Sex is a good thing, isn’t it? It feels good and it is necessary for life to continue. Medical researchers claim it is good for your health; after all God made us sexual creatures. Yet sex historically has been one of the most controversial topics known to mankind. It’s complicated!
Even though sex isn’t necessary for survival of the individual organism it certainly is for the species inasmuch as it is the foundation of reproduction and the evolution of life itself. Witness all the attention given to it in literature, conversation, musical lyrics, drama, comedy, humor, even politics, art, and fashion. This isn’t just a human thing; aside from disputes over territory and food, courtship rituals and battles for mating rights seem to consume the animal world.
Sex is then no small matter. Mating and reproduction are integrally tied up with property rights, emotional well being, our futures, identity and gender roles, status, and concerns about exposure to potentially serious communicable diseases. With all this emphasis on the importance given to sex, it is no wonder that distinctions are made with respect to when sex is a good thing and when it isn’t.
When is sex a good thing?
Sex is a good thing when it serves as an integral part of one’s life that enhances or enriches life itself. This means that whatever problems, risks, or complications sex brings into life those problems are outweighed by the degree to which it benefits the individual. For some this may mean that sex serves to anneal the emotional bond between individuals through which a relationship, and in many instances, a family can grow. For others, sex can serve a recreational purpose and have no other purpose, albeit contrary to the dictates of many organized forms of religion. Many people believe that as long as sex is between consenting adults it is acceptable. Others, including those in the field of psychiatry, make distinctions between healthy sex and perversions, also known as paraphilias. These kinds of distinctions, however, are debatable and may vary according to cultural standards and the times we live in. One of these distinctions has to do with the question, “Is there such a thing as too much of a good thing?”
When is sex not a good thing?
Can there be such a thing as too much of a good thing? Of course! If you eat too much fattening food, however delicious, you can develop obesity and health problems later in life. Alcohol in moderation according to some medical research can have salubrious effects, in excess it can be a disastrous addiction. Too much of almost anything isn’t good. Epicurus, the philosopher during the Roman Empire, hence espoused a philosophy that extolled the virtues of moderation.
When then does sex become too much of a good thing and is this an addiction? I define an addiction in a pragmatic sense, i.e., a behavior constitutes an addiction when its net effects are detrimental to an individual’s life. This definition can be taken broadly as including anything pertaining to the life of an individual whether it be health, finances, or relationships. Sex can become addictive when there is significant time, energy, and involvement invested in this behavior, efforts to desist from or reduce its frequency resist change, and it becomes detrimental to an individual’s life in the following ways:
Time consumption: So much time is invested in sexual behavior, whether this be having multiple relationships simultaneously, masturbation, watching pornography, or visiting prostitutes, that it interferes with time otherwise spent constructively at work, in relationships, or involvement with family, hobbies, etc.
Financial and legal costs: Money spent on dating for the purpose of having sex, or on prostitutes or massage parlors, detrimentally affects an individual’s financial well being or puts them at risk of committing a crime.
Health risks: When the pursuit of sex is at the expense of protecting oneself or others from exposure to sexually transmitted diseases.
Risk to Trust in a Relationship: When a partner in a relationship doesn’t know about the sexual behavior and it is a violation of trust and transparency in the relationship. When a partner in a relationship considers such sexual behaviors as tantamount to infidelity to the relationship. When sex substitutes for a healthier way to establish a private life or the portion of life otherwise spent in solitude. When sex objectifies human relationships and prevents one from establishing a healthier way to developing intimacy in relationships or puts others at risk of emotional or physical harm.
When sex serves as a substitute for dating and meeting people for the purpose of establishing intimate relationships. When sex impairs arousal or has a desensitizing effect on real or emotionally intimate sexual relationships. When sex serves as a gateway, either intentionally or unintentionally, that leads to efforts to engage in illicit relationships, solicit prostitutes, or engage in riskier sexual situations.
What are the causes of sexual addiction?
Addictions represent an imbalance in an individual’s life. They often serve to gratify needs in a person’s life not necessarily related to sex at all, such as gratifying self-esteem, assuaging loneliness, or dealing with loss, alleviating boredom, as maladaptive ways to cope with frustration or anger, avoidance of engagement in goal-directed activities or substantive direction in life, or avoidance of emotional intimacy. There can be deeper reasons why these kinds of problems develop which best be explored with a trained psychotherapist. Many individuals with sexual addictions are victims of sexual abuse or premature exposure to sex at an early age.
How can a sexual addiction be treated?
From a practical standpoint, sexual addictions can be treated much the same as other kinds of addictions are, by identifying events, situations, and emotional states that elicit the behavior and teaching the patient in psychotherapy alternative, more adaptive ways to cope with the needs and fears contributing to the problem behavior. Sometimes participation in a support group or “12-step program,” such as Sex and Love Addictions Anonymous or Sexaholics Anonymous, provides social support for a patient beyond what a therapist can provide in an individual session on a weekly basis. Practicing stimulus control, a behavior-therapy principle in which a patient is encouraged to avoid people or places in which such behavior occurs, relinquishing possession or control of electronic devices that permit or promote such behavior whenever possible or at least limiting the time and places where such usage is permitted, is often necessary.
While the aforementioned methods are often helpful, sexual addictions usually represent personal issues that require psychological intervention beyond behavioral techniques. Addressing one’s lifestyle by encouraging a patient to fill one’s time with more constructive activities, devoting more time to relationships or one’s career, addressing issues in a current sexual relationship that are either contributing to or are a function of the addiction, and addressing psychological issues such as low self-esteem, a personality disorder, loneliness, or social anxiety in therapy are often involved. Finally, exploration of deeper psychological issues caused by abuse or neglect in childhood or losses in life is often necessary and best conducted by a trained psychotherapist.
If you think you or a loved one is suffering from a sexual addiction, a consultation with a trained professional may help you determine whether these kinds of interventions might alleviate the problems of life that can ensue as a result.
Posted by Robert Hamm, Ph.D.
Robert Hamm Ph.D