Ozzy Osbourne is the latest in a string of people (almost always men) to diagnose themselves as “sex addicts.” As a professional sex educator who has spent 20 years advocating for healthy sexuality, I want to speak up and critique the idea of “sex addiction” as it’s commonly understood. In many ways, the concept of sex addiction has been fabricated by “addictionologists,” the people who claim they have the addiction, and the media. The concept has rapidly been accepted as truth when there is still no substantive evidence that sex addiction is real. This is dangerous on so many levels and we are asking the wrong questions.
I want to be clear: sexual behavior certainly can become compulsive, and if it interferes with your life, work and relationships, working with a trustworthy professional on the behaviors that cause you distress can absolutely be worthwhile. Where I see “sex addiction” become problematic is where it becomes a blanket term we throw over people whose sexual expression is different from “the norm,” without unpacking the actual behavior(s) or empowering the people involved to take responsibility for their own actions.
If there is sexually compulsive behavior that is keeping a person from functioning in their life, it’s essential to look underneath the behavior to see what it serves for the individual. That is a more holistic approach, rather than a prescriptive one. To say someone needs a sex worker or porn like they need a drug side-cuts the real issues that having sex in a particular way might serve — be it attending to boredom or unfulfillment in their life or relationship, to a lack of sex in their relationship, to a desire to explore, to not wanting to work that hard to make sex happen, to the seductiveness of secret exploits. We know part of why people have affairs is the excitement that doing something secretive provides. This does not make it sex addiction. With Ozzy, a person with a lot of power to do things beyond the law or typical norms, this goes right along with his personality and the way he has lived his entire life. But I am not here to diagnose him: there are many issues that might be coming up that impact his behavior and choices.
I think the term “sex addiction” too often becomes a label we slap onto whatever we deem “bad behavior”: porn, “excessive” masturbation, affairs, paying for sex — without digging deeper into the actual behavior and what drives it. We need to question why we assume sex addiction to be a real thing when it is not clearly scientifically substantiated, to the point where it is not included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychological Disorders, there is no sound research that supports it and the people promoting it often lack training in sexuality.
The first study on the brain scans of “sex addicts,” for example, only surveyed 19 men!
What defines sex addiction, furthermore, really depends on who you ask; but some characteristics involve “excessive masturbation” (what is excessive and who decides this?), using chatrooms, watching porn and being interested in BDSM.
We need to look at how the idea of “sex addiction” has been used: to control people’s sexuality, to moralize, to remove personal responsibility from behavior by claiming it is an outside force they can’t help, to create a lucrative industry, and to justify removing access to sexual materials, just to name a few things.
The outcomes of these uses are potentially far more damaging than the condition itself. Let’s think critically about the implications of manufacturing sex addiction. Here are 6 important considerations and why we need to question the false concept of sex addiction.
- SEX-NEGATIVITY. There is no healthy concept of sexuality and sexual expression included in the conversation about sex addiction. Sex addiction is inherently sex-negative and it supports the efforts of those who want to control the sexuality of others — a deep violence against humanity. It is the new battle cry for conservative forces that want to squash sexual autonomy and equity because they have a diagnosis to hang their moralizing on. We can see this all the way back to the Victorian era! We need to always question approaches to sexual healing that moralize, rather than encourage people to figure out what is right for them and to understand the true nature of their sexuality. The sex addiction framework involves a moral outcry, toting what is right and wrong about sexual expression and collapses too many ideas about sexual behavior into one monolithic idea that doesn’t allow us to see any nuance or have real conversations about what sex means to us. The notion of sexuality as a positive force then gets completely eclipsed in any conversation about sex addiction.
- OVER-SIMPLIFICATION. Sex addiction externalizes and simplifies complex feelings and sexual experiences and circumvents a person’s deeper process in understanding their own sexuality and conflicted feelings about it. We all have dark sides to our sexuality. We have parts of it we keep private. We harbor sexual shame that can sometimes have us wound up in inner turmoil. We have desires we don’t always speak because we fear judgment and rejection. We learn to repress our true sexual nature and clamp down on our sexuality in an effort to be “normal.” Sexuality is complex and sexual energy is the core of who we are and where we come from. So if we start to address sexuality as something outside of us and an external problem, rather than an inner place of joy, a source of energy and vitality and our well-spring for every life-giving force we have, we just obliterate everything that is good about sexuality.
