New study suggests sexual addiction is not actually an addiction

Can you be addicted to sex? Nope. Newly published research out of UCLA suggests that "sex addiction" does not fit the definition of other medically-recognized forms of dependence.

Whether or not sexual addiction can be classified as a disease in the first place has never really been clear. The American Psychiatric Association, for example, does not recognize it in its official list of psychiatric disorders. A few years ago, psychologist Michael Bader characterized sex addiction as "ambiguous, hard to define, blurry around the edges, and an excuse for not thinking." The term itself is a mischaracterization, used by lay audiences to encapsulate the addiction model of a range of symptoms referred to in more academic circles as "hypersexuality" (other interpretations of which include the "compulsivity model" and the "impulsivity model"), which is a pretty nebulous concept in and of itself.

By its simplest definition, hypersexuality is about a failure to keep strong sexual desires in check. Tiger Woods and Anthony Weiner both seem to struggle with regulating their sexual desires. The former calls himself a sex addict, while the latter has distanced himself from the label. Is either of them telling the truth?

New study suggests sexual addiction is not actually an addiction

Questions like these would be easier to answer if we knew, for example, whether the brain of a self-described sex addict responds to pornography the way the brain of an alcoholic does to booze. Until last week, however, we had no idea how to answer a question like this, because no such study had ever been done. Now it has. The upshot: brain scans of self-identified hypersexuals exposed to sexual imagery fail to provide support for models of sexual addiction.

In a study recounted in the latest issue of Socioaffective Neuroscience and Psychology, researchers led by UCLA psychologist Nicole Prause exposed 53 test subjects to a series of "emotional photographs" meant to elicit pleasant sexual, pleasant-non-sexual, neutral, and unpleasant feelings. A mutilated body might be used to trigger an unpleasant emotional response, a picture of explicit, penetrative intercourse to prompt a pleasant sexual one. Importantly, all of the test subjects self-identified as hypersexual and claimed to have problems regulating their viewing of sexual images. The subjects were also administered questionnaires designed to measure their hypersexuality.

Electroencephalography (EEG) was used to measure brain activity in the first 300 milliseconds after the appearance of each image, a measurement known as "P300." P300 has been used to demonstrate neural bases of addiction before, for example in cocaine addicts, who register a spike in P300 response when shown photos of the drug.

In what Prause claims was an unexpected twist, the researcher observed no such peak in their test subjects' P300 readings. "The brain's response to sexual pictures was not predicted by any of the three questionnaire measures of hypersexuality," she said in a statement. "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."

Prause and her colleagues note a number of potential shortcomings in their experimental design. P300, for example, might just be a crummy way of gauging neural relationships to sexually motiving stimuli – given that this is the first study of its kind, it's hard to say. In other words, this research will in no way close the case on whether sexual addiction is, in fact, an "addiction."

What it does do, however, is lend credence to the longstanding criticism that labeling hypersexuality as an addiction merely stigmatizes sexual behavior that is deemed socially unacceptable. Similar debates have been waged over what, exactly constitutes a sexual fetish. What does it say about psycho-clinical views of sexuality when a study like this one concludes that people who are into BDSM (which, unlike sexual addiction, is included in the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), are in fact more psychologically healthy than those who aren't?

"One of the frequent critiques of sexual addictions is that it pathologizes normative, socially unaccepted, sexual behaviors," write Prause and her colleagues. "These data appear consistent with that perspective."The researchers' findings are published free of charge in Socioaffective Neuroscience and Psychology.