Reflections on the Phrase "Sex Addiction"

Sex addiction is still a controversial concept.  Some people fear it can be used to avoid taking responsibility, or that it fosters shame for engaging in certain sexual practices, or that it's too difficult to tell the difference between behavior that is addictive and that which is a preference, or any of a number of arguments and concerns.  I'm alert to all of those possibilities but it's ludicrous to me that some sex therapists refuse to admit that sexual behavior can be engaged addictively or compulsively.  They must not work with people who really know how difficult it can be to stop or control some sexual behavior patterns that seem to take on a life of their own.

Yet I also believe there are many ways to look at the issue.  This is one reason I have been developing the concept of "problematic sexual behavior" to refer to any pattern of sexual behavior that conflicts with a person's commitments, values and/or self-control.  Sex addiction fits in that last category, and usually brings the first two along with it.

A few years ago I wrote the following thoughts mainly for my professional and academic colleagues who study and debate this issue.  For many years I've worked to build a bridge between supporters and opponents of the use of the phrase "sex addiction".  I encourage my colleagues to focus less on "proving each other wrong" and more on finding common ground.   So I wrote this to look at how we label poorly controlled sexual behavior, including the most popular one: sex addiction.

The Challenge of Language and Labels

Some people repeatedly engage in sexual behaviors despite the desire to stop and the knowledge that an awful outcome could happen at any time.  People with this problem usually don't feel they can talk about it with others because of secrecy and shame.  Unfortunately this isolation typically only makes the problem worse over time.

So what's the best term to describe this pattern of behavior?  It's important to carefully consider the best language to use for this sexual behavior challenge, since what you call something oinfluences what you do about it.  But people who study this problem have not come up with a term everyone can agree on to reliably describe this pattern. 

Putting a Name To Problematic Sexual Behavior

Common phrases to define this type of behavior include "sex addiction", "compulsive sexual behavior" and "hypersexuality".  Each has its supporters and detractors.  (I've actually seen over a dozen other terms in professional journals, each reflecting slightly different perpectives or theories. This leads to lots of confusion, distraction and misunderstanding.) One benefit of the phrase "problematic sexual behavior" is that it serve as a generic and utiitarian term to describe patterns of sexual behavior that are out of control and have problematic consequences.  

The Many Benefits of the Phrase "Sexual Addiction"

The phrase "sexual addiction" has a lot of benefits.  It is the label most people have heard of.  Even though there are still a few hold-outs, most Americans have come to recognize sex addiction as a legitimate problem of real human beings.  

"Sex addiction" is a term that can guide people who suffer to real and lasting solutions.  It is a useful way to explain behavior that otherwise doesn't make sense.  Why would a person repetitively engage in sexual behavior that is not integrated into a consistent sense of self?  The answer that makes the most sense is often that she or he is in fact a sex addict.  

So the phrase "sex addict" brings relief to the suffering, clarity to the confused, community to the isolated and hope to the defeated.  An online search for "sex addiction" will instantly result in many articles, books, professionals and support groups capable of providing immense benefits.  These are just some of the profound and lasting benefits derived from the term "sex addiction".

Some Limitations of the Phrase "Sex Addiction"

There are some drawbacks to using the term "sex addiction" to describe all situations in which a person engages in repeatedly deceptive sexual behavior that falls outside of his or her core values. I've written about alternatives to the sex addiction label that need to be considered when addressing these kinds of issues.  For example, some people "act out" sexually because their sexual interests conflict with their core values or their primary relationships and they don't know any other way to manage that conflict.  One example is people who call themselves "addicted to same-sex attraction" rather than considering that this might reflect their core sexual orientation.  When behavior can only be engaged in secret this very easily can look like an addiction.  

In addition, I've worked with many people whose deceptive sexual behavior is more about narcissism and entitlement than addiction.  However, I've also witnessed many such people completely rebuild their lives once they finally grasp the degree of harm they have caused themselves and those they most care about.  I've seen many of these people gain tremendous benefit by attending 12-step meetings for sex addiction due to the accountability, support and courage people find there.  

Conclusion: Words Matter, Behavior Matters More.

I once had a client say that he was unsure if he was actually a sex addict, but the label helped him look at himself differently and get benefits from the sex addiction recovery process that he would not have experienced by rejecting the label.  The philosopher William James famously wrote that "truth is what works."  Sex addiction can be an immensely powerful framework for bringing life-transforming benefit into the lives of people who otherwise would be lost in an endless cycle of helplessness and despair. I strongly agree with my colleague Alexandra Katehakis published an article a few years ago titled "Sex Addiction -- Is It Real?" in which she wrote that "I'm less concerned with what we call it, and am more concerned with getting help for the people who are suffering as a result of their destructive sexual behaviors."  


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