- FEAR. It keeps people frightened about the power of sexuality rather than encouraging people to explore and understand their own sexual energy and agency. There is so much fear about sexuality and about people being in their full sexual expression. Most people never come close to their edges because our cultural ideas about sex keep us in a place of fear, shame and guilt about it and we talk about it like it’s something to control more than something to express. We cut off our own power when we approach it from a place of fear. We dissect it and disconnect from the core of pleasure that sexuality provides us. Why not ask better questions about sexual desire and what sex means for each of us? The assumption that sex means the same thing to everyone is false.
- PATHOLOGY. It pathologizes sexuality and it’s sexist: when people are fully sexually expressed, men are the addicts who cannot control their sexuality and women are something between promiscuous and nymphomaniacs. Nobody wins and both men’s and women’s sexual expression gets demonized and damaged by false sexual standards that keep us seeming very different without any backbone in reality. These are different labels for the same thing: “You’re having more sex than I am, or than I think is reasonable and I don’t like it, so let me label you (so I can feel better or more ‘normal’).” Talking about sex addiction normalizes a certain kind of sexuality and pathologizes another. There are many people who might have sex lives that are not what you would desire, but that does not make them wrong. There are many people who have sex daily or at a frequency that would be surprising to some, but it does not make it wrong. We all get to decide what is right for us and if we are in relationships with others, we need to negotiate our needs. The word “promiscuous” is meaningless and is a purely moralistic word that should be removed from our vernacular. We could say the same thing about “sex addiction,” when the media and people’s self-diagnosis have rendered the concept meaningless with a total lack of clarity about what it is. How much sex is too much? Where is the line?
- POWERLESSNESS. It encourages a powerlessness about sexuality that is dangerous and antithetical to what sex educators like myself are working to change in our world. We need more agency, more self-intimacy, more empowerment around sexuality — when we put it into an addiction model, it immediately takes away our own agency and fortitude to make sound sexual decisions and to develop our sexuality from a place of power and agency.
- NEGOTIATION. Sex addiction is the out when it’s hard to negotiate sexual needs in a relationship where you want different things. The person who wants more is often pathologized as being the “problem.” No one is “the problem” when we want different things sexually — there are different needs and sometimes those needs are not going to be met inside of the relationship. The issue might be the relationship style isn’t the right one, or that one person is into a kind of sex the other is not. It might be that each person has different priorities and they are not currently in tune with the other. It’s not your partner’s job to meet your needs, and yet, if you’ve made a commitment to say, monogamy, it makes it hard to get those needs met outside of the relationship without hurting or betraying your partner. You don’t have an addiction, you have a conflict that requires negotiation and because we rarely learn how to properly negotiate sex and talk about it openly, people will go get their needs met secretly and then we call it addiction when someone finds out.
The truth is that some people engage in all kinds of compulsive behaviors and that doesn’t make them addictions. If behavior is getting in the way of us taking care of our responsibilities or addressing underlying emotional or psychological issues, we need to address that. If when the underlying issues are addressed, the compulsive behavior subsides, was that addiction?
Someone like Ozzy Osbourne, who has chosen to go outside of his marriage to get his sexual needs met, and who has a lot of social/cultural cache, is going to be able to use his power to get the sex he wants. That doesn’t make it a sex addiction. The issues around use of power, breaking relationship agreements and taking responsibility for personal behavior would be far more powerful to address in creating healing for a person and their relationship and the parts of him that chose to do that.
In short, if we stopped over-simplifying sexuality and using it to control people and keep them in fear; if we created a truly sex-positive environment where we don’t pathologize sexuality, and rather see it as a source of power, pleasure, joy and connection; and if we taught people emotional and communication skills like self-soothing behavior and negotiation skills, we would have a very different world where sex addiction would not have a place because we’d replace that cultural more with something that actually meets our human needs and doesn’t work to make us wrong for our sexual desire and expression. As it stands, many people get to be “right” and morally superior and many stand to make a lot of money off of our cultural promotion of sex addiction.