Sex Addiction Might Just Be Just High Libido Now (We’re Still Not Sure)

Jul 25, 2013 • Health, Research, Science

study finds sex addiction might not be a thing

Hypersexuality, known in popular culture as “sex addiction,” is defined as frequent or increased sexual urges or sexual activity. We’ve seen the phrase thrown around to explain all manner of indiscretions, but is “sex addiction” actually a thing? We asked this question in 2009 and while we still have no answer, we may be getting closer to the truth.

What we know is that the International Classification of Diseases (known as the ICD-10) from the World Health Organization includes “Excessive Sexual Drive”, but the proposal to include “hypersexuality” in the list of official diagnoses in the American Psychiatric Association’s (APA) Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) failed.

A group of researchers at UCLA dove in to investigate in an experiment that measured the reactions in the brains of 52 “hypersexual” participants — that is, people who experienced difficulty regulating their consumption of sexual imagery. Their study published in Socioaffective Neuroscience & Psychology, found that the brain response measured did not seem to be related to the severity of the participants’ hypersexuality. Per ScienceDaily:

A diagnosis of hypersexuality or sexual addiction is typically associated with people who have sexual urges that feel out of control, who engage frequently in sexual behavior, who have suffered consequences such as divorce or economic ruin as a result of their behaviors, and who have a poor ability to reduce those behaviors. But, said [senior author Nicole] Prause and her colleagues, such symptoms are not necessarily representative of an addiction — in fact, non-pathological, high sexual desire could also explain this cluster of problems.

One way to tease out the difference is to measure the brain’s response to sexual-image stimuli in individuals who acknowledge having sexual problems. If they indeed suffer from hypersexuality, or sexual addiction, their brain response to visual sexual stimuli could be expected be higher, in much the same way that the brains of cocaine addicts have been shown to react to images of the drug in other studies.

Of the 52 participants, 39 were men and 13 were women, between the ages of 18 and 39, all of whom had reported difficulty controlling their consumption of sexually explicit images. To get a sense of their hypersexuality, researchers administered four questionaires to gauge participants’ sexual behaviors, desire, compulsions, as well as the consequences of such behavior, including cognitive and behavioral outcomes. These questionnaires were tallied into scores.

Using electroenchephalography (or EEG, a device that measures electrical fluctuations within the neurons of the brain), researchers measured participants while they viewed four different types of imagery: pleasant sexual, pleasant-non-sexual, neutral, and unpleasant.

“The volunteers were shown a set of photographs that were carefully chosen to evoke pleasant or unpleasant feelings,” Prause, a researcher in the department of psychiatry at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA, elaborated. “The pictures included images of dismembered bodies, people preparing food, people skiing — and, of course, sex. Some of the sexual images were romantic images, while others showed explicit intercourse between one man and one woman.”

Researchers were looking for a specific “cognitive event,” the telling P300 response that occurs 300 miliseconds after the body takes in stimuli, commonly used in hundreds of neuroscientific studies. They hypothesized that P300 responses to sexual imagery in participants would correspond to their level of desire and hypersexual score, meaning that for participants who had reported significant problems managing their intake of sexual imagery, the EEG would see a spike in the P300 response when these participants encountered a sexual image.

That’s not what happened. In this study, there were no spikes to correlate with participants’ reported hypersexuality.

“Brain response was only related to the measure of sexual desire,” Prause said. “In other words, hypersexuality does not appear to explain brain responses to sexual images any more than just having a high libido. If our study can be replicated, these findings would represent a major challenge to existing theories of a sex ‘addiction.'”

Header image by Rupert Ganzer.