Is Sex Addiction Real?

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Although several high-profile celebrities have sought treatment for sexual addiction, the diagnosis tends to elicit eye rolling and sarcastic reactions ("Right, Im a sex addict too"). Because, really, who doesnt love sex?

To some, saying you have a sex addiction is a bit like saying youre addicted to the gym or eating cookies; its an innocent exaggeration. Add in the fact that many experts arent convinced either—sexual addiction is not formally recognized in the bible of psychiatry, The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM)—and the diagnosis smacks of a philanderers last-ditch grasp at redemption.

While sex may indeed be akin to drugs in its ability to bring on serious relationship wrecking and life-altering (not in a good way) behavior, it is not supported by the same hard evidence that proves addiction, says Charles OBrien, MD, the chair of the substance-related disorders work group for the American Psychiatric Association, which will publish the DSM-V, the fifth version of the manual.

"Drugs activate [an addicts] brains reward system directly, like getting food or water," says Dr. OBrien, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania. "It could be that there are some similarities in those people who are called ‘sex addicts, but it hasnt been studied or demonstrated."

Sexual behavior that might elsewhere be called addiction will instead fall into a new DSM category called hypersexual disorder. Many of the symptoms are similar to what mental health providers consider sex addiction.

But until larger studies are conducted by evaluators who dont have a hand in providing treatment, there just isnt enough proof. "Good evidence that it should be classified with addictions doesnt exist," says Dr. OBrien. "Established professionals wont use that term."

Still, addiction therapy and rehab programs are booming, and patients swear by their treatment. Despite the debate over the diagnosis, sex addiction counselors say there are distinct differences between the sexually addicted and people who just love sex.

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Lead writer: Sarah Klein
Last Updated: February 16, 2010

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