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Is Sex Addiction Real? Here's What Experts Say

From TIME - November 10, 2017

Is sex addiction real? It depends who you ask: Hollywood stars and industry heads whove cited it in defense of reported sexual indiscretionsranging from infidelity to harassment to rapemay argue that it is. Over the last decade, celebrities including David Duchovny and Tiger Woods have famously sought treatment for sex addictions; more recently, Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey have made similar announcements after accusations of misconduct.

Among scholars and medical experts, the consensus is less clear. And just this week, three non-profit organizations came out against the notion that sex or pornography can be addicting, saying the term can be misleading or even harmful to people seeking help for intimate issues.

The new position statement, drafted by the Center for Positive Sexuality (CPS), the Alternative Sexualities Health Research Alliance (TASHRA), and the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom (NCSF), is published this week in the online Journal of Positive Sexuality. It follows a similar statement last year from the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists, which also spoke out against the idea of sex or porn addiction.

In their statement, the advocacy groups write that perceptions of sexual addictions may have more to do with peoples religious or cultural beliefs than of actual scientific data. The concept of sex addiction emerged in the 1980s as a socially conservative response to cultural anxieties, the authors wrote, and has gained acceptance through its reliance on medicalization and popular culture visibility.

The idea that people can be addicted to sex (or to porn) implies that peoples sex drives and erotic interests can be grouped into normal and not normal, the groups say, which could leave those with alternative sexual identities vulnerable to discrimination. It can also suggest that using sex or pornography as a coping mechanism is always a bad thingwhen in fact, the statement argues, it may be perfectly healthy way to deal with stress and other problems.

These groups have the medical community at least partially on their side. Sex addiction is not recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5), the reference guide for mental illnesses published by the American Psychological Association (APA). One reason for that is a lack of evidence that sexual behavior changes the brain the same way other addictive substanceslike drugs and alcoholdo.

Drugs activate [an addicts] brains reward system directly, like getting food or water, Dr. Charles OBrien, chair of the substance-related disorders work group for the APA, recently told Health.com. It could be that there are some similarities in those people who are called sex addicts, but it hasnt been studied or demonstrated.

In fact, several studies have found that people who are what clinicians call hypersexual do not display the symptoms of addiction.

On the other hand, more recent studies have suggested that the science is still emerging. And at least one small study has suggested that watching porn may be associated with brain changes similar to those seen in people who are addicted to drugs. (More research is needed, the authors say, and its unclear whether this is really a cause-and-effect relationship.)

There are also plenty of mental-health professionals who say that sex addiction is real.

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