While researching the validity of sex addiction, the one aspect I took away from it was the problem with labeling. Many health professionals are not sure if 'sex addiction' is the proper term or whether “it should be called an impulse control disorder, or hypersexuality, or sexual compulsivity, and a whole other host of names” (TEDx, 2015). This is why the validity of sex addiction is so debated within our society – due to the lack of clinical labeling and diagnoses of this disorder.

Regardless of the confusion with the labeling of this diagnosis, professionals do believe that there is something to be concerned about when it comes to individuals who are struggling with sexual behaviours. Sex addiction is unfortunately very real and very damaging to one's self-worth, one's relationships, and one's mental health. It is time we took this seriously. It is not an excuse for infidelity; it is not a made up condition; it is real. Time to treat those with sex addiction with compassion and empathy.


Donaghue, C. (2015). Sex outside the lines: Authentic sexuality in a sexually dysfunctional culture. Dallas, TX: BenBella Books.

Hall, P. (2016). We Need to Talk About Sex Addiction [Video File].

Garami, J., Valikhani, A., Parkes, D., Haber, P., Mahlberg, J., Misiak, B., ... & Moustafa, A. A. (2019). Examining perceived stress, childhood trauma and interpersonal trauma in individuals with drug addiction. Psychological reports, 122(2), 433-450.

Phillips, B., Hajela, R., & Hilton Jr, D. L. (2015). Sex addiction as a disease: Evidence for assessment, diagnosis, and response to critics. Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity, 22(2), 167-192.

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