Sex Addiction, or Too Much of a Good Thing?

This last post of 2010 will start with a declaration. One of my famous “Thus Sayeth Dr. Dick” sorta things, if you please.

Ready?

I categorically reject the concept of sexual addiction that has been floating around in the popular culture for the last 20 years or so.

And yes, I know this will rankle a bunch of you, but you’ll just have to get over it. You see, there is no such thing as a sexual addiction. Period!

Nowadays people bandy about the term addiction as if it can be applied to any and all obsessive behaviors. I have an addiction to chocolate; I’m addicted to shopping; I’m addicted to video games; I’m addicted to porn—or, I’m a sex addict. NONSENSE!

That being said, I hasten to add that I do believe there are sexual obsessions and compulsive sexual behaviors, plenty of ’em in fact. However, obsessions and compulsions are not addictions, and addictions, while they may involve irresistible impulses, are not the same thing as compulsions. Get it? Got it? Good!

I want to be absolutely clear about this. An addiction is a very specific condition. It denotes a dual dependency, physical as well as a psychological.

  • A physical dependency occurs when a substance is habitually used to a point where the body becomes reliant on its effects. The substance must be used constantly, because if it is withheld, it will trigger symptoms of withdrawal.
  • Psychological dependency occurs when the substance habitually used creates an emotional reliance on its effects. There is no functioning without it. Its absence produces intense cravings, which if not fed will trigger symptoms of withdrawal.

Check it out. With the help of my handy-dandy dictionary, a good place to start in discussions of this sort, I discovered these three very distinct definitions:

Addiction: The need for and use of a habit-forming substance (as heroin, nicotine, or alcohol) characterized by well-defined physiological symptoms upon withdrawal. Broadly: persistent use of a substance known by the user to be harmful. A state of physiological and psychological dependence on a drug.

Compulsive: Driven by an irresistible inner force to do something; i.e., a compulsive liar.

Obsession: A persistent disturbing preoccupation with an often unreasonable idea or feeling.

See? Different words. Different meanings. Not a particularly complex notion to grasp, right?

And listen, just because a bunch of yahoo afternoon talks show hosts and even a load of my esteemed professional colleagues banter these words about like they were interchangeable doesn’t make it so. In fact, we do ourselves a huge disservice by muddling these very specific concepts into a jumble. My fellow therapists should be the first to recognize this because finding help for an addiction or an intervention for an obsessive/compulsive disorder will be as specific as the problem itself.

One thing is for certain: identifying one of the things, as the other will complicate the problem solving. It’s like going to the doctor with a headache, and when the doc asks where does it hurt, you point to your stomach. It just won’t do.

Hi Dr. Dick,
I recently found out my boyfriend has been cheating on me. He wants me to forgive him, but he keeps on doing the same thing over and over again. He’s like addicted to sex or something. I love him very much, but I feel dirty just by being around him and knowing what he’s doing. It also makes me feel stupid putting up with all of this and at the same time I still love him, please give me some advice. Thank You.
— Darlene

Before we turn our attention to your boyfriend’s behavior, let me make a quick observation about you. You’re a big fat ball of contradictions, huh? How can you say that you love the person that makes you feel dirty and stupid? You’re deceiving yourself about at least one of those feelings. And if I had to guess, I’d say what you’ve got with your man ain’t love—it’s an obsession.

Your boyfriend probably has you figured out by now, and he knows that you will tolerate his misbehavior, which gives him tacit permission to do whatever he feels like doing. From where I sit, you’re the real sap. If you’re really serious about reining in your wayward BF, you’d better come up with a clear, unambiguous message about what you will and will not tolerate. Until you do precisely that, he’ll just think that he can roam wherever he wants and whenever he wants.

If the two of you are supposed to be living in a sexually exclusive relationship, and he’s taking his business elsewhere, then he’s got a problem, too. However, I caution you against thinking that his sexual behaviors are an addiction. Because they’re not.  And thinking they are will not help you find the solution to the problems you folks are having.

There are root causes for his behavior, just like there are root causes for your behavior. To get to the bottom of all of this, each of you will need to invest a good deal of time and energy with a qualified therapist. One can only hope that there’s a big enough bank of goodwill between the two of you to carry the day because overcoming your obsession and his compulsions will demand all of your emotional resources.

Dear Dr. Dick,
I have been in a relationship for five years now and truly love my partner, however I can never seem to get enough sex. I am 30 and he is 29, but I constantly find myself in the chat rooms lookin’ for younger guys to have sex with. It’s more than just a hobby—it’s a habit! I’ve actually lost jobs because he’d be out of town and I’d spend almost every waking hour on the PC with a cocktail looking for sex, not caring about anything else. It’s like I’m addicted to sex. He knows I have played around (I actually have talked him into three-ways a few times), but he has no idea how extreme it’s become. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I’m not unhappy with him. I just can’t seem to stop wanting sex with younger guys. Any suggestions?
— Brian

It’s interesting that you should tell me about your compulsive sexual behavior in the same breath that you tell me of your love for your partner. As you’ve probably guessed already, there isn’t really much of a connection between the two. Love and sex are two very different things. Sometimes they go together, but not always or even often for that matter.

It appears to me that you’ve really got two problems happening simultaneously: First, your compulsive prowling of the internet for sex (complicated, I might add, by your alcohol consumption). Second, the deception you’re practicing on your partner. Let’s deal with each of these in turn.

Your particular sexual activity, like any compulsive behavior (overeating, excessive shopping, etc.), is more than just a bad habit. It’s a serious psychological dysfunction. Take it from me: breaking this behavior pattern will be nearly impossible without some professional help. If the problem is as serious as you say, then you’d better seek help right away. This sort of thing, if left untreated, will not only destroy your relationship, it will ruin your life. When you seek that professional help, I encourage you to include information about your alcohol consumption. If there is an addiction in all of this, it’s the alcohol, not the sex. And in your case, the addiction may be fueling the compulsion.

Now, regarding your relationship. It’s imperative that you come clean with your partner about your sexual obsessions and compulsions, as well as your probable alcohol addiction. Not only will you feel better about not lying to him anymore, you’re going to need his support in overcoming the difficult obstacles you face. I suggest that you attend to this right away. There’s not a moment to lose.

Good Luck

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