Sex addiction is the zombie of faux ailments: In spite of numerous assertions from researchers and experts that it isn’t real, it refuses to die as a go-to explanation for being very bad at relationships and fidelity. To wit: Sex (and love) addiction is a major plot point of the just-launched Season 2 of Love, the Judd Apatow-produced dissection of an unfolding romance between an ornery hot mess of a woman, Mickey (Gillian Jacobs), who can’t seem to stay out of a relationship with Gus (Paul Rust) in spite of her insistence on being alone for a year. And the new teaser trailer for season 13 of Keeping Up With the Kardashians reveals that haunted specter Scott Disick is a sex addict, at least if it gets him out of trouble for all his cheating on Kourtney.
In January of last year, psychologist and neuroscience prof Jim Pfaus explained for MEL that in spite of the sex addict’s insistence otherwise, being a hypersexual porn fiend and serial cheater produces nothing in the brain on the level of cocaine or alcohol abuse, and that’s why these “obsessions” don’t make it into the bible of disorders, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Pfaus writes:
Here’s why: addicts withdraw. When you lock a dope fiend in a room without any dope, the lack of drugs will cause an immediate physiological response — some of which is visible, some of which we can only track from within the body. During withdrawal, the brains of addicts create junctions between nerve cells containing the neurotransmitter GABA. This process more or less inhibits the brain systems usually excited by drug-related cues — something we never see in the brains of so-called sex and porn addicts. A sex addict without sex is much more like a teenager without their smartphone.
That doesn’t mean the behavior isn’t troubling or doesn’t feel addictive to the person experiencing it, but psychologists have a different word for that behavior: Compulsive. “But there’s a difference between compulsion and addiction,” Pfaus writes. “Addiction can’t be stopped without major consequence, including new brain activity. Compulsive behavior can be stopped; it’s just difficult to do so. In other words, being ‘out of control’ isn’t a universal symptom of addiction.”
MEL also spoke to psychologist David Ley, who wrote the 2012 book The Myth of Sex Addiction. Ley explained that many of the men with so-called sex addiction actually have personality disorders, and sex is just the symptom. “It’s often a result of their own moral or religious conflict or an indicator of a personality disorder,” he told MEL. “Again and again, these men who self-identify as sex addicts come from moral or religious backgrounds and are ashamed of their sexuality. In most cases, they’re not having as much sex, masturbating as frequently or watching as much porn as other people who don’t identify as sex addicts.”
He also explains the perfect storm of influence that led to sex addiction as an explanation for bad male behavior in the first place:
There were a number of things going on when sex addiction was born. One of those things was the shift in our society that was brought about by feminism. For millennia, our society has excused male sexual privilege and allowed powerful, wealthy men to have harems and mistresses. But in the 1970s and 1980s that began to change; men were no longer allowed different rules than women. A good example of this is Bill Clinton versus John F. Kennedy. Kennedy had more sex than Clinton in the White House, but nobody ever called him a sex addict. Clinton, though, got a famous blowjob and former President Gerald Ford called him a sex addict, along with other people working in media. Why? Because society was no longer willing to allow powerful men to just kind of get away with their sexual infidelity.
Ley also mentions a study that found that more than half the so-called sex addicts in treatment were white men making more than $85,000 a year.
What is real, though, is something called compulsive sexual behavior, or hypersexuality, which is defined as “an obsession with sexual thoughts, urges or behaviors that may cause you distress or that negatively affects your health, job, relationships or other parts of your life.”
Professor Eli Coleman, at the University of Minnesota program in Human Sexuality, told Refinery 29 that it can manifest as either intense preoccupation with sex or as poor impulse control, but only about 5 percent of the population would meet the criteria for the disorder, which include intense fantasies and sexual urges that disrupt daily life. He said it’s treated much like an eating disorder, where you focus on regulating behavior—not as an addiction that renders you helpless until you get your fix.
Which is why it’s easy to see why more people would prefer “sex addict” to explain shitty relationship behavior over the term compulsive sexual behavior. A behavior implies a choice you can choose out of — an addict can always just keep acting terribly and shrugging it off.