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What’s the Difference Between Being ‘Hypersexual’ and Having a High Sex Drive?

And is horniness something that should ever be pathologized in the first place?

Is it possible to be too horny?

On a clinical level, mental-health professionals have been debating this question seriously since 2010, when Harvard professor and psychiatrist Martin Kafka proposed adding “hypersexual disorder” to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or the DSM. Kafka characterized hypersexuality as an intense and repetitive preoccupation with sexual fantasies, urges and behaviors that are consequential and difficult to control. Ultimately, it didn’t end up in the DSM, as many critics believed the term to be rooted in moral judgment rather than clinical concern. Still, the proposal of the diagnosis from a prominent psychiatrist helped to legitimize hypersexuality as a symptom for a number of diagnosable mental disorders, like bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s also been a particularly relevant term in the wake of a pandemic and lockdown that made some sex drives plummet and caused others to spike. 

Simply put, plenty of people have reached peak horny, and it’s not entirely clear when that qualifies as a problem.

For more context, the American Psychological Association defines hypersexuality as ​​the “extreme frequency of sexual activity, or an inordinate desire for sexual activity.” In recent years, hypersexuality has replaced more outdated and gendered terms like nymphomania (for women) or satyriasis (for men), the former of which remains largely unpopular because, historically, it’s women’s sex drives and sexual desires that have been pathologized. 

“Scientific literature is full of this stigmatizing, completely inaccurate language to describe, especially women, who enjoyed frequent sex,” neuroscientist Nicole Prause tells me. “The main problem was the assumption that frequent sex or having many sex partners was inherently unsafe or unhealthy.” In the past, clinicians might label women as “promiscuous” if they wanted sex multiple times a day. But in reality, a happy and healthy person with solid time-management skills can easily have multiple quickies a day without it being an issue. 

Despite the clinical discourse around hypersexuality over the last decade, there’s still no clear defining lines between high sex drive and hypersexuality. In large part, Prause explains, this is because researchers have tried to pin it down in a number of wildly subjective ways — e.g., they’ve “tried to identify what is ‘too many’ orgasms, but the discrimination was poor.” “As a result,” Prause tells me, “most therapists rely solely on distress, such as feeling upset that your time spent on sex acts interferes with other activities in your life that you value.”

A problem with this is that people are totally capable of becoming distressed for normal and healthy reasons. Take couples with mismatched libidos, where one partner’s higher sex drive can often be conflated with hypersexuality. But says psychiatrist Loren Olson, “Having a higher sex drive than your partner doesn’t mean it’s too much and you have a problem, nor does it mean the other person’s sex drive is too little.” Likewise, a series of studies on “moral incongruence” indicate that people who had more conservative upbringings are more likely to think that their sexual behavior is out-of-control.

That said, Prause doesn’t believe that the term hypersexual should be eliminated altogether. Rather, again, it’s better accounted for as a symptom of known disorders. “In bipolar mania, hypersexuality is a sudden, sharp increase in sexual behaviors that don’t appropriately manage risk and have other features of impulsivity,” Prause explains, though she’s sure to add that experts “don’t target the sex per se, but the health risk.” Along those lines, in these cases, hypersexuality typically happens in tandem with other manic symptoms like insomnia, excessive spending and a grandiose sense of self. 

It’s worth underscoring one last time, though, that a high sex drive isn’t necessarily a symptom of another medical disorder; it can be just plain old horniness. So if you want to have sex with multiple partners or masturbate several times a day, as long as these activities aren’t causing problems in your life, you’re fine. 

If anything, you’re just getting a head start on “Feral Girl Summer.”