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Michael Douglas wrote in his memoir about battling sex addiction – but is ‘addiction’ really just high sex drive?
What do Michael Douglas, Tiger Woods and David Duchovny have in common?
They’ve all publicly professed a sex addiction. And if you’re wondering whether that’s a real thing, you’re not alone – so are scientists.
Sex addiction has been a topic of debate in psychology circles for some time. While some clinics offer treatment for it, it isn’t listed in the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), which was published in May and is used by professionals to diagnose a wide range of mental health issues.
The latest critique comes from a UCLA study published in the journal Socioaffective Neuroscience and Psychology, which found that the brains of people with sexual impulse problems don’t respond to sexual stimuli in the way an addict’s would.
Sex “addiction” is often used interchangeably with hypersexuality, said study author Nicole Prause, assistant research scientist at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA. These people have high sex drives, sexual urges that feel out of control, and may have suffered consequences such as relationship problems due to their behavior.
But unlike drug or alcohol addiction, having a very high sex drive may not be pathological.
“You have to think, what makes something an addiction?” Prause told the Daily News. “Different people have different answers for that, certainly. But what we generally think about is, for example, difficulty controlling that behavior – like taking a drug when you intended to stop. In this case it might be something like consuming more visual erotica when you promised your wife you wouldn’t.
Tiger Woods entered rehab for sex addiction after he was revealed to have been cheating on his then-wife.
“There are a number of additional burdens present for it to be described as something more than just high sex drive.”
In other studies, Prause and her colleagues found that the way hypersexualized people respond to sexual video and images doesn’t line up with addiction criteria. For example, hypersexualized people didn’t report an increase in tolerance to sexual imagery over time the way an addict might build up a drug tolerance, and they didn’t report the same emotional affect – the mixture of pleasure and shame at their behavior – as addicts. They were also able to control their level of sexual arousal when viewing images, regulating it upward or downward, whereas addicts can’t modulate their cravings.
In the newly published study, the research team recruited 52 volunteers – 39 men and 13 women – aged 18 to 39 who self-reported problems controlling their impulse to view sexual images. Participants first filled out a series of three questionnaires to help researchers determine their level of hypersexuality. Then, while hooked up to brain wave monitors, the subjects viewed a series of “emotional” images, including images of romantic and explicit sex.
Scientists looked at what’s known as the “P300″ response – the brain’s reaction 300 milliseconds after viewing the stimulating images. In addicts, the brain response to these triggers would be greater.
But the more hypersexual people in the group didn’t show a greater P300 response on average.
“The brain’s response to sexual pictures was not predicted by any of the three questionnaire measures of hypersexuality,” Prause explained in a statement. “Brain response was only related to the measure of sexual desire.
“In other words, hypersexuality does not appear to explain brain responses to sexual images any more than just having a high libido.”
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People who engage in risky sexual behavior and can’t stop may have a mental condition that’s not necessarily addiction, said Dr. Richard Krueger of Columbia University.
So are sex “addicts” really just sexed-up people behaving badly? Not necessarily, said Dr. Richard Krueger, associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University.
Engaging in excessive pornography use or risky sex, despite negative consequences and despite wanting to stop, may signal a mental problem; scientists just aren’t sure yet how to categorize it.
“I think there’s something there, but using the word ‘addiction’ may not be entirely appropriate,” Krueger told the Daily News. “I do think individuals can engage in sexual behavior that can become out of control. And people are increasingly seeing it.”
While sex addiction didn’t make the cut for DSM-5, the International Classification for Disease (ICD), which is used by the rest of the world, is still considering it, Krueger said.
“[For the DSM] they proposed criteria that captured a lot of it,” Krueger said. “It was ultimately not accepted, but I think research will continue.”
Labeling that behavior an addiction has benefits as well as drawbacks, Prause said. Having a name for their problem might make people more comfortable seeking help for it.
“On other hand, people may be told they are ‘out of control’ of their behaviors when in fact they may be able to exert more control,” Prause said. “[With addiction] there’s the mentality of ‘once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic.’ If you think ‘I always have to be careful about what I do sexually; if I slip, I could relapse,’ you could end up harming yourself rather than helping.
“We just don’t know. It’s an open question.”