While the term is used a lot, New York City sex therapist Ian Kerner, Ph.D., who treats people who identify as sex addicts, points out that there actually isn’t an official “sex addict” diagnosis. Though there was a lot of debate about including it in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5 [the standard for mental disorders], he says there wasn’t enough empirical research to support the diagnosis of sex addition.
“When you look at brain scans of people with substance addiction—who go from liking something to craving something—it doesn’t look the same as a person who says they’re addicted to sex,” says Kerner. Instead, he says people who identify as sex addicts have brain stimulation that similar to those with high libidos. “In my experience, a sex addict is somebody who potentially has a higher libido than they think is normal,” he says. “There’s no such thing as a ‘sex addict,’ in the clinical sense.”
So why do so many people label themselves or others as sex addicts? “We live in a culture where people use the term ‘addiction’ very loosely and have gotten used to the idea that behaviors are addictive,” says Kerner. While he acknowledges that using sex as a person’s main coping mechanism to regulate anxiety and emotion can be a problem, he says that doesn’t mean it’s an addiction.
And then there’s the fact that it’s a pretty good excuse for certain behaviors, especially when cheating is involved. “Many people find it’s easier to blame their behaviors on an addiction than actually take responsibility,” says Kerner.
As it turns out, many of the things we think we know about sex addicts are totally off. We asked Kerner to break the misconceptions down so you’ll have an idea of what the term actually means the next time it appears in the headlines.
Myth 1: Losing Weight Makes You More Likely to Be a Sex Addict
Some people have theorized that people can displace their cravings for food with cravings for sex, but Kerner says there has been no research to suggest that.
Myth 2: Sex Addicts Are Cheaters
Sure, some sex addicts cheat, but you don’t have to be a cheater to be a sex addict, says Kerner. “Somebody who is a sex addict may be somebody with a high libido who is distressed about it,” he says. However, that high libido doesn’t automatically make them have sex with anyone willing to get it on.
“A person can be in a relationship where they want to have sex once a day and their partner wants to have sex once a week,” he says. But they can still have a monogamous relationship—a sex addict might just masturbate in between or think about sex a lot more.
Myth 3: Sex Addicts Shun the Label
It can actually be the opposite, says Kerner: “People are very quick to diagnose themselves as sex addicts.” The danger in that is that they’re not getting to the root of the problem, which means experts can’t help solve it. “They may say, ‘It’s not my fault, I’m a sex addict—I guess I have to live with it,’” says Kerner.
Issues like cheating, wanting more sex than your partner thinks is normal, frequently using porn, and masturbating more than you think is normal are all often confused with sex addiction. Since all these things are relative, it makes sense that sex addiction isn’t considered a disorder by the DSM-5, says Kerner.
Myth 4: Sex Addicts Have a Lot of Kinky Sex
Some sex addicts do love kinky sex, but it’s just as easy for someone to be a sex addict and dig vanilla sexy time, says Kerner—they typically just want a lot of sex, period.
Myth 5: Sex Addicts Masturbate and Watch Porn 24/7
If they’re not getting enough from a partner, some sex addicts cope by engaging in regular self-love and watching porn—but this isn’t the case for all of them, says Kerner. Sex addicts can have normal (or fairly normal) lives; they usually just adopt the label because they or their partner feel that their sexual habits aren’t normal.
“I work with couples in which one partner—usually the man—has a high libido and masturbates to porn,” says Kerner, “and his wife has labeled him as a sex addict.” But if this person was with a partner who shared his high libido or enjoyed porn as he does, then he would not be considered a sex addict, he says.
Many people with high libidos think of themselves as sex addicts and simply need to learn to manage their sex drive for themselves and in the context of their relationship, says Kerner.