On “Sex Addiction” and why I don’t like those two words together (...otherwise considered "I felt like getting on a soap box today...")


We humans appear to have the ability to be addicted to just about ANYTHING, right? 

From booze or drugs to food or anything that might aid in helping our minds or bodies escape, it seems possible that the word addiction could apply easily to sex - especially if it fits the criteria of causing a disruption in a person’s life. 

So why do I cringe when I hear those two words together?

1: Drug/Alcohol Addiction Treatment

While I’m not a Substance Abuse Counselor, I have treated clients in outpatient therapy who have used drugs and/or alcohol to cope with other underlying mental/emotional health issues and have heard their experiences with various treatment centers. I have also seen through the eyes of friends and loved ones who have suffered with addiction-related issues. I’ve seen addictions take over a person’s life and cause them to lose themselves, causing confusion and pain to the loved ones left behind. 

I’ve seen tons of people who tried desperately to get help for their drug and alcohol addictions, but who received inadequate treatment that often left them feeling powerless or hopeless. 

The model of AA/NA is based on the principal that the individual with an addiction is powerless against alcohol or drugs. The idea is to connect with a higher power to provide the support and strength necessary to overcome the addiction. I have seen this work for a few people - and therefore I would never say that this model entirely lacks value. There can be great strength and support within AA/NA groups that help contribute to the person’s success. It can be a powerful experience for someone who needs that kind of support. 

The problem is that this model doesn’t work for everyone and it is also the most commonly used model for substance misuse treatment that I have seen. This approach has had a negative impact on many people trying to get help, sending the message that they are broken or incapable of making changes in their lives. 

I am not a Substance Abuse Counselor, but I would probably call myself a “Substance Misuse” Counselor if I were.

2: Sex-Negativity and Misinformation 

We already have enough sex-negativity floating around in our culture. Our media sends confusing messages that idealizes certain kinds of sexuality (for example: think about any recent Hardee’s commercial) while slut-shaming all over the place. The message is that women are deeply sexualized to cater towards "ideal" fantasies, but they are punished if they actually act on their own sexual desires or even if they attempt to dress provocatively. Appearing "sexy" is both demanded and shamed at the same time - which is downright confusing. 

We are lacking comprehensive sex education in the majority of our schools. Parents are often too uncomfortable to have “the sex talks” with their children/teens (and yes, this is understandable - which is why I'm here for you if this fits your description).

When sex-education does happen in schools, it is most often delivered by a teacher who is not certified to teach on the subject (such as a gym teacher) and can be filled with misinformation. I've heard some of these stories in my role as a sex educator. I also continue to hear stories from clients in therapy and from friends about their severely lacking sex education. 

Language is important because we derive meaning from the ways in which things are said. Because of this, there are compelling reasons why many Sex Therapists are careful about the ways in which they speak of sexual concerns (deliberately using the words "sexual concerns" or "sexual issues" rather than "sexual dysfunctions" or "sexual addictions"). I am enthusiastically on-board with this language usage. 

3: The Underlying-Issues 

This rationale relates to the first point about drug and alcohol addiction treatment - as many times the underlying issues are ignored in those models. The tendency for a lot of people suffering with addictions is to think of themselves as “just an addict.” This perpetuates a negative self-image and reduces a person to one factor that describes their behavior. Could you imagine being reduced to just one factor about yourself?

I’ve met a lot of people in my life and I can tell you for sure that nobody is “just” anything. People are complicated and unique. This curiosity of individuality continues to fuel my intrigue and amaze me every day, making me feel so grateful to have the opportunity to get to know people on very deep levels.

If someone is labeled as a “sex addict,” we could be ignoring all sorts of reasons behind the behaviors that led up to this labeling. And are they really a “sex addict” if they’re spending countless hours watching porn to the point that their relationships or other areas of life are suffering? Or is this a matter of compulsive behavior that is intended to serve as a coping mechanism for another issue that is unresolved? 

Therapists who provide sex therapy can easily form debates over the topic of “sex addiction.” I’m sure that there are wonderful therapists out there who are doing great work and using those two words together to do fabulous therapy. I’m also sure that some people find relief in calling themselves a “sex addict” and who fully embrace those two words together. I’m not one to criticize if someone feels empowered by identifying in any way they wish and I’m also not one to criticize other therapists who hold different opinions from mine. 

Obviously I care deeply about this topic, but please don’t be afraid to call me and say, “I think I’m a sex addict and I need help!” I will neither correct you nor shame you for anything. That's just not my thing.

To learn more about one of my biggest influences in the Sex Therapy world, check out Dr. Marty Klein’s work. His books “America’s War On Sex” and “Sexual Intelligence” are extraordinary.