When I take the Sexual Addiction Screening Test (S.A.S.T.) it tells me that I am 96% likely to be a “sex addict”. The test consists of a list of simple questions found in the book. Contrary to Love, one of the bibles of the ‘sex addiction movement’. This book written by Patrick Carnes Ph.D., published in 1989, popularized the concept of ‘sex addiction’, and made it a household term.
Carnes describes a sex addict as someone who “experiences little pleasure, often feels despair in the middle of sex, lives a secret life surrounded by a web of lies, can’t control their sexual behavior, has delusional thought patterns and reality distortion. A sex addict frequently does or fantasizes sexual things s/he doesn't like. A sex addict is someone whose sexual behavior has become unstoppable despite serious consequences, someone whose sexual behavior and thoughts have become vastly more important than their relationships, family, work, finances, and health, someone whose sexual behavior doesn't reflect her/his highest self, etc.”. (1) According to the National Association of Sexual Addiction Problems, 6% or 1 out of 17 Americans are sexual addicts.’ That's about 14 million people. (2) Before the term sex addict came onto the scene, there was no such animal. The closest thing we had was “nymphomania, satyriasis, Don Juanism, perverts, sex fiends, and various other terms for sexual misfits.”
Let’s examine some of the questions in the S.A.S.T., and I will comment on them. Carnes says that the more ‘yes’ answers to these questions, the higher possibility the person is a sex addict.
- Have you subscribed to sexually explicit magazines like Playboy or Penthouse? (This question assumes that an interest in seeing naked women, or people having sex is a bad thing. Some people simply enjoy nude photos and reading articles about sex and without any negative effects.)
- Do you often find yourself preoccupied with sexual thoughts? (Compared to what exactly; once a minute, once an hour, once every day? This is so nebulous. To think about sex often is absolutely common.)
- Do you feel that your sexual behavior is not normal? (What is ‘normal’? Compared to what? ‘Normal’ has a very narrow connotation. Normal can be extremely limiting, unsatisfying and even unnatural for some people.)
- Are any of your sexual activities against the law? (This question assumes that all illegal sexual activities are a bad thing, as opposed to maybe there are some bad laws. Perhaps some sexual activities shouldn’t be against the law, like oral and anal sex and prostitution.)
- Have you ever felt degraded by your sexual behavior? (It is likely that anyone who has lived a full and active sex life has likely felt degraded at one time or another by a sexual experience. Perhaps this is normal, as well as common.)
- Has sex been a way for you to escape your problems? (In fact, sex can be an excellent and healthy way to have some relief from problems on occasion.)
- When you have sex, do you feel depressed afterwards? (Sex can help a person get in touch with feelings. Sometimes a person can feel depressed after sex, but this is not necessarily bad. Plus this doesn’t mean the sex is the depressing part. The depression might come from dissatisfaction with the person they are having sex with, there may be unfulfilled expectations, or maybe there’s a problem communicating, or other such problems.)
- Do you feel controlled by your sexual desire? (We are biologically programmed to desire sex. Perhaps very strong sexual desire is appropriate and beneficial.) Etceteras.
There have been plenty of heated debates as to whether the sexual addiction concept is helpful or destructive, especially in the sex therapy community. Sexologist Marty Klein is adamantly against the idea. “The concept of ‘sex addiction’ really rests on the assumption that sex is dangerous. There's the sense that we frail humans are vulnerable to the Devil's temptations of pornography, masturbation, and extramarital affairs, and that if we yield, we become ‘addicted.’ Without question, being a sexual person is complex, and we are vulnerable--to our sex-negative heritage, shame about our bodies, and conflict about the exciting sexual feelings we can't express without risking rejection. Sexuality per se, however, is not dangerous--no matter how angry or frightened people are. Professional sexologists should reject any model suggesting that people must spend their lives
- in fear of sexuality's destructive power;
- being powerless about sexuality;
- lacking the tools to relax and let sex take over when it's appropriate. …The sexual addiction movement is not harmless. These people are missionaries who want to put everyone in the missionary position.” (3)
The currently used college text book, Our Sexuality explains it this way: “The criteria often used to establish alleged sub-conditions of hypersexuality-nymphomania and satyriasis—are subjective and value laden. Therefore these terms are typically defined moralistically rather than scientifically, a fact that has generated harsh criticism from a number of professionals.” (4)
Although I ‘test positive’ as a sex addict, if I read Carne’s description of what a sex addict is like and what she/he experiences, I certainly don’t fit the description whatsoever. The test is definitely extremely flawed. The unfortunate thing is that plenty of people don’t see the flaws, or even question the validity of such a test. Sex addiction often makes a disease out of what is often quite reasonable sexual behavior. It emphasizes negative aspects of sex. It takes away some of the personal responsibility for sexual choices and blames problems on a ‘disease’. It offers simple solutions to complex problems. Marty Klein points out that, “Sex addiction legitimizes sex-negative attitudes and supports sexual guilt.” It can make people feel badly if they simply have an active and varied sex life. Sex addiction can be used as a way to put down socially disapproved of behavior. Sometimes sex is blamed for various other problems; loneliness, frustration, lying, destructive behavior, etc. Some people find that taking on the sex addict label increases the struggle they are having with problematic sexual behaviors. As Jack Morin puts it, “conflict is fuel for the compulsion.” (5) It labels a behavior as either good or bad, and there is no in-between.
