Sex addiction isn't real- Dr. Chris Donaghue explains

By Sara Kloepfer

As famous men continue to be outed as sexual harassers and assaulters, we also continue to hear the same line in their public statements: “I am seeking treatment.” Treatment for what, exactly? Both Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey are undergoing sex addiction treatment at the same pricy facility in Arizona that counts Tiger Woods as a previous client. While these men obviously need to address their abusive behavior, they are clearly choosing the cushiest option possible in a blatant attempt to rehabilitate their careers rather than themselves. By labeling themselves as sex addicts, these men are blaming years of predatory behavior on an illness which, quite simply, is not real. 

Nearly every legitimate psychological body rejects the term “sex addiction”

According to Dr. Chris Donaghue, certified sex therapist and co-host of the Loveline podcast, sex addiction is not a valid diagnosis, but rather an excuse: “Blaming one’s bad behavior on a made-up mental health issue is an attempt to avoid accountability for their sociopathy and narcissism.” Sex addiction is a controversial diagnosis since pretty much every psychological body — including the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, and the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists — reject the term. The “symptoms” that characterize sex addiction diagnoses (hypersexuality, multiple partners, watching porn etc.) do not constitute what most medical professionals understand to be addiction. Addicts typically experience withdrawal, causing an immediate physiological response, which can be tracked in their brain activity. Conversely, this neurological response is not present in so-called sex addicts. 

“The term is slung around by media and even therapists (obviously untrained), as a way to shame sex that makes them anxious,” says Dr. Donaghue. “There is no right amount of sex to have, right way to have it, or correct amount of sex partners. Yet these factors are pathologized. Some may feel as though sex is compulsive and difficult to manage, but that’s not addiction. The addiction model works only for substance abuse and seeks abstinence, whereas sex is a drive always operating and what we need is to learn to encounter it differently.”

Men blame their abuse of power on sex addiction 

This difference between compulsion and addiction is easy to see in instances of sexual abuse. For example, sex offenders have the lowest rate of recidivism when compared to people convicted of property, drug, or assault crimes — a 2006 study found that the re-arrest rate of child molesters was only 3.5 percent. Sex and sexual assault are acts you can choose to perform, not a disorder. People committing assault generally do not feel out of control; rather, they value this behaviour because it makes them feel in control. When we talk about sexual harassment and assault, we are not talking about sex and these men’s addiction to it. We are talking about power, and the way these men abuse it.

Sex addiction diagnoses shame healthy sexuality (behavior outside of monogamous heterosexual intercourse) as “abnormal”

Of course, there are people who struggle with sexual urges and feel that they need help, but addiction is not the right framework for these issues. A sex addiction diagnosis actually harms patients further by stigmatizing and pathologizing non-traditional sexuality and subjecting them to spiritual and abstinence-based programs that are not just ineffective, but actively toxic. As Dr. Donaghue notes, “the treatment model is rooted in heterocentric sexuality and monogamy, and it shames sex that is creative and diverse. There is nothing psychologically unhealthy about paying for sex, sex outside of commitment, multiple sex partners, or the use of porn.” Sex addiction diagnoses shame healthy sexuality by characterizing any behavior outside of monogamous heterosexual intercourse as “abnormal.” This categorization of sex drives and erotic interests as either normal or not suggests that using sex or porn as a coping mechanism is always bad, when many studies suggest that these are actually perfectly healthy ways to deal with stress, trauma, and relationship issues.

FYI, even if sex really could be addictive, no form of addiction explains or excuses sexual violence

Labelling a harasser or abuser a sex addict writes off sexual predation as a “disease” that is out of that person’s control. They assume that they no longer have to own their sexuality or their actions, that it is easier to bounce back from being an addict than from being an abuser. However, even if sex really could be addictive, no form of addiction explains or excuses sexual violence. Addiction does not turn otherwise harmless people into violent predators.

So can serial sexual abusers like Weinstein and Spacey actually be rehabilitated? “Most abusers lack the needed accountability and empathy to get them into treatment, to learn about the lacking accountability and empathy,” says Dr. Donaghue. “The few that do will do well with therapy. Most abusers are forced into treatment, which is then not therapy (therapy cannot be forced onto someone), and then continue to offend.” As for folks forced into sex addiction treatment simply for non-traditional sexual interests, Dr. Donaghue instead suggests seeing a certified sex therapist. We as a society can also help avoid sex addiction misdiagnoses through better sex education as well as support, acceptance, and discussion of healthy uses of masturbation, porn, and non-monogamy.

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