Is Sex Addiction Really About High Sex Drive?

This article was originally published on Lelo’s blog, Volonté.

Is Sex Addiction Really About High Sex Drive?

‘Sex addiction’ or ‘hypersexual disorder’ are a hot topic these days, with thousands of people entering sex addiction treatment programs, a vocal and committed NoFap (i.e., anti-masturbation-to-porn) movement, and every few months a new—typically male—celebrity getting slapped with this nonexistent diagnosis. (I say nonexistent because the latest, 2015 revision of the psychiatric disorders manual, the DSM-5, rejected all proposals to add these diagnoses to the list due to lack of sufficient evidence that they are really a thing).

There’s no doubt that some people suffer because of their sexual behaviors, and that they have sex in ways that are unhealthy and harmful to them or their families, like spending all their income on sex workers, getting fired from their jobs for masturbating, or continually cheating on partners they promised monogamy to. But the professional community is still deeply divided over what exactly is the problem with these people: Is it the amount of sex they crave and engage in, or the way they do it and feel about it?

Most people automatically assume that ‘sex addiction’ has to do with—at least to some extent—having a really high sex drive, and proponents of the sex addiction model traditionally include a measure of ‘too many orgasms’ as one criterion for designating someone as addicted to sex. (The most commonly used cutoff point in these models is remarkably low—only 7 per week!—which would classify almost half of all men and a substantial minority of women as sex addicts.)

But evidence keeps piling up that sex addiction has little to do with high sex drive. In one recent study, almost 2,000 Croatian men ages 18-60 reported on their general sex drive (like how intense their sexual desire was in a typical week or how much time they spent engaging in sexual fantasies and activities in a typical day) and on problematic sexuality (using screening tools based on the sex addiction model, with questions about using sex to cope with negative mood, feeling unable to control their sexuality, engaging in sex in spite of harmful consequences, and distress and shame associated with their sexual behaviors).

It turned out that the men who scored high on problematic sexuality (about 3% of the sample) were not the same men who scored very high on just plain old sex drive (about 4% of the sample): Only 4 out of 2,000 men fell into both groups!

What’s more, the ‘problematic sexuality’ group was actually less sexually active than the ‘high sex drive’ group: They had sex less frequently, with fewer sexual partners, watched porn less often, and masturbated just as often. They even had less sex and fewer partners than the ‘control’ group of men, those who had neither high sex drive nor problematic sexuality!

The ‘problematic sexuality’ guys also differed from the ‘controls’ in a number of personality, health, and demographic traits that elucidate their underlying issues: They were more likely to be religious and depressed, to have substance abuse problems, to disapprove of watching porn, and to feel like their sexuality was against their moral values.

The ‘high sex drive’ guys, on the other hand, were, unsurprisingly, more sexually active and more accepting of porn use than the control group, but were virtually indistinguishable from the ‘controls’ in all other characteristics.

These findings confirm past findings that the more religious a person was and the more s/he believed watching porn was wrong, the more likely they were to think of themselves as a porn addict, regardless of their actual amount of porn use. And a follow-up study found that amount of daily porn use was unrelated to psychological distress one year later, but believing you were a porn addict was linked to greater depression, anxiety, stress, and anger.

Taken together, these findings suggest that ‘sex addiction’ or ‘hypersexual disorder’ is not at all about how often you think about sex, how often you have sex, or how many different people you have sex with. Sex drive, like many other human traits, follows a bell-shaped, ‘normal’ distribution: Some people are extremely low, some people are extremely high, and most people are somewhere in between. Where you are on that spectrum is greatly determined by your genes and hormones and no point along that spectrum is inherently unhealthy.

Rather, having sex-related problems or identifying as a sex/porn addict seems to be either a) about using sex to cope with depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues, or b) about having sexual thoughts and behaviors that go against your morality or that of your loved ones. Living in a sex-negative culture that teaches us that a lot of sex, a lot of partners, casual sex, nonmonogamous sex, or kinky sex is bad or unhealthy, it’s all too easy to internalize these views and feel like there’s something wrong with you if you have such desires.

But instead of automatically worrying about how much sex you are craving or having, consider why and how you’re doing it, and why you feel the way you feel about it. Sometimes, dealing with the fear of sex/porn addiction is as straightforward as adopting a more sex positive set of values and finding a more supportive friends, partners, and community. This may be easier said than done, but for those with particularly high sex drives, such acceptance can be paramount for living healthy and happy life that is also authentic to who you truly are.