What's the harm in a little pleasure? Some people who enjoy sexual pleasure "too much" may be labeled as having sex addiction or being hypersexual. Sex addiction has been blamed for ruining relationships, lives, and careers. But, what if this infamous addiction was just heightened sexual desire?
A new study on the brains of hypersexual people indicates that these individuals simply have a higher sex drive, and that greater desire for sex is by no means a mental disability or an addiction.
"Potentially, this is an important finding," said senior author Nicole Prause, Ph.D. "It is the first time scientists have studied the brain responses specifically of people who identify as having hypersexual problems."
The study involved 52 volunteers: 39 men and 13 women, aged 18 to 39. They all reported having problems controlling their desire to view sexual images. They first filled out four questionnaires covering various topics, including sexual behaviors, sexual desire, sexual compulsions, and the possible negative outcomes of their conduct.
Participants had behaviors comparable to individuals seeking help for hypersexual mental health problems.
A diagnosis of hypersexuality, or sexual addiction, is typically associated with people who have sexual urges that feel out of control. These individuals tend to engage frequently in sexual behavior, have suffered consequences like divorce or economic ruin as a result of their behaviors, and show poor ability to reduce, or control, their sexual behaviors.
To test whether addiction to sex, or sexual desire, was at play among the participants, researchers showed them a set of images and noted their responses. "The volunteers were shown a set of photographs that were carefully chosen to evoke pleasant or unpleasant feelings," Prause said. "The pictures included images of dismembered bodies, people preparing food, people skiing - and, of course, sex. Some of the sexual images were romantic images, while others showed explicit intercourse between one man and one woman."
Participants were monitored using electroencephalography, a non-invasive technique that measures brain waves, or the electrical activity generated by neurons when they communicate with each other during arousal or other sensations. Researchers expected that participants who were hypersexual would have dulled responses to sexual images — essentially, responses to sexual images would have been similar to those of mild, or otherwise nonsexual, images.
However, researchers found that responses were not similar to expected hypersexual measurements at all. There were no changes in brain waves tied to the severity of participants' hypersexuality. So while there has been much speculation about the effect of sexual addiction or hypersexuality in the brain, the study provided no evidence to support any difference, Prause said.
Prause asserts that such symptoms are not necessarily representative of an addiction; in fact, high sexual desire, or libido, could also explain the problems with finances, relationships, and sexual behavior that the participants faced.
"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," she said.
"If our study can be replicated, these findings would represent a major challenge to existing theories of a sex 'addiction.'"
Source: Steele VR, Staley C, Fong T, Prause N. Sexual desire, not hypersexuality, is related to neurophysiological responses elicited by sexual images. Socioaffective Neuroscience & Psychology. 2013.