Sex Addiction May Affect More People Than Previously Thought

By Kelly Burch 11/16/18

Researchers examined the rates of sexual compulsion between the genders for a new study on the prevalence of sex addiction.

silhouette of a man in front of a computer dealing with sex addiction

More people than previously thought could be dealing with sex addiction, or at least sexual compulsions, according to a new study. 

The research, published in the JAMA Open Network, found that 8.6% of Americans may struggle with compulsive sexual behavior, defined as “distress and impairment associated with having difficulty controlling one’s sexual feelings, urges, and behaviors.”

Researchers surveyed 2,000 individuals representative of the U.S. population to get that number. 

Although sex addiction is frequently talked about in the media and there are 12-step groups dedicated to helping people recover from it, sex addiction is not actually a diagnosable condition, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). 

However, for the study, researchers were interested in finding out how many people reported “failing to control one’s sexual feelings and behaviors in a way that causes substantial distress and/or impairment in functioning.”

They acknowledged that the study might exaggerate the problem of sex addiction by labeling people with mild problems as being addicted, but pointed out that regardless, the study indicates that sexual compulsions are playing a big role in many people’s lives. 

“The high prevalence of this prominent feature associated with compulsive sexual behavior disorder has important implications for health care professionals and society,” they wrote. “Health care professionals should be alert to the high number of people who are distressed about their sexual behavior, carefully assess the nature of the problem within its sociocultural context, and find appropriate treatments for both men and women.”

The team found that compulsive sexual thoughts affected both sexes more evenly than previously considered: While 10% of men reported having compulsive thoughts, 7% of women did as well, suggesting that 40% of people contending with this issue are female. 

“Gender differences were smaller than previously theorized, with 10.3% of men and 7% of women endorsing clinically relevant levels of distress and/or impairment associated with difficulty controlling sexual feelings, urges, and behavior,” researchers wrote. 

They theorized that women might be experiencing increasing rates of intrusive sexual thoughts: “Given recent cultural shifts toward becoming more permissive of female sexual expression and the proliferation in accessibility to sexual imagery and casual sex through the internet, software applications, and social media, one possible explanation for the smaller gender differences found in our study is that the prevalence of difficulty controlling sexual behaviors among women may be increasing,” study authors wrote. 

The study also found that compulsions were highest among people with less than a high school education, those with very high or very low income, racial and ethnic minorities, and people who identified as LGBTQ. The researchers called for further research into the social components of sex addiction. 

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