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Is sex addiction real? Researchers say it may be, or at least something close to it, and might be more common than anyone thought.
Ten percent of men and 7 percent of women say they have significant levels of stress and dysfunction because of their sexual thoughts or behaviors, the researchers reported Friday.
A national survey of more than 2,000 adults found on average, more than 8 percent of them reported symptoms of compulsive sexual behavior disorder — a persistent pattern of failure in controlling intense sexual urges that leads to distress and social impairment.
It’s definitely controversial, Janna Dickenson of the University of Minnesota and colleagues wrote in the Journal of the American Medical Association’s JAMA Network Open.
“From Tiger Woods to Harvey Weinstein, news articles have conjectured that ‘sex addiction’ is a growing and heretofore unrecognized ‘epidemic,’ while the scientific community debates whether such a problem even exists,” they wrote.
But it’s not that hard to define, they said: “failing to control one’s sexual feelings and behaviors in a way that causes substantial distress and/or impairment in functioning.”
It's the impairment part that matters — people must feel like the thoughts or behaviors interfere with normal life in some way.
They used data from a large national questionnaire, the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior, to see how common sexual behavior problems might be. It asks a range of questions, including:
- How often have you had trouble controlling your sexual urges?
- How often have you felt unable to control sexual behavior?
- How often have you made pledges or promises to change or alter your sexual behavior?
- How often have your sexual thoughts or behaviors interfered with relationships?
“Distress and impairment associated with difficulty controlling sexual feelings, urges, and behavior were measured using the Compulsive Sexual Behavior Inventory,” Dickenson and colleagues wrote.
“A score of 35 or higher on a scale of 0 to 65 indicated clinically relevant levels of distress and/or impairment.”
A surprising number of people scored that high, and 40 percent of them were women, Dickenson’s team wrote. Overall, just under 9 percent of people met the cutoff.
“Gender differences were smaller than previously theorized, with 10.3 percent of men and 7 percent of women endorsing clinically relevant levels of distress and/or impairment associated with difficulty controlling sexual feelings, urges, and behavior,” they wrote.
That would make compulsive sexual behavior problems more common than major depression, which affects 5 percent of people. Doctors may want to keep an eye out for the problem, they said.
“Health care professionals should be alert to the high number of people who are distressed about their sexual behavior, carefully assess the nature of the problem within its sociocultural context, and find appropriate treatments for both men and women,” they wrote.
It’s possible the problem is exaggerated, and it could be the questionnaire labeled people with mild problems as having a disorder, they said. Psychiatrists have disagreed on whether it’s a true disorder. They debated whether to include sex addiction as a diagnosis in the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), and opted not to.
And many agree people who claim they have a psychological problem with their sexual feelings are just making excuses for bad behavior.
“I am not sure when being a selfish, misogynistic jerk became a medical disorder,” David J. Ley, a clinical psychologist in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and the author of "The Myth of Sex Addiction”, told NBC News in 2017.
“This is a concept that has been used to explain selfish, powerful, wealthy men engaging in irresponsible impulsive sexual behavior for a long time,” Ley said.