Compulsive Sexual Behavior Recognized By World Health Organization

By Kelly Burch 07/05/19

WHO's decision to recognize compulsive sexual behavior as a disease has been welcomed by people working in the healthcare field.

person living with compulsive sexual behavior

Compulsive Sexual Behavior has officially been recognized as a disease in the recently-approved eleventh edition of the World Health Organization’s International Classification of Diseases. 

The ICD-11 is slated to go into effect in 2022. 

“This is the first time internationally that there is a category for disregulated or problematic sexual behavior,” University of Massachusetts Medical School professor Shane W. Kraus told SELF in 2018. Kraus is also the director of the Behavioral Addictions Clinic at the Edith Nourse Rogers Memorial Veterans Hospital in Bedford, Massachusetts, and help developed the WHO guidelines. 

What is Compulsive Sexual Behavior?

The International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) defines compulsive sexual behavior as “a persistent pattern of failure to control intense, repetitive sexual impulses or urges resulting in repetitive sexual behaviour.”

The symptoms include “repetitive sexual activities becoming a central focus of the person’s life to the point of neglecting health and personal care or other interests, activities and responsibilities; numerous unsuccessful efforts to significantly reduce repetitive sexual behaviour; and continued repetitive sexual behaviour despite adverse consequences or deriving little or no satisfaction from it.”

The move has been welcomed by people working in the healthcare field. In 2013, the American Psychiatric Association decided not to include sexual disorders in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). Yet, having the condition recognized by a governing body legitimizes the condition and also clears the way for further research, officials say. It also reflects what treatment providers are seeing in their work, said Rory Reid, assistant professor and research psychologist at UCLA.

Is It An Addiction?

“A lot of the therapeutic community has been talking about this issue and working with patients seeking help for these kind of sexual problems long before it was canonized in the ICD-11,” Reid said. 

In the ICD-11, which will not officially come into effect until January 1, 2022, Compulsive Sexual Behavior is classified as an “impulse control disorder,” not a “disorder due to addictive behavior.” However, that may change over time as more research is done on the condition and possible ties to addiction, said WHO spokesperson Christian Lindmeier.  

“There is ongoing scientific debate on whether or not the compulsive sexual behavior disorder constitutes the manifestation of a behavioral addiction,” Lindmeier said. “WHO does not use the term sex addiction because we are not taking a position about whether it is physiologically an addiction or not.”

There has been some hesitation to classify sexual disorders because what is normal sexual behavior in one culture might be seen as disordered in another. The definition in the ICD-11 focuses on symptoms in order to provide a consistent framework for evaluating patients with troubling sexual behaviors.

“People have sexual behaviors that vary across people and cultures and groups, and we want to make sure we're not overpathologizing people based on specific values,” Kraus said. 

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.