Is sex addiction real? Experts aim to finally give us an answer

Calling someone’s seemingly compulsive sexual behavior, like Anthony Weiner’s sexting, an “addiction” isn’t as simple as it sounds. In fact, certain pockets of sexual researchers, therapists, and educators have long been in disagreement about whether porn addiction or sex addiction is an actual disorder. Last week, the main professional organization in the field, the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists (AASECT), issued a statement saying that there is not sufficient evidence that seemingly compulsive porn viewing or sex is a mental health disorder all on its own.

This is actually a really huge deal, since there is a whole niche industry and faction of sexuality counselors that make money trying to treat sex or porn addiction. The AASECT’s statement, though, actually uses these treatments in their argument that sex and porn addiction are not real mental health issues, writing that the organization didn’t find “sexual addiction training and treatment methods and educational pedagogies to be adequately informed by accurate human sexuality knowledge.”

Basically, sex and porn addiction treatment is often not sex-positive, based in backwards ideas about sexuality or crackpot theories like Scientology. AASECT does acknowledge that some people struggle with their sexual behavior and porn habits, but sex is complicated, and the “addiction” label and current treatments don’t reflect any of that.

The organization did note that it reserves the right to amend its position. It wrote, “When contentious topics and cultural conflicts impede sexuality education and health care, AASECT may publish position statements to clarify standards to protect consumer sexual health and sexual rights,” so they’ll have our sexually active backs in case a Trump administration starts outlawing random stuff.

But in the meantime, anyone currently in a sex or porn addiction treatment program might want to have a really serious, honest conversation with their therapist. In theory, it sounds good to treat something like an illness instead of a defect (like the changing paradigms in drug and alcohol counseling). But when it comes to sex and porn addiction, things are pretty backwards. A lot of the literature about sexual addiction can be based in internalized shame and prude beliefs about sex in general.

For example, why can’t Anthony Weiner, just say out loud that he really gets off sending dick pics? You might not like it (and it would be better if he wasn’t a political figure who kept getting caught), but that doesn’t have to be pathologized.

Sex and porn addiction is also kind of sexist. On some levels, it’s often used to diagnose the behavior of men. There are tons of Twitter feeds dedicated to the “wives of sex addicts” to help them cope. It sounds like a nice way for god-fearing, conservative people to explain away their partners’ extra-marital affairs and internet browsing history. But it also hurts men, too. Sex is often a way that some people work out their undiagnosed, actual mental health issues. So if someone seeks validation from sex and it’s hurting them — it might be more useful to take a holistic approach and see what the real problem is.

Using Weiner as an example, this summer when his most recent scandal broke, David Ley (author of The Myth of Sex Addiction) wrote that the sex addict label “ignores the fact that sex is always a complex, overdetermined behavior and that sex is often used by men to cope with negative feelings.” He asked, “Is Weiner getting the help he needs in his career, personal life, and relationship? Does he have other ways to try to make himself feel attractive and valued?”

It also takes away any ownership for men’s actions and implies that they are not in control of what they choose to do. That could also have legal implications when it comes to sex offenders using their “addiction” as a defense for sexual assault. In Utah, there is a push for lawmakers to treat porn addiction as a public health issue. But a lot of the language is tied up in sex-negative views of masturbation and fetishes. So, this new AASECT statement is useful in terms of making sure taxpayers aren’t paying for sex and porn addiction treatments that aren’t even medical disorders. And who wants a Utah senator deciding how much porn is too much porn?

It’s possible that a person’s sexual behavior is hurting them, but it might be better to get to the heart of other issues before assuming that their sex lives and porn habits are vices instead of coping mechanisms.