Generally a 12-step program modeled after Alcoholics Anonymous, or one-on-one therapy is used to treat ‘sex addicts’. There are groups such as Sexaholics Anonymous, Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous, Sexual Addicts Anonymous, and Sexual Abuse Anonymous. These groups are very popular and they do appear to help many people find some relief for their problems. It is interesting to note that sexual addiction therapy is also a multi-million dollar industry. Many one on one therapist benefit from this concept.
There are no exact ways of measuring if someone is a ‘sex addict’. For example Gloria Steinem called President Clinton a ‘sex addict’ after his affair with Monica Lewinsky. But Jack Morin points out that “poor judgement is not a sex addiction. Extramarital sex is not a sex addiction. Having a secret erotic life is not a sex addiction.” There is no way to really know if Clinton is a sex addict or not.
Shame seems to be part of what determines sex addiction. I’m reminded of the story of when some nude photos of Vanessa Williams were published in Penthouse. She was totally ashamed, humiliated, and gave up her Miss America crown. A couple of years later when nude photos of Madonna were published in Penthouse, Madonna’s response was “so what”, and she apparently wasn’t ashamed at all. By not have shame about her nude photos, they couldn’t and didn’t hurt her. Perhaps they enhanced her career. What is a sexual nightmare for one person, can be non-issue for another. It is questionable whether a sex addict has any more or any different kinds of sex than someone who simply has an active and varied sex life. Shame may largely be what makes the difference.
Addictionologists say that a sex addict ‘uses sex to lift moods, to seek validation, to soothe feelings of loneliness, for intrigue and adventure, to go into altered states of consciousness…” Perhaps, in fact, these are perfectly valid reasons to have sex.
Granted, there are millions of people with severe sexual problems that feel out of control, people who are very conflicted about their sexual activities. Some people are drawn to very dangerous and destructive behaviors. Some sex acts can have extremely negative consequences. A person’s sexual compulsion can be incompatible with a particular intimate relationship. There are very real and serious problems that need to be addressed. But the question is if pathologizing these problems makes matters worse instead of better. Perhaps sexual ‘compulsion’ or ‘problem’ or ‘challenge’ are better terms than sexual ‘addiction’.
Many people find the whole concept of sex addiction quite ridiculous, even an oxymoron of sorts. There are some folks who call themselves sex addicts with great pride. Ironically if you do an Internet search for sexaddiction.com, you get a web site that sells porn movies. Needless to say, it is probably a very prosperous site.
- Carnes Ph.D., Patrick. Contrary to Love—Helping the Sexual Addict.
- Klein, Marty. Website.
- Crooks, Robert and Baur, Karla. Our Sexuality (P. 562-563)
- Morin, Jack. Eros and Compulsion: A Paradoxical view of Sex Addiction. IASHS lecture on Feb 8, 2000
- Carnes Ph.D., Patrick. Contrary to Love—Helping the Sexual Addict. CompCare Publishers, Minneapolis. 1989.
- Carnes Ph.D., Patrick. Out of the Shadows—Understanding Sexual Addiction. Minneapolis. 1983.
- Crooks, Robert and Baur, Karla. Our Sexuality (Seventh Edition), Brooks/Cole Publishing, 1999 (P. 562-563)
- Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous. First Edition. The Augustine Fellowship. Boston. 1986.
- http://sexaddicted.com (XXX site)
- http://www.sexed.org/arch/arch08.htm Marty Klein’s website.
- Morin, Jack. Eros and Compulsion: A Paradoxical view of Sex Addiction. IASHS lecture on Feb 8, 2000.