Energy of Human Mind“When an alcoholic sees an ad for a drink, their brain will light up in a certain way and they will be stimulated in a certain way. We are seeing this same kind of activity in users of pornography.”

That’s a quote from the lead scientist Dr. Valerie Voon who was involved with the recently reported findings of a study done by Cambridge University.

In the study 19 addictive pornography users were shown sexually explicit material and their MRI scans were compared to those of non compulsive porn users.

There is a lot of back and forth about whether sexually addictive behavior or compulsive internet porn use should technically be called an “addiction.”

This is largely because there is a lack of research supporting the damages done through sex addiction vs. those of gambling addiction or chemical dependency.  Pathological gambling is currently listed as an official diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, but sex addiction has yet to be.

Sex addiction is largely self-defined

How many self-proclaimed “sex addicts” is it going to take to get people to agree on an addiction model for sexually compulsive behavior?

The International Service Organization, the headquarters of Sex Addicts Anonymous tells me that there are currently 1,468 registered SAA groups (meetings) world-wide and that the number of groups is growing at a steady 10% per year in the last few years.  If there are an average of 15 people in each SAA group then there are currently 22,020 self proclaimed sex addicts seeking help in this one program alone.

And there are other 12-step sex addiction programs around the country as well as a significant number of church based self help programs for sex addicts.  In addition, I can vouch for the fact that the clinics and residential treatment programs with which I am acquainted are seeing a large number of patients for sexually addictive behavior and that some of these programs are at capacity or overflowing.

The studies that exist (mostly using the well-established Sexual Addiction Screening Test) suggest that approximately 6% of the US population has a problem with sexually addictive behavior and many estimates are much higher.  If there are roughly 200 million adults in the US then that means about 12 million people are affected.

The bitter academic politics around sex addiction

Brain studies, where they exist, tend to support the similarities of all addictions including all behavioral addictions.  But this has not been enough to allow the scientific community to officially proclaim that sexually compulsive behavior is an “addiction.”

The recent and much maligned study out of UCLA which claimed to have EEG support for the fact that sex addiction doesn’t exist created a mini firestorm of internecine conflict among addiction therapists and researchers.  (First of all, why announce that something doesn’t exist when there is so little research agreement on what the right criteria for its “existence” would even be?)

One wonders if the extreme reactions of those involved can be explained solely by what is known as Sayre’s Law after Wallace Stanley Sayre (1905-1972):

“In any dispute the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the issues at stake.”

And it’s corollary:

“Academic politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low. (my italics)”

What is really at stake?

In a previous post regarding sex addiction “deniers,” I have argued that many people are extremely threatened by the idea of unfettered sexual behavior or, conversely, the idea of attempts to limit anybody’s sexual behavior.  We are getting resistance from both sides: those who want to normalize sexually compulsive or “deviant” behavior and those who want to demonize it.  As I stated in that post:

“Deniers have always existed in relation to almost every unwelcome phenomenon that has emerged throughout history.  Sometimes they have taken a socially acceptable position which conforms to religious or other dogma and have acted accordingly, as in burning heretics or imprisoning the mentally ill.  In other cases they have simply veered off into crazy-sounding conspiracy theories such as that the 9/11 terrorist attacks were really a government plot or that the holocaust never happened.

These are elaborate attempts to explain or deal with something that is experienced as incomprehensible or intolerable.  In this regard they are all defense mechanisms and nowhere more obviously so than in the area of sexual addiction.”

In short, a lot of sex and porn addicts feel like they are addicts.  This in turn allows them to get help with a compulsive, destructive behavior.  It also helps them understand their problem and its roots, and find fellowship with others in self help communities.

Researchers need to keep on investigating all aspects of this phenomenon and avoid broad sweeping claims that sex addiction exists or doesn’t.  The Cambridge study itself is relatively modest  (but see also the very powerful documentary about the study).  There is much research to be done and ultimately it will all fit together and give us a better theoretical framework and a better set of therapeutic tools.

Find Dr. Hatch on Facebook at Sex Addictions Counseling or Twitter @SAResource