What Distinguishes Sex Addiction From a Naturally High Sex Drive?

New evidence from a team of Portuguese and Croatian researchers points toward a fairly clear distinction between a healthy, naturally high sex drive and the damaging behavioral changes associated with sex addiction. Some people have a naturally high sex drive (i.e., libido) that does not diminish their abilities to lead generally healthy and functional lives or their abilities to experience a sense of mental well-being. However, some people develop symptoms of sex addiction, a condition centered on dysfunctional involvement in sex-related thinking, fantasy or behavior. In a study published in March 2015 in The Journal of Sexual Medicine, researchers sought to distinguish the characteristics of a healthy, high sex drive from the characteristics of sex addiction.

Sex Addiction

Researchers and addiction specialists use a number of terms to refer to a dysfunctional, addictive relationship to sex, including hypersexuality and compulsive sexual behavior. The use of multiple terms partially reflects the fact that there is no standard definition for sex addiction in America. In 2013, the American Psychiatric Association (APA)—the organization responsible for setting standard definitions for mental illness in the U.S.—came fairly close to officially establishing criteria for a condition called hypersexual disorder, which would have encapsulated the core characteristics of sex addiction. However, although a large body of evidence supported this move, the APA ultimately did not set criteria for hypersexual disorder. As indicated by the proposed criteria for hypersexual disorder, sex addiction includes symptoms such as taking time from important obligations or responsibilities to engage in sexual behavior, thought or fantasy; establishing a pattern of using sexual behavior, thought or fantasy to avoid unpleasant emotions or mental states; establishing a pattern of acting in sexually risky ways that pose a threat to the well-being of the individual or other people; and experiencing clearly negative life outcomes as a result of dysfunctional involvement in sexual thought, fantasy or behavior. Some people develop symptoms in the context of just one form of sexual activity (e.g., pornography use, phone sex or cybersex), while others develop symptoms in the context of multiple forms of sexual activity.

Natural Sex Drive

When the American Psychiatric Association was deciding whether to include a definition of hypersexual disorder in its diagnostic guidelines for doctors, one of the organization’s chief concerns was the problem of consistently differentiating the damaging behaviors associated with sex addiction from the healthy expressions of a naturally high sex drive. This is a crucial point, since some people have libidos that lead to behaviors that may seem excessive to an outside party but cause no harm to the individual or the people involved in that individual’s sex life. In fact, some researchers believe that a highly active libido more or less accounts for most or all purported cases of sex addiction.

What’s the Difference?

In the study published in The Journal of Sexual Medicine, researchers from Croatia’s University of Zagreb and Portugal’s University of Porto and University of Aveiro used survey data to help distinguish the core indications of sex addiction from the natural expressions of a strong sex drive. Participants in this survey were asked to provide details on sex-related issues that included the intensity of their sexual urges, their relative abilities to control their sexual urges, their levels of participation in sexual activity and their levels of exposure to sex-related negative consequences. The participants also submitted information on related secondary topics that included their overall levels of mental well-being, their feelings about pornography consumption and the role of religion in their lives. The researchers concluded that the participants had responses that clustered around two outcomes: problematic involvement in sex that’s indicative of sex addiction and generally healthy involvement in an active sex life. Characteristics associated with the sex addiction cluster include an inability to limit sexual behavior and exposure to damaging sex-related consequences. Characteristics associated with the healthy, high libido cluster include a strong sexual libido and relatively frequent involvement in sex. Generally speaking, the study participants in the sex addiction cluster had a higher level of exposure to mental health issues, as well as more conventional attitudes toward sex-related topics. Based on their findings, the study’s authors believe that sex addiction is distinguishable from the healthy expression of a strong libido. They also believe that an inability to restrain sexual behavior and morally conventional judgment of sexual behavior may be core components of sex addiction.

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