How Did We Discover Sex Addiction?

Stanton Peele By: Dr. Stanton Peele

Posted on November 12th, 2011 - Last updated: November 20th, 2023
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We have discovered sex is addictive—why now, with what implications?

As the author of Love and Addiction (in which I discussed sex addiction in 1975), I have kept a close view on the societal vision of addiction in re sex. I pointed out in that book that sex and love are the most potent human—and animal—motivators. For example, Bruce Alexander’s Rat Park experiments demonstrated that rats habituated to morphine solution refuse to drink it when they have access to rats of the opposite sex—because the drug interferes with their ability to. . . what’s the rat equivalent for “get laid?” Thus,if anything can be addictive, sex and love can be. I personally feel that people will do more desperate things for love than for sex (although a lot of times it’s hard to tell the difference between them—remember Mark Sanford?). But, sex is the more immediate, or stimulant-type, gratifier—like cocaine (sex) versus heroin (love) addiction.

When sex addiction first made the news, it was because some athletes (I recall especially Boston Red Sox Hall of Fame third baseman Wade Boggs referring to sex addiction when it was discovered he had another “wife” in a city the Sox played in). This meme of the privileged athlete claiming sex addiction as an out obviously was reinvigorated by the Tiger Woods business. People often had the impression that people like Woods, Boggs, and various show business personalities who got caught with their pants down—like many politicians—were just overprivileged playboys who were doing what a lot of people would, if only they could get away with it.

But, now, Newsweek is featuring sex addiction—reflecting that, for some time, the concept has gone mainstream. Why has this happened? Now pay attention, class, because this raises fundamental questions about addiction. Newsweek (and I agree) feels sex addiction has gone mainstream because access to sex has become so ready-made—you can get an app on your iPhone for sexual assignations, along with all the free, anonymous porn sites on line. (This is a major theme—along with its negative consequences—in Psychology Today blogs, particularly those by Marnia Robinson.) And what has caused sex addiction to gain a place in our consciousness—exactly as occurred with cocaine and gambling addiction—was that we were forced to confront the experiential reality of such addicts.

Newsweek, for example, describes how the director of Shame, a new film on sex addiction, thought of it as a cop out until he started attending Sex Addicts Anonymous meetings:

When Steve McQueen first heard of sex addiction as a phenomenon, the British director scoffed at the idea that sexaholics need sympathy, too. “Like most people, I just laughed,” McQueen recalled recently over tea in Beverly Hills.

But after speaking with sufferers and attending Sex Addicts Anonymous meetings in the name of research, the Turner Prize—winning visual artist turned filmmaker was convinced otherwise. “The stories we heard were so devastatingly sad,” said McQueen.

So, does this mean that people aren’t born addicts—but only that having easier access to addictions makes average people more likely to become addicted? Perhaps. But, when we examine the most extreme forms of sex addiction reported in Newsweek and elsewhere—where people sacrifice their health, well-being, families, et al. for sex—it seems hard to believe that everyone would fall prey to this impulse. Would you give up your spouse and kids if you could have ready sex on tap? It seems that self-restraint is an applicable concept in addiction, as evidenced in an area like sex addiction that has become much more apparent and probably widespread contemporarily.

All of this raises the question of the definition of addiction, particularly as presented in the forthcoming DSM-V. For in that seminal volume—the one which determines what mental disorders we suffer from in America and worldwide—the current thinking is that non-drug activities (read gambling) can be addictive, but that sex isn’t one of them!  How the creators of the addiction section of DSM-V have backed themselves into this corner is hard to fathom. Disease maven Charles O’Brien, who spearheaded the move to name gambling, and only gambling, as a non-substance addiction claims this is because gambling involves the same “reward pathways” as drugs (really—ALL drugs have the same pathways, from marijuana to tranquilizers to alcohol to OxyContin, et al.?).

That justification, of course, makes no sense on any grounds. NOTHING is more rewarding than sex. And, as a result, we will see sex addiction in DSM-V. The people will demand it. What, did you think they decided on entrys to the psychiatric diagnostic manual based on laboratory research in the bowels of the National Institute on Drug Abuse?

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.

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