A “sex addiction epidemic” is unfolding like a plague in the US, according a recent Newsweek cover story—but don’t reach for the chastity belt just yet. The over-stimulated article is weakly reported, superficial, and perpetuates confusion about sexual disorders that researchers in the field have been trying to alleviate.
“Sex addiction” has been a popular story since the publication of Out of the Shadows: Understanding Sexual Addiction, a 1983 conceptual treatise by therapist Patrick Carnes. Newsweek cites an estimate by The Society for the Advancement of Sexual Health, an education and treatment organization co-founded by Carnes, that “between 3 and 5 percent of the U.S. population—or more than 9 million people—could meet the criteria for addiction.”
Carnes (or the society) gave the same estimate to the Minneapolis Star Tribune in 1988, to The Washington Post in 1998, and to The Wall Street Journal in 2008—and stories quoting the media darling have put the estimate of sex addicts in America as high as 16 million.
The real story is about the “criteria for addiction” that Newsweek mentioned, but never explained. The only news is the shameless plug for Shame, a recently released movie about a sex addict, which gets not only a full-page sidebar, but a full paragraph in the story itself. The piece also touts a reality show about sex addicts, Bad Sex, quoting its therapist host. The pandering treatment of Hollywood should be no surprise given that Newsweek’s entertainment reporter, Chris Lee, wrote the article.
The result is the latest installment in a long line of voyeuristic articles (even the accompanying photos smack of soft porn) that crop up every time some Lothario pulls a David Duchovny or a Tiger Woods. It begins with the predictable peeping-Tom lede, which sets its gaze on Valerie, a pseudonymous woman “logging” a laundry list of promiscuous activities.
After mentioning that “‘sex addiction’ remains a controversial designation often dismissed as a myth,” the article drops the quote from Steven Luff asserting that it’s actually “a national epidemic.” Luff, like most of the other sources in the article is the author of a book about dealing with sex addiction and the leader of sex-addiction recovery program. The problem with relying on therapists, as most of the articles over the years have done, rather than qualified experts in academia, is that they have a vested interest in promoting the idea that there’s a widespread problem. The more people believe it, the more money they make.
In fact, the evidence that Lee uses to substantiate the alleged “growth” in sex addiction is the swelling number of sex therapists and treatment centers. Whether that reflects a proliferation of sex addiction or just a proliferation of clever marketing isn’t clear. It becomes readily apparent that Lee isn’t really interested in the answer when he goes on to claim, “This year the epidemic has spread to movies and TV.” That’s the cue for the free advertising mentioned above, after which Lee finally makes an attempt to show that he dug into the scholarly literature. It falls flat.
The bottom half of the article contains four variations of the phrase “research shows ”, none of which specify what research Lee is referring to. In one instance, he mentions “research showing that chronic masturbators who engage with online porn for up to 20 hours a day can suffer a ‘hangover’ as a result of the dopamine drop-off,” and then asserts, “But there are other collateral costs.” Lee doesn’t define those costs, however. Instead, he quotes the head of a Christian website that combats porn addiction, who suggests that looking at online porn will lead you “to do so many things you never thought you’d do.”
Spending twenty hours a day looking at porn is undoubtedly problematic behavior and extremely unhealthy, but allowing that kind of vague, moralistic commentary in a paragraph that purports to be about scientific research is outrageous.
His other statements about what “research shows” aren’t much better. According to one, “Although sex addicts sometimes describe behavior akin to obsessive-compulsive disorder, research hasn’t directly correlated the two.” (Yes, it has; more on that in a minute.) The next sentence reads, “But a growing body of research shows how hypersexual disorder can fit into other forms of addiction.” (That’s true, but ‘correlate with’ would be a better choice of words than ‘fit into.’) And, finally, a paragraph later, Lee writes, “Research shows that substance abusers and sex addicts alike form a dependency on the brain’s pleasure-center neurotransmitter, dopamine.” (That’s accurate, but more complex than it seems.)
What Lee is scratching at, but fails to reveal, is a serious debate about how we define, diagnose, and treat problematic hypersexuality.