Does Kinky Sex Lead to Sex Addiction?

Does Kinky Sex Lead to Sex Addiction?

By Scott Alexander Hess 08/08/12

Acting out sexual fantasies in a safe context can be liberating. But with the explosion of "sex addiction," the kick people get from kink looks increasingly like a symptom.

Image: 
Gay bathhouse ad—with "fetish rooms" photo via

It’s 3 am and a man is butt-naked at a no-holds-barred gangbang in a secluded section of Central Park. Across the street in a Park Avenue high rise, another man is having sex with his wife of 20 years. Which one is—or is likely to become—a sex addict? The first one, right?

Comparing these two scenarios raises the question: Is the type of sex you engage in indicative of sex addiction? Is an unconventional erotic life—such as public sex with multiple anonymous partners, say, or barebacking, turning tricks or getting your ass paddled—sufficient for the label of sex addict?

Sex sells, of course, and popular culture has bought into the label of sex addiction in a big way. Yet the term, invented in the late '60s and lately in vogue via media hype over celebrities like Tiger Woods, is not currently listed in the DSM-IV, the standard diagnostic manual for psychiatric disorders. According to the DSM, addiction has to be to a substance, such as an alcoholic craving booze or a drug addict jonesing for heroin. (However, the newly revised DSM-V, due out next spring, is expected to include gambling—and possibly sex—among addiction diagnoses.) 

Many therapists, addiction specialists and other practitioners strongly support the revision. Says Robert Weiss, founding director of the Sexual Recovery Institute in Los Angeles: “Addiction is addiction, whether substance based [such as alcohol or other drugs] or process based [like, gambling or sex].”

"Higher-risk and higher-intensity sex means a bigger 'fix' and sex addicts like to fix."

The DSM-IV includes a miscellaneous diagnosis called Sexual Disorders Not Otherwise Specified, whose main symptom is “distress about a pattern of repeated sexual relationships involving a succession of lovers who are experienced by the individual only as things to be used.” Even this diagnosis does not mention sex addiction—let alone promiscuity or particular practices—but focuses on the distress experienced by the person and caused by sexual behavior. Nonetheless, the definition’s implicit value judgment equating sexual health with intimacy is plain enough—intimacy being the opposite of treating a partner “as a thing to be used."

Despite the lack of a current official disease label for sex addiction, there are scores of 12-step meetings for sex addicts in New York City and nationwide, and rehabs for sex addiction are an exploding industry. So do sexperts and self-identified addicts assume that wild sex can lead to addiction (or is itself a disorder)?

Jeff Schultz, a sex addiction counselor and founder of the Sonoran Healing Center in Phoenix, says that while these behaviors don’t necessarily result in addiction, fringe sex may draw an addict closer to the flame. “They are behaviors that include little if any intimate connection and are primarily about intensity, arousal and orgasm. Not many people find love in a gangbang,” he says. “For the sex addict, the ‘fix’ is the arousal—and ‘more’ is always better than less. Generally, higher-risk and higher-intensity sex means a bigger 'fix' and sex addicts like to fix.”

According to Schultz, while occasional high-intensity sex doesn’t a sex addict make, a pattern of consistent sex (whether wild or mild) that causes problems in your life, that leaves you preoccupied and wanting more and that causes feelings of shame definitely point to a sex addiction.

Weiss agrees that there is no absolute correlation between high-kink sex and addiction. He does, however, think that wilder behavior can be part of the sex addict’s hunt—and its attendant dopamine spurts—while chasing a more intense high. “Just as the drug addict’s brain can crave more and more addictive substances, the brain can crave more and more intensity around behavior addiction,” he says. “Some sex addicts will turn to fetish behavior as a means to escalate. It’s a higher high.”

Being constantly surrounded by sexual triggers or living in a culture that embraces high-quantity sex can also be a factor in increasing the likelihood of addiction. “Gay men, for example, are more likely to have higher rates of sex addiction because they live in a community that is much more accepting of having a lot of sex with a lot of different people than your average heterosexual community,” Weiss says.

(As is obvious to anyone, hetero sexual imagery is everywhere in popular culture, media and advertising, while homo sexual imagery is comparatively rare and considered “controversial.” At the same time, the gay movement’s drive for same-sex marriage is likely, however gradually, to decrease the acceptance of experimentation with promiscuity. Of course, gay marriages may not have a lower rate of “cheating” and divorce than straight ones.)

"I believe having sex with one partner could help stop or alleviate sex addiction."

Sex addiction is mostly about the chase, Weiss adds, “it's about the hunt, the chasing. What we call a process addiction. It’s about the three hours the person is on Grindr [the gay ‘dating’ GPS app’].” 

Monogamy does not preclude sex addiction—as Tiger Woods so spectacularly illustrated. Weiss has clients in committed relationships who masturbate compulsively, say, or have sex several times a day or achieve arousal only by treating their partners like a sex object or prostitute.

Turning to the uber-popular gay male hook up app Grindr, and reaching out to a few friendly users, the consensus is that increasingly wild behavior could indeed lead to serious "distress." Interestingly, it is less the amount of time spent trawling for potential partners, and the emotional highs and lows, than the kinkiness of the sex that seems most symptomatic to them.

Chad, a 20-something who says he is “not a sex addict yet,” but confesses to wanting to try water sports and loves three-ways, feels strongly that engaging in too much kinky sex could ultimately lead to his becoming a raging sexaholic. “I feel someone is more likely to become a sex addict if they get into gangbangs and crazy stuff all the time,” he says. “I also believe having sex with one partner could help stop or alleviate sex addiction.”