The term “sex addiction” was thrust into the public sphere yet again last year when Tiger Woods cleverly pinned his playboy lifestyle on a physical disorder.
It wasn’t the first time the media was abuzz with such references; during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, experts left and right were labeling a powerful man who was used to getting what he wanted and liked oral sex as an “addict.” Believers aligned in a group called the Sexual Disorders Work Group to launch a campaign to get it into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM, to make it official.
Just over a year ago, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) announced it would release the fifth version of the DSM in May of 2013. Because mental disorders are among the least understood medical illnesses, and have the most elusive causes and prognoses, psychiatrists update the manual periodically to include recent research and weed out stereotypes. For instance, the DSM-III, published in 1980, included criteria for “Identity Disorder.” If you had uncertainties about who you were, your sexuality, or your future, congratulations! In 1980, you would have had a mental disorder. …That, or you could have been a 20-something college student.
The push to include sex addiction in the DSM-V has sparked a good deal of controversy and posed a few questions: what makes a sexual behavior a disorder? Does it just have to deviate from the norm, or are there other crucial components? The current version of the DSM, the DSM-IV-TR, includes sado-masochism between two consenting actors a sexual disorder. (The APA might consider informing Rihanna.) As for “sex addiction,” it seems like the only criterion for diagnosis is getting caught.
Many psychologists are also skeptical. Dr. Allen Frances wrote, in Psychology Today , “The authors [in the Sexual Disorders Work Group] have not thought through how difficult it is to distinguish between ordinary recreational sexual misbehavior (which is very common) and sexual compulsion (which is very rare).”
On one end of the spectrum, however, there is evidence that sex addiction follows normal biological addiction pathways. As it turns out, though, there are many behaviors that can activate dopamine circuits—also known as the “reward pathway,” that, like sex, show no significant withdrawal symptoms. And it makes sense that our brain would reward us with feel-good chemicals for having sex—why else would we have it? If we are going off the biological definition, then every male on college grounds is addicted to sex. Said Nate Jones, a junior at James Madison University, “People just like to have sex.”
As college students, we spend most of our times thinking about sex, but rarely do we ever think critically. In preparations for big changes happening in the medical community, and in light of current events, it’s time we think about our sexual behaviors and the definitions of normality.