Is America Addicted to Sex?

'Newsweek' declares a sex addiction 'epidemic' is sweeping the nation. But has anything really changed?

According to estimates, up to 5 percent of Americans qualify as sex addicts. (Photo: Getty Images)
Originally from Baltimore, Oliver lives and writes on a quiet, tree-lined street in Brooklyn.

It's hard not to be skeptical when you hear the words "sex addiction" used to justify the extramarital escapades of the rich and famous. What's the difference between Tiger Woods and any other successful man of means who sleeps around? How about David Duchovny? Why, upon getting caught, do celebrities suddenly qualify for a medical condition and our sympathy?

Certainly, there are people whose lives have been ruined by the pursuit of the carnal. As Chris Lee describes in a recent Newsweek cover story "The Sex Addiction Epidemic," there are sex addicts (almost 95 percent of which are men) living among us who routinely eschew their jobs, families, and loved ones to self-gratify over mountains of porn, casual encounters, and clandestine affairs with little joy or concern for the dangers and health risks. This is no walk in the park, Lee is saying. Sex addiction is real.

But not everyone agrees. According to clinical psychologist David Ley, the problem with calling out hypersexual behavior as an addiction is that it ends the diagnosis at the surface symptoms without looking for the root of the problem. Said Ley to Salon:

"A lot of the research that has been done shows that between 70 and 100 percent of these alleged sex addicts have some other major mental-health problem—there is some other diagnosis, whether it is substance abuse, depression, anxiety or a personality disorder. It violates Occam’s razor to then throw in a sex-addiction diagnosis when these behaviors are just symptoms of the underlying mental illness."

Dr. T. Byram Karasu—the University Chairman of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Albert Einstein College—echoed this sentiment in a column written for the Daily Beast last year.

"Sex addiction is simply a new name for the old evolutionary concept—the innate urge to impregnate as many females as possible. In this sense, every man is a sex addict or was one at some point in his life."

The important distinction here is that unlike addictions to alcohol, cocaine, and cigarettes, sexual cravings are a natural and innate occurance. Like overeating or oversleeping, it's a symptom of a greater problem, and it's disingenuous to cherry pick this particular characteristic and blow it up into an addiction.

"You cannot be addicted to yourself," said Roger Libby, a relationship therapist, to the New York Times, in 2008. "You have to have a substance external to yourself like alcohol or drugs to be addicted."

So where does so-called sex addiction fall on the spectrum of behavioral disorders? Surprisingly, Lee fails to mention that the disorder appears nowhere in the official handbook of psychiatric diagnoses, The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Maybe that's because it doesn't deserve a spot in the literature—at least not as an addiction. According to Craig Fabrikant, a clinical psychologist at the Hackensack University Medical Center, its rightful place is probably somewhere near the appendix, listed alongside the myriad other compulsions of the human brain.

"I think it's more of a habit than an addiction," he said to CNN. "I would classify it as OCD—more of an obsession or compulsion than an addiction."

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