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Sex Addiction Panic! The Conservative, Religious Push to Pathalogize Sexuality

The science behind sex addiction is "abysmal," says clinical psychologist David Ley. Why does the concept continue to resonate?
 
 
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The Newsweek cover model’s bare shoulders and protruding clavicles seem to signal weakness, vulnerability, illness. She’s captured turning away from the camera and a pull-quote is stamped across her head: “I lost two marriages and a job. I ended up homeless. I was totally out of control.” The all-caps headline dramatically spells out her troubles: “THE SEX ADDICTION EPIDEMIC.”

The sexy alarmism of Newsweek’s  latest cover story is irresistible — but it should be viewed with extreme skepticism. Mental health experts haven’t come to the consensus that sex addiction even  exists, let alone that it’s an epidemic. The cultural phenomenon of sex addiction, which I first  wrote about in 2009, is just that: A cultural phenomenon, not a legitimate medical diagnosis, and the release this week of the much buzzed-about “Shame,” a sex-addiction drama starring Michael Fassbender, further secures the concept’s place in the zeitgeist. Never mind that it was rejected from the upcoming revision of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), psychiatry’s bible.

Supporters of the sex-addiction paradigm will point to the current umbrella category of “Sexual Disorder Not Otherwise Specified,” which recognizes “distress about a pattern of repeated sexual relationships involving a succession of lovers” — but the term “sex addiction” is unscientifically applied to a vastly greater range of behaviors, including subjectively excessive masturbation and porn-viewing. An entry on  “hypersexual disorder” is being considered for the DSM revision — for the appendix — but it’s important to note that the concept of sex addiction is but one approach to conceptualizing and treating hypersexuality.

In the interest of countering the Newsweek narrative, I gave clinical psychologist David Ley a call. I figured he might have a thing or two to say on the topic, given that for the past year he’s been working on the upcoming book  “The Myth of Sex Addiction” — and did he ever.

Have you had a chance to read the Newsweek cover story?

I did. It’s the same old story.

And what is the same old story, exactly?

There’s a gross over-representation and exaggeration of research. The sex-addiction concept is a belief system, not a diagnosis; it’s not a medically supported concept. The science is abysmal.

What’s the worst example of the pseudo-science?

The thing that drives me craziest is that over the past year or two, [proponents of the sex addiction model] have started trying to use brain science to explain it. They’re now talking about morphological changes that supposedly happen in the brain as somebody watches porn or has too much sex. The reality is, careful scientists will tell you they are absolutely unable to identify any brain differences between these alleged sex addicts and non-sex addicts. The other thing that they’ll tell you is that the brain changes constantly — any behavior that a person engages in, especially repetitively, changes your brain. So, identifying changes related to this sexual behavior and distinguishing it from anything else is absolutely ridiculous.

What they’re doing is trying to build credibility. The major way that they build credibility is through metaphor, or “valley-girl science,” as I call it. They will tell you, and [the Newsweek] article is a good example of it, that sex addiction is  like an eating disorder, it’s  like a heroin addiction. The reality is this is an incredibly weak form of argument, because it’s so subjective; and when they tell you that sex addiction is like an eating disorder, they don’t tell you all the things that are  different about it. They live by anecdotes, because they don’t have good science.

 
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