“Sex addiction” and hypersexuality are a hot topic these days, with every few weeks a new, typically male, celebrity getting slapped with this nonexistent diagnosis. (I say nonexistent because the latest 2015 edition of the psychiatric disorders Bible, the DSM-5, rejected all proposals to add these diagnoses to the list due to lack of sufficient evidence that they are really a thing). Most people believe that complaining of being addicted to sex has to do with having a really high sex drive. But a new study just published in the Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy suggests that problematic hypersexuality really is NOT simply about a high sex drive.
For this study, psychologist Aleksandar Štulhofer and his Croatian colleagues recruited almost 2,000 Croatian men ages 18-60 recruited online through Facebook, news portals, magazines, and dating websites. Using an online survey, they sought to distinguish men who struggled with “hypersexuality” from men who simply had very high sex drive, see whether the two groups overlapped, and, if not, how they differed from each other and from those who had neither problems with hypersexuality nor really high sex drive.
To assess problematic hypersexuality, men were asked to complete two scales measuring negative outcomes associated with hard-to-control sexuality (the Hypersexual Behavioral Consequences Scale and the Hypersexual Disorder Screening Inventory), which involve questions regarding using sex to cope with negative mood, perceived inability to control one’s sexuality, engaging in sex in spite of harmful consequences, and distress and shame associated with one’s sexual behaviors two scales that assessed. Men who scored above the clinical cutoff points on both of these scales were classified as “hypersexual;” 3% of all men fell into this group.
To measure just plain old sex drive, guys were asked how intense their sexual desire was in a typical week (ranging from 1 = nonexistent to 10 = extremely intense) and how much time they spent engaging in sexual fantasies, urges, and activities in a typical day (ranging from 1 = 0-15 minutes to 10 = 4+ hours). People who responded 10 on both scales were classified as having “high sex drive”; 3.5% of men fell into this group.
The rest of the survey included items about sexual behaviors, attitudes toward sex and porn, substance use, mental health, religiosity, etc.
So did the “problematic hypersexual” and the “high sex drive” groups differ from each other and the controls (those who didn’t qualify for either hypersexual or high sex drive group)? They sure did!
First of all, only 4 out of the 2000 men fell into both the “hypersexual” and the “high sex drive” group, suggesting that the overlap between having a very high sex drive and having issues surrounding your sexuality is virtually negligible. Furthermore, contrary to the popular idea of sex addiction as simply the farthest end of a continuum of high sexual desire, the “hypersexual” group was actually less sexually active than all other men in the sample. Specifically, “hypersexuals”:
- had sex less frequently than both “high sex drive” men and “control” men;
- had fewer sexual partners than both “high sex drive” and “controls” (in fact, one in five hypersexuals had 0 sex partners in the past year)
- masturbated more often than controls and as often as “high sex drive men”;
- watched porn as often as “controls” and less often than “high sex drive men”.
Not a single sexual activity or desire outcome was higher in the “hypersexuals” than the “high sex drive” men, and in most cases, their sexual thoughts and actions were less pronounced.
When compared on other personality, health, and demographic traits, “high sex drive” guys differed from “controls” only in that they reported more positive attitudes toward porn use. However, “hypersexuals” differed from “controls” in a number of ways. They had significantly higher odds of:
- being single
- being nonheterosexual
- being religious
- being depressed
- being prone to sexual boredom
- having problems with substance abuse
- holding negative attitudes toward pornography use
- feeling like their sexuality was not in line with their moral values and personal sexual morality (e.g., had stronger agreement with items like “My sexual fantasies make me a bad person”).
Taken together, these findings suggest that “problematic hypersexuality” (or “sex addiction” or “hypersexual disorder”) is not at all about how often you think about sex, how often you have sex, or how many different people you have sex with. Instead, it’s about either a) using sex to cope with depression or other mental health issues, or b) having sexual thoughts and behaviors that go against your morality / religion (which then makes you feel guilty about it).
In other words, we might be able to “cure” a lot of cases of “sex addiction” simply by dismantling the cultural stigma surrounding sexuality. If only that were so simple…