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Sex addiction is still shrouded in mystery, but Tori Rodriguez, in an article for The Atlantic, writes that what we know about female sex addiction is even more vague. Why? Rodriguez argues that stereotypes about insatiable male sexuality and the female lack of sexual appetite have contributed to a lack of research on the subject. In society at large, men are rewarded for their sexual conquests, and women are shamed for them — a bias that extends to the world of research.
But, what exactly is sex addiction, and what would make it different for a woman than for a man? Rodriguez spoke with Linda Edge, an Atlanta-based sex addiction therapist, who offers two very murky definitions: "Patrick Carnes, the founder and leader in the field, says that sex addiction is 'a pathological relationship with a mood altering experience.' Kelly McDaniel, a sex addiction therapist who wrote an important book for women called Ready to Heal, defines 'sex and love addiction as a disease of loneliness, fueled by shame and despair. It is a compulsion to use romance, people, and sexuality to feel alive.'"
This is where the problem lies, though. Multiple researchers have dismissed the very idea of sex addiction as a myth, citing the fact that the criteria for sex addiction are highly subjective and possibly a reflection of social stigmas rather than clinical realities. A "pathological relationship with a mood altering experience" could just as easily describe other addictions — to food, to certain drugs — but that definition is also vague because the realities of any given individual's "addiction" vary widely. "Each addict’s definition of sexual sobriety is different depending on the nature of their disorder," writes Rodriguez, "but it’s generally understood as abstinence from the addict’s problematic or 'bottom-line' sexual behaviors, not necessarily total abstinence from sex."
According to Rodiguez, "When women do seek help, they're often too ashamed to identify their problem as sex addiction, or may not even realize that's what the problem is, usually calling it 'love addiction' or 'relationship addiction' instead. While these other types of process addictions often co-occur with sex addiction, those labels are sometimes inaccurate to describe a woman's actual experience. Edge says that, at least initially, labels aren't important as long as a woman has recognized that her life has become unmanageable and is ready to get help." But, as Rodriguez notes, both "relationship addiction" and "love addiction" — neither of which is recognized by the American Psychiatric Association — are very different from sex addiction. Are women self-identifying that way because "love addiction" is the gendered way of saying "sex addiction for ladies"? None of this is not to say that hypersexuality — a term preferred over "sex addiction" by some scientists — can't be a problem. When one's sex life leads to deceit, as it did for more than one patient quoted in Rodriguez's article, the issue must be confronted.
But, pathologizing sexual behavior remains a grey area of psychological research. We can recall that homosexuality and fetishes like S&M, for example, were once considered mental illnesses, though they are now considered normal by many definitions. This fluidity of what constitutes "normal" or "abnormal" over time is one of the chief arguments against the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the bible of mainstream psychiatry. Sex addiction narrowly escaped inclusion in the latest edition of the DSM, which was heavily criticized before it was published for tentatively including questionable diagnoses with vague definitions like "Internet disorder."
That's not to say that the many people who feel addicted to their sexual behaviors aren't in need of treatment. But, there is clearly more at play here than the ingrained belief that women just aren't as sexual as men. (The Atlantic)