Is Sex Addiction Real?

Like food addiction, sex addiction has always struck me as one of those things that seems weird to pathologize. Aren't we all a little addicted to food? Like, can we ever really be "addicted" to biological imperatives? We can have disordered modes of thinking about them, sure, but "addiction"? The existence of sex addiction, in particular, is something the field of psychology has yet to confirm, and it was rejected from inclusion in the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or the DSM-5.

And a new study out of Sweden published this week continues to leave researchers unclear on whether hypersexual disorder is a real thing or not. Of 106 men studied (very notably, only men), 67 of them had been diagnosed with hypersexual disorder, while 39 of them were "healthy" men who served as the experiment's control. Researchers set out to prove the physiological existence of hypersexual disorder by analyzing stress levels. Participants were given doses of the drug dexamethasone, which depressed their immune systems, the night before they were administered stress test. This made it easier for researchers to screen for levels of the stress hormones cortisol and Adrenocorticotropic hormone the next day.

The study found that men with hypersexual disorder had higher stress levels than those without. Most of the time, however, hypersexual disorder presents alongside some other mental health issue, such as depression, and in patients with childhood trauma. While the study also controlled for childhood trauma and other factors, and found that heightened stress levels persisted in men with hypersexual disorder, the possibility remains that the symptoms of so-called "sex addiction" are merely symptoms of other underlying issues manifesting themselves either during sex or surrounding sexual behaviors.

Said one professor on the study:

"Aberrant stress regulation has previously been observed in depressed and suicidal patients as well as in substance abusers. In recent years, the focus has been on whether childhood trauma can lead to a dysregulation of the body's stress systems via so-called epigenetic mechanisms, in other words how their psychosocial environments can influence the genes that control these systems."

And even the study itself suggested that psychotherapy would be the next step for anyone suffering from hypersexual disorder. So while the jury is still very much out on the physiological evidence of "sex addiction," psychotherapy is still the best recourse for sexual dysfunction.

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