Civil Liberties

Challenging the Concept of Sex Addiction

A new study argues that the disease is "essentially mythical."


If you're skeptical about the ease with which addiction diagnoses are handed out these days, this study may be up your alley:

This article takes a critical look at the recent history of the concept of sex addiction, an archetypal modern sexual invention. Sex addiction began as a 1980s product of late twentieth-century cultural anxieties and has remained responsive to those tensions, including its most recent iteration, "hypersexual disorder." Its success as a concept lay with its medicalization, both as a self-help movement in terms of self-diagnosis, and as a rapidly growing industry of therapists on hand to deal with the new disease. The media has always played a role in its history, first with TV, the tabloids, and the case histories of claimed celebrity victims all helping to popularize the concept, and then with the impact of the internet. Though it is essentially mythical, creating a problem that need not exist, sex addiction has to be taken seriously as a phenomenon. Rarely has a socio-psychological discourse taken such a hold on the public imagination—and proven an influential concept in academic circles too. We argue that this strange, short history of social opportunism, diagnostic amorphism, therapeutic self-interest, and popular cultural endorsement is marked by an essential social conservatism—sex addiction has become a convenient term to describe disapproved sex. Sex addiction is a label without explanatory force.

That's the historians Barry Reay, Nina Attwood, and Claire Gooder writing in the journal Sexuality & Culture. I'd like to do more than quote the abstract, but the rest of the paper is paywalled; I have not, as of yet, acquired a copy, let alone formed an opinion of all its arguments. But Tracy Clark-Flory has read it, and she has posted some more details at Salon.