Under the Hood

Compulsive Sexual Urges: Something To Be Worried About?

In a new study, researchers note how the mainstream media has increasingly used the term "sex addiction" in conjunction with figures like Tiger Woods and Harvey Weinstein, likening it to an epidemic of sorts.

However, experts are divided on whether such a condition even exists. The problem boils down to whether it is a mental disorder requiring a diagnosis or merely a combination of other factors such as stress levels or behavioral issues.

Recalling his experience as a therapist, Thomas G. Plante notes how he has seen all kinds of regular people struggle with sexual impulses. One factor, according to him, could be the ease of access to pornography and sexual content on the internet today.

This year, the World Health Organization added compulsive sexual behavior disorder (CSBD) in the ICD-11 section of impulsive disorders. It was characterized by preoccupation with repetitive sexual thoughts and behavior.

Though there is no recommended "limit" to sexual activities, there is a definite problem at hand if sexual urges become the central focus of one's life, enough to lead to distress and adverse consequences.

In the survey, researchers found that over eight percent of Americans may be facing distress related to their sexual feelings and behaviors. Furthermore, the gender gap was not as wide as expected — 10 percent of men and 7 percent of women were said to meet the clinical cut-off point for the condition.

"Historically, it's been thought that compulsive sexual behaviors affect mostly men. But women are showing that they are experiencing difficulty controlling sexual urges and behavior, too," said first author Janna Dickenson, a post-doctoral fellow in human sexuality at the University of Minnesota. "Some people might masturbate excessively so that it interferes with the ability to work, or someone might be paying for sex so much that it's damaging financially."

But the findings of the survey, which tested a nationally representative sample of over 2,300 adults, are not yet a cause for concern. Given that CSBD is still a relatively new territory for psychologists, we do not know how accurate the diagnostic criteria is just yet. 

The survey asked questions like "How often have you felt guilty or shameful about sexual behavior?" or "How often have your sexual thoughts or behaviors interfered with relationships?" which participants answered using a scale of 1 to 5.

The vague nature of such questions may present a problem, given the potential to exaggerate mild cases of sexual distress. Whether this point system can accurately identify "compulsive behavior" and signs of "sex addiction" also remains a matter of debate.

Psychologists like David J. Ley have previously argued that a sex addiction diagnosis can easily be taken advantage of i.e. to make excuses for manipulative and predatory individuals who do not want to take responsibility for their behavior. 

"I am not sure when being a selfish, misogynistic jerk became a medical disorder," Ley told NBC News in 2017. "This is a concept that has been used to explain selfish, powerful, wealthy men engaging in irresponsible impulsive sexual behavior for a long time."