Everything You Need to Know About Sex and Addiction: The Outsider’s Manual

Stanton Peele By: Dr. Stanton Peele

Posted on February 19th, 2011 - Last updated: June 22nd, 2023
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I. The myth of neurochemical addiction

Among American’s mass delusions are that we have either discovered the neurochemistry of addiction or are on the verge of doing so. In fact, we have decisively disproved this possibility, and are inexorably headed in the opposite direction.

How do I know? Because DSM-5, American psychiatry’s bible, has declared that addiction isn’t linked to drugs – they have decided that gambling can be addictive. That’s only gambling among non-drug activities – not eating, not sex, not video. But we will “officially” recognize one after another of these other areas of addiction – and more – in future years.


Sidebar I. How did DSM-5 decide that gambling is addictive?

Charles O’Brien, head of the DSM-5 Substance-Related Disorders Work Group, has announced “pathological gambling and substance-use disorders are very similar in the way they affect the brain and neurological reward system.” Really?  More than sex? Since gambling isn’t substance-related, it’s not clear which group of individuals involved in DSM-5 is responsible for this decision. Reminds me of Churchill’s description of the RAF during the Battle of Britain, but not in a positive way: “never was so much owed by so many to so few.”


Outsider’s note (but I’m not bitter): Of course, since I wrote Love and Addiction in 1975 and the highly influential The Meaning of Addiction in 1985, and because I participated in DSM-IV, you might think I would be called on in regard to this decision. I wasn’t.


II. Sex is stronger than cocaine

The standard rap is that animals will take cocaine exclusively while starving to death. Rich DeGrandpre and I showed that the overwhelming evidence is that animals given access to other rewards balance cocaine against these rewards – the way organisms do with every kind of reinforcer. Moreover, the most direct evidence of rats stimulating themselves to death is for the pleasure center of the brain, which has been associated with sex.


Sidebar II. Is there a pleasure-sex brain center?

Wikipedia can’t be beat on this: “more recent research has shown that such ‘pleasure’ electrodes do not, in fact, lead to pleasure but only a form of ‘wanting’ or motivation to obtain the stimulation. Instead, the weight of the evidence suggests that the pleasure center of the human brain is not a single center but rather a distributed system of brain regions.”


III. Sex is stronger than narcotics

I recently lectured in Vancouver for the group that runs Insite , the heroin injection center, where I introduced Bruce Alexander in a discussion of Rat Park. Rat Park is a classic experiment in which rats, once habituated to a morphine solution, preferred to continue drinking it over water in small isolated cages, but eschewed the morphine in favor of water in Rat Park, a spacious and enriched environment where there were many rats of both sexes. In such an environment the ability to compete for sex quickly took precedence over seeking narcosis – i.e., sex is better than drugs for rats.


Sidebar III. My world tour of animal addiction research sites

I modestly want to note that I am the only human being to have seen Roy Wise’s rat-death lab (which he showed me when I lectured at Concordia University), Bruce’s rat park (Bruce and I authored a chapter on Rat Park in my book, The Meaning of Addiction), the animal self-injection labs at the University of Michigan (which Charles Schuster headed and I toured with Archie Brodsky while writing Love and Addiction as a grad student), the human behavioral pharmacology lab at John Hopkins Medical School (which George Bigelow kindly showed me when I lectured there).


Outsider’s note (okay – maybe I’m a little bitter): I also met with Richard Solomon at the University of Pennsylvania at his request when I was a grad student.  Solomon devised his opponent-process model of addiction based on animal experiments. But he didn’t show me his lab – instead, after xeroxing the chapter I brought from the not-yet-published Love and Addiction, he spent the time belittling me for trying to compete with his theory. Outsider’s note not involving me: Bruce Alexander never got another grant after his rat park studies and is bitter about this – in a nice, Canadian way.


IV. We know sex can be controlled

We find it hard to believe sex dominates the urge  to use narcotics and cocaine among animals because most of us control our sexual urges and most of us haven’t taken heroin. So we know the former can be controlled, but believe the latter is uncontrollable based on myth. In fact, the government’s own data show that fewer than a tenth of those who have ever used cocaine, heroin, or crack currently do so.


Sidebar IV. Who are those sex addicts?

Sex addicts tend to be people with greater ease in obtaining sex. These are most often – but not exclusively – powerful, attractive men. Men are less culturally inhibited as a rule in seeking to satisfy sexual urges and as a result very rich, or famous, or pretty men more often pursue unbridled sex.


V. Porn v. people sex addiction

Reasons that lab animals may be made to (a) injest drugs, or (b) have sex, or (c) pursue brain stimulation with little restraint, are (a) in the case of drugs, they are harnessed and caged and thus don’t have anything else to do, (b) rats screw a lot because there are not rat rules of sexual propriety, (c) brain stimulation of so-called pleasure or sex centers is much simpler and more direct than actual sexual interaction – especially human sexual interaction.


Sidebar V. The future of sex, porn, and video addiction

O’Brien’s successors will some time (fairly soon) have to go back to the drawing board on the nonsubstance addictions. And one reason is the universal access to Internet porn and other forms of video stimulation.  While it is still not the same thing as direct stimulation of the brain, watching a sex video alone is a lot more direct form of sexual-orgasmic stimulation than even the most ardent sex addict can attain through interacting with actual human beings.


All right – got that? This is all you need to know about sex and addiction to be a world class addiction theorist – far ahead of those devising DSM-5.  There, I’ve defused my bitterness – for the time being.

Stanton Peele

Dr. Stanton Peele, recognized as one of the world's leading addiction experts, developed the Life Process Program after decades of research, writing, and treatment about and for people with addictions. Dr. Peele is the author of 14 books. His work has been published in leading professional journals and popular publications around the globe.


  • Robert says:

    I have dealt with this more or less since I was 14 and I know now it affected all of my relationships and it has almost destroyed my current marriage.

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