Science Says Sex Addiction Is For Real. Here’s How To Diagnose It.

‘Hypersexual disorder’ might be included in the updated mental health bible, but first scientists have to define it. UCLA scientists have some suggestions.
Wikimedia Commons

Tiger Woods, Charlie Sheen and other celebrities with an admitted proclivity for prurient behavior could soon serve as diagnostic case studies: New research shows that sex addiction is indeed a mental health disorder–one that can be easily and accurately diagnosed.

The research could bolster efforts to include sex addiction in the updated Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, an instruction manual of mental conditions that has criteria for diagnosing everything from autism to schizophrenia. The manual is undergoing its first major revision in more than a decade, prompting heated debates over which disorders should and should not be included, sex addiction among them. But what exactly is sex addiction? The study offers some key definitions.

It’s formally called “hypersexual disorder,” and it’s much more than enjoying sex a little too much. Here are the criteria:

  • A recurring pattern of sexual fantasies, urges and behaviors lasting six months or longer, which are not caused by other issues like substance abuse, another medical condition or manic episodes associated with bipolar disorder;
  • A pattern of sexual activity in response to unpleasant mood states, such as feeling depressed, or a pattern of repeatedly using sex as a way of coping with stress;
  • A lack of ability to reduce or stop sexual activities the patient believes are problematic; and
  • Evidence of “personal distress” caused by the behavior, like interference with work or relationships.

While these seem fairly general, mental health professionals could use these proposed symptoms to very accurately separate people into two groups: Those who have a sex addiction disorder, and those who don’t. The distinction between the two is key, because it shows that people are unlikely to be falsely classified, according to Rory Reid, a research psychologist and assistant professor of psychiatry at the Semel Institute of Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA.

There’s no metric for how much sex is too much sex, although the study that tested these criteria found that sex-addicted patients reported having an average of 15 partners in a year.

Reid led the research team that came up with these criteria. Team members interviewed 207 patients in mental health clinics around the U.S. (most of whom were white males), about 150 of whom were seeking help for their sex addiction problems and about 50 of whom were seeking treatment for depression or anxiety. The criteria above were successful in nailing down 88 percent of hypersexual patients as being hypersexual, according to the study. On the flip side, 93 percent of the patients who were seeking help for other disorders did not meet the criteria.

This is not about turning common, normal behavior-–like pornography viewing or frequent sex-–into a disorder, however. People who were diagnosed with HD said they couldn’t control their urges, and even lost jobs over their inability to refrain from porn at work. Of the 207 patients they examined, 17 percent had lost a job at least once, 39 percent had a relationship end and 28 percent contracted a sexually transmitted infection, the researchers found.

“It’s not that a lot of people don’t take sexual risks from time to time or use sex on occasion to cope with stress or just escape,” Reid said. “But for these patients, it’s a constant pattern that escalates until their desire for sex is controlling every aspect of their lives and they feel powerless in their efforts to change.”

The study appears in the Journal of Sexual Medicine.