Sex Addiction?

by Jason Stotts

To me, the concept of “sex addiction” is quite strange.  To understand why, let’s look at it’s fundamental levels.  First, the concept is trying to define an “addiction” to sex.  So, what is an addiction?  This is where the problem gets tricky.  Can you only be addicted to chemical substances (like alcohol, heroin, etc)?  Can you be addicted to actions (like sex, gambling, etc)?  The question comes down to: is addiction physical (chemical), psychological (actions), or both?  Obviously, the primary sense of addiction is the chemical sense, because all references to psychological addiction are made on the basis of comparison to chemical addiction.  Indeed, in order to make the idea of psychological addiction get off the ground at all, the psychologists who support it have to link it to a chemical: usually to one of the neurotransmitters dopamine or serotonin.  The idea is that the psychological addiction causes release of certain neurotransmitters and you become addicted to these: psychological addition via chemical addiction.  The problem is that everything that feels good causes the release of either dopamine or serotonin (and perhaps others), but not everything that feels good is addicting, is it?  It’s unclear how people arguing for psychological addictions could address this.

I think one of the major problems fueling the idea of “sex addiction” is not a psychological one, but a moral one.  All addictions are “bad” in some sense.  The boundaries of what is bad and good in sex are defined by a person’s morals.  Sex naturally feels good and people want to do it; sex is a natural part of our human nature.  When you live in a sexually repressive society, like most religious societies, then you end up with very narrow boundaries of what is sexually acceptable: no premarital sex, no oral sex, no anal sex, no non-monogamy, no masturbation, no group sex, ad nauseum.  To shorten this list and make it easier to understand, most religions use the standard of no “non-procreative sex,” that is: no sex that could not result in the birth of a child.  This is based on the idea that there is a god and that this god created you and your body and that each part of your body has a function and that the proper function of your genitals is to reproduce.  The very idea of a god is absurd, but the function argument is equally absurd.  For example, I urinate with my penis.  Is that unnatural and sinful?  It is if my penis only has one function and that function is reproduction.  Clearly, my urinating will never impregnate anyone.  If a religionist were to grant that the penis has two functions (reproduction and excretion), then why not pleasure as well?  The answer is that they want to be able to control you through guilt, when you break rules that are impossible to uphold and not even based in what it is to be human.

How does this relate to sexual addiction?  Well, addiction has to be for something “bad” and if you make the scope of what is acceptable very small, you make the scope of what is bad very large.  For example, some people say that they have a “sexual addiction” because they “masturbate too much” and want to stop.  The problem is that self-pleasuring is good and natural, it gives us a sense of sexual self-reliance and is a great source of pleasure.  If it wasn’t defined as bad by religionists, then we wouldn’t have to worry about how frequently we were doing it: unless, of course, we became neurotic about it. But then, that’s not sexual addiction, that’s a complete separate thing: neurosis.  Further, something being illicit makes many people want to do it more and so by artificially restricting sex, this kind of neurotic activity is actually encouraged.

Dr. Marty Klein, on his blog Sexual Intelligence, has a new essay about sexual addiction called “An Epidemic of Sex Addiction?” where he makes the following points:

I don’t treat sex addiction. The concept is superficial. It isn’t clearly defined or clinically validated, and it’s completely pathology-oriented. It presents no healthy model of non-monogamy, pornography use, or stuff like S/M. Some programs eliminate masturbation, which is inhumane, naïve, and crazy. […]

Oh, I observe people with obsessive-compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and a few other exotic states. That accounts for some of what laypeople call “sex addiction.” […]

What I mostly see instead of “sex addicts” is people who are neurotic or narcissistic. They can’t quite believe that the normal rules of life (“tell the truth,” “all behavior has consequences”) apply to them. They make promises they intend to keep—but then they want relief from frustration, or loneliness, or anxiety so much, they are unwilling to keep their promises, even promises to themselves. […]

His entire essay is worth reading, but even he doesn’t address the underlying problem.  The solution to much of the problem of “sexual addiction” is to rethink sexual ethics and to base it in an ethic that is appropriate to human life.  If we remove the religious framework, that narrows the realm of what is sexually acceptable down to a non-human level, then we start to open up sexuality to a point where people can actually enjoy their sexuality.  Further, by reintegrating sex and ethics, we can help people to understand how sex can be used to enhance their lives and how sex can be used to harm their lives: we can help them to make better decisions regarding their sexual choices.  Once we have done this, then we can start to see “sexual addiction” for what it really is: a problem caused by a morality that is antithetical to human life.  And, of course, when you try to actually practice a morality antithetical to human life, you end up with problems.

I’m not going to propose the entire solution here, indeed the reintegration of sex and ethics is the subject of my book Sexual Perfection, but the first step is to understand that morality should be about how to live well as a human.  If you want more information about the ethics of eudaimonism and rational egoism, see Ayn Rand’s The Virtue of Selfishness and Aristotle’s The Eudemian Ethics.  Once you have a pro-human morality in place, then you need to begin to understand how sex can help you live a good, complete, life.  The process is not easy, especially for those of us who were raised in a religious household, but it’s certainly possible and the prize is the best thing in the world: a good life.

3 Responses to “Sex Addiction?”

  1. Kelly Valenzuela

    My boss and I were just talking about sexual addiction a few weeks ago. He read about a doctor who found a correlation between sex addicts and his bulimia patients. I think both could be cured (or brought under control) with anti-depressant type meds. I asked my boss for the link and will repost here if he can find it.

    Basically, it seems these people are compulsive due to a medical problem and their compulsions manifest themselves in different ways. Once the medical problem was brought under control, their compulsiveness, in many cases, completely went away.

  2. JasonStotts


    I agree with you. I think Dr. Klein is right on with his analysis of the problem.

    If you find that link, please do post it.


  3. Porn Addiction? at Erosophia

    […] argued before that I don’t think porn addiction is a real thing (here and Erosophia Podcast #14 & #15).  I’ve also referenced Dr. Marty Klein’s essay on it.  […]