As you no doubt have seen or heard in the news lately, there has been an ongoing number of well-known individuals, celebrities and politicians with sexual harassment allegations and incidents of sexual misconduct. Bill O’Reilley, Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Louis C. K., Roy Moore, Al Franken, and others, not to mention Bill Clinton and Tiger Woods in the past. Most of those identified have been men although this situation is not limited to just one gender. So, this brings up a question: Is this a relatively new behavior, or is it just more vocalized now? I think most would agree that these behaviors are not something new and as far back as we care to go, we can see instances of those in power taking advantage of others in order to satisfy their sexual desires. It’s just that now, individuals are speaking out about this type of abusive behavior usually involving a power play, an expectation of a favor or advancement in exchange for sex, or at least an open invitation to suggest the same.
What makes this behavior fit into the criteria of addiction or does it? There can be several indicators of addiction including when an individual takes repeated chances in a particular behavior which involves risk to his or her health or well-being, without rational consideration of the consequences, or if so, chooses the addictive behavior anyway. One definition of sexual addiction that is generally accepted states essentially: ‘any sexually related, compulsive behavior which interferes with normal living and causes severe stress on family, friends, loved ones, and one’s work environment’. This definition addresses the current situations regarding those accused of sexual harassment and abuse including the loss of livelihood and career for some and sometimes the loss of a partner, spouse, or family.
The DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-Fifth Edition, 2013), attempts to explain the addictive process in terms of “the brain’s reward system and reinforcement of behaviors…” as well as a process which, “activates the system and produce feelings of pleasure, often referred to as a ‘high’.” Of interest is that the DSM-5 states, “Thus, groups of repetitive behaviors, which some term behavioral addictions, with such subcategories as ‘sex addiction,’ ‘exercise addiction’, or ‘shopping addiction’ are not included [in the DSM-5] because at this time there is insufficient peer-reviewed evidence to establish the diagnostic criteria and course descriptions needed to identify these behaviors as mental disorders”. (P. 481). Substance-related disorders such as alcohol and drug abuse and dependence are however considered mental disorders and are classified as such in the DSM-5.
Regarding the individuals in the news, most reports suggest repeated instances of sexual addictive behavior. When that same person requires more of that ‘fix’, whether it’s a drug, alcohol, or in this case, sex—this speaks to the increase in frequency or intensity of that behavior, (what we call tolerance)—which is now required in order for the brain of that person to be ‘satisfied’ and to get that hit. Think of the drug abuser or alcoholic who will risk driving or even going to work under the influence. The person in that addictive model will take outrageous chances and risks really, to chase that next hit and experience the effect of that substance. Not only is that person posing a danger to others, but also risking the potential loss of job, income, career, integrity, and/or family. Also, the person with a gambling addiction, chasing that ever-elusive ‘big win’ and in the process, losing enough including his or her rent money, house, or maybe even family. (I will address more of the tolerance factor and how that applies to pornography in another blog). When it comes to sexual addiction, the individual (who most likely does not recognize themselves as an addict), may take serious and often dangerous chances without rationally considering the consequences of these behaviors including the de-humanized treatment of their ‘object’ of sexual fascination. The motivator here is to feed and satisfy what is referred to as ‘the addict brain’ and to obtain (or at least attempt) to achieve another high, usually intended to be bigger and better than the last.
Maybe as a result of continued exposure (no pun intended) to the plethora of this sexual addictive behavior that we’re witnessing in our society, the DSM-5 academic body might re-think their attitude and definition, thereby placing sexual addiction in the same category as it does for alcohol and drug addiction. By their own definition, sexual addiction has the same qualities, properties, and description from a psychological framework in terms of the brain’s reward system as those other addictions. The chemical process in the brain activates these same areas for that pleasure principle to be experienced; some of us in our field of sexual addiction treatment believe this process is stronger due to the connection with another human being rather than only a substance. In addition to the release of those naturally released chemicals in the brain which occurs when the person engages in their behavior or drug, for the sex addict, there is the bonus of the release of the hormone Oxytocin leading up to and during orgasm. By the way, Oxytocin is often referred to as “the love hormone” and is similar in chemical structure to the opiate morphine with its calming and soothing opioid properties. In summary, these men in the news are exhibiting the characteristics for sexual addiction- in particular, taking extreme chances in order to obtain their ‘hit’ (read: drug), from the intended sexual encounter. Coupled with this is of course, the violation of the person or ‘object’ for their sexual gratification. As noted, these individuals’ behavior overrides the consequences that could occur as a result of their behavior. Rather than utilizing a drug to obtain this hit, they instead seek out another person for the purpose of engaging in their behavior.
The bigger question involves how to deal with this problem in our culture while shedding light on the need for treatment for these individuals. Despite the current omission in the DSM-5, receiving the same attention as substance-related addictive disorders would make sense since sexual addiction shares very similar characteristics and properties of other addictions. Sexual addiction arguably has equally if not more profound negative effects as any other addiction. In the near future, we would be a wise society to provide that same energy and attention to effective treatment of sexual addiction. This would reduce and ideally prevent future damage and trauma created by the actions of those with sexual addiction.