New Research Questions Existence of Sex Addiction

LOS ANGELES—Here’s a study that is sure to irk more than a few people in the addiction industry, especially those working in the porn addiction niche. Though the assumption is now pretty rampant that porn addition exists as a diagnosable and treatable malady in and of itself, like drug or alcohol addiction, Nicole Prause, assistant research scientist at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA, has just published research that “found that the brains of people with sexual impulse problems don't respond to sexual stimuli in the same way an addict's would.”

Prause told the NY Daily News that the term “sex addiction" is often confused with hypersexuality, a label that applies to people who “have high sex drives, sexual urges that feel out of control, and may have suffered consequences such as relationship problems due to their behavior.”

She added, “You have to think, what makes something an addiction? Different people have different answers for that, certainly. But what we generally think about is, for example, difficulty controlling that behavior—like taking a drug when you intended to stop. In this case it might be something like consuming more visual erotica when you promised your wife you wouldn't. There are a number of additional burdens present for it to be described as something more than just high sex drive."

In the study, researchers used “52 volunteers—39 men and 13 women—age 18 to 39 who self-reported problems controlling their impulse to view sexual images. Participants first filled out a series of three questionnaires to help researchers determine their level of hypersexuality. Then, while hooked up to brain wave monitors, the subjects viewed a series of ‘emotional’ images, including images of romantic and explicit sex.”

Looking at the so-called "P300" response to stimulating images—i.e. mapping the brain's reaction 300 milliseconds after viewing them—the UCLA researchers found that the hypersexualized group, unlike other bona fide addictive groups, did not show a greater P300 response on average.

"The brain's response to sexual pictures was not predicted by any of the three questionnaire measures of hypersexuality," explained Prause. "Brain response was only related to the measure of sexual desire. In other words, hypersexuality does not appear to explain brain responses to sexual images any more than just having a high libido."

Another finding utterly contradicts the claim of anti-porn advocates that porn users are always seeking that greater porn high. In fact, reported the Daily News, “Hypersexualized people didn't report an increase in tolerance to sexual imagery over time the way an addict might build up a drug tolerance, and they didn't report the same emotional affect—the mixture of pleasure and shame at their behavior—as addicts. They were also able to control their level of sexual arousal when viewing images, regulating it upward or downward, whereas addicts can't modulate their cravings.”

In fact, one of the driving rationales in this country and others—including in the United Kingdom, which appears hell-bent to censor the Web—is that the tolerance factor of porn is creating generations of sex craved addicts seeking ever-greater sexual thrills in order to meet the dopamine challenge. This cycle of despair, they say, is why porn needs to be classified like the most addictive drugs in existence, with the laws (and treatments) that come with that designation. If research is showing that the same sort of tolerance factors are not seen in people with hypersexual issues, an entire leg of their addiction argument is nullified.

But the Daily News also spoke with another specialist, Dr. Richard Krueger, associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University, who told them the problem may very well be a semantic one.

"I think there's something there, but using the word 'addiction' may not be entirely appropriate," he said. "I do think individuals can engage in sexual behavior that can become out of control. And people are increasingly seeing it."

Whether what they are seeing and experiencing is an addiction or not is another question. As AVN has reported, sex addiction was not adopted by the recently released DSM-5, but Krueger told the Daily News that the International Classification for Disease (ICD), which is used by the rest of the world, is still considering it. Her doesn’t know if it will be adopted, but he still believes that more research is needed into whatever is going on.

Prause agreed that a definitive answer regarding sex addiction does not yet exist—"We just don't know. It's an open question."—but she also worries that “people may be told they are 'out of control' of their behaviors when in fact they may be able to exert more control. If you think ‘I always have to be careful about what I do sexually; if I slip, I could relapse,’ you could end up harming yourself rather than helping.”

The study, "Pornography addiction—a supranormal stimulus considered in the context of neuroplasticity," is available here.