Recently, much attention has been given to the term “sexual addiction,” often used to explain people’s compulsions to cheat in relationships. While sexual addiction, also known as hyper-sexuality, is not currently recognized as a mental health condition in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), it continues to be cited as an “addiction” and as a common reason for destroyed marriages. Thus, researchers from UCLA set out to determine, once and for all, whether sexual addiction is a true phenomenon – does it rob “sex addicts” of the self-control needed to regulate their sexual behaviors? Or is it just a popularly abused term used to excuse relationship infidelity and sexual deviance?
Sexual addiction is associated with individuals who have sexual urges that seem uncontrollable, and who report an inability to stop themselves from engaging in inappropriate sexual behaviors. Individuals who suffer from sexual addiction often put everything at risk – their careers, personal lives, relationships, and their sexual health, often significantly increasing their chances of contracting sexually transmitted diseases/infections. However, even with all of the risks associated with sexual addiction, individuals continue to return to their inappropriate sexual health practices. These risky behaviors include: looking at internet porn, soliciting prostitutes, engaging in extramarital affairs, as well as masturbating and exposing themselves in public.
52 participants, aged 18 to 39, took part in the UCLA study, recently published in the journal Socioaffective Neuroscience and Psychology. The participants were comprised of 39 men and 13 women who reported difficulty with controlling their viewing behavior of sexual images. Each participant filled out four questionnaires which inquired about their sexual behaviors, sexual desire, sexual compulsions, and the possibility of negative cognitive and behavioral outcomes of sexual behavior. The scores of the participants resembled typical scores obtained by individuals seeking treatment for sexual addiction and inappropriate sexual behaviors.
Participants were shown a series of photographs that were meant to evoke either pleasant or unpleasant feelings. The pictures included various items, including dismembered bodies, people preparing food, people skiing and even people having sex. While some of the images involving sex were romantic in nature, others were more explicit. Electroencephalography (EEG) was used to monitor the subjects’ brain waves and to examine their direct responses to each specific image shown to them. The researchers were most interested in the brain responses that were seen within the first 300 milliseconds after the picture appeared, known as the P300 response in addiction and impulse studies.
The researchers expected that, as in other addiction studies, the participants’ P300 responses would spike when they viewed the object of their particular addiction – in this case, erotic and sexual imagery. However, this was not what they found. A UC press release summarizing the study’s finding reported that, “if (the subjects) did indeed suffer from hypersexuality, or sexual addiction, their brain response to visual sexual stimuli could be expected to be higher, in the much the same way that the brains of cocaine addicts have been shown to react to images of the drug in other studies.”
Future research is needed to see if the results of this study could be replicated. If they are, the idea that sex addiction is a real mental health condition may be up for a lot of debate. However, while the current research shows that sexual addiction may not be a true “addiction”, the fact remains that this type of risky behavior is still responsible for ruining many lives and many relationships. Whether or not it is an addiction, it is definitely a significant social problem that needs to be addressed in order to preserve committed relationships and healthy lifestyles. Currently, there isn’t a lot of information on what type of treatment works best; however, there are various options available to individuals suffering with this type of behavioral difficulty. Options include one-on-one counseling, group counseling and support groups. Having a plan to deal with these kinds of risky behaviors is also vital, in order to help people resist sexual urges that often lead to the demise of relationships. If additional help is required, treatment with medications that are used to treat obsessive-compulsive behavior are sometimes prescribed.