2016 may go down in history as the year of the celebrity sex scandal. It seemed every other week another public figure was caught in the tabloids for rumored bad behavior—whether it be for alleged serial cheating (Jay Z), sexting strangers (Anthony Weiner), being a womanizer (Donald Trump) or partying with too many women (too many to name). The weeks after a male public figure is caught in a sex scandal are predictable, especially when it comes to politicians: His name will be dragged through tabloids and reputable news outlets alike, he’ll offer a public apology and check himself into sex addiction rehab and he’ll re-emerge months later a new man. Or will he?

For sex therapists, debates about so-called sex addiction have been brewing for decades. Last week, the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors and Therapists (AASECT) issued—for the first time ever—a statement saying it does not support sex addiction as a mental health disorder.

Considering how often we hear about sex addiction in the mainstream media, this is a crucial message as it vouches for the importance of sex science in informing policy and therapy. AASECT’s statement says sex addiction approaches lack “sufficient empirical evidence” and are “[inadequately] informed by accurate human sexuality knowledge.”

As Dr. Ian Kerner, AASECT’s Chair of the Public Relations, Media & Advocacy Steering Committee and best-selling author of She Comes First: The Thinking Man’s Guide to Pleasuring a Woman, tells me, “The position statement does not make a comment about […] usefulness of the metaphor of addiction for revealing, describing or finding hope for change.” In other words, while the group’s position doesn’t deny that out-of-control sexual behavior is real, or that it can cause serious distress, impairment and harm to an individual, based on the available research and the opinions of many expert AASECT therapists, it does not believe that operating from a sex addiction-therapeutic model is helpful.

As a researcher, I have interviewed hundreds of men about their sex lives. For those struggling with hypersexuality, their condition will indeed wreak havoc in myriad ways. But there has yet to be any science showing these behaviors are indicative of an addiction.

More often than not, the issues men struggle with when it comes to excessive sexual desire are never really about sex.

If we look to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (also known as the DSM-5 or psychiatry’s Bible), the American Psychiatric Association doesn’t recognize hypersexual disorder as a medical diagnosis. Current available research points to other explanations unrelated to sex as the root cause of hypersexuality, like religiosity, anxiety, depression, loneliness or boredom. A lot of hypersexual men, especially serial cheaters, tend to have partners with lower-than-average sex drives (some tell me their partners only want to have sex once a year or sometimes only for reproductive reasons), which leads them to go outside of the relationship to have their needs met. Others enjoy sexual novelty too much, which makes it hard for them to sleep with the same person for the rest of their lives.

From a neuroscientific perspective, drug and alcohol addictions show up as long-term changes to a reliable brain network that is involved in reward, emotion and motivation. There have yet to be any well-designed studies showing that those suffering from excessive sexual behaviors showcase similar changes in their brains, however. While dopamine, arguably the most famous neurotransmitter, often gets singled out and accused of reinforcing the pleasurable aspects of problematic sex, the truth is that the brain releases dopamine in a lot of different contexts—including when monkeys are given a sip of juice or when grad students come across free food at a public event. Labeling the release of dopamine as evidence of sex addiction would then require us to conclude that monkeys can be addicted to juice and graduate students can be addicted to free cookies.

Too often, hypersexual men tend to self-pathologize their behavior, such as having sex outside of a committed relationship, fantasizing about sex often or being interested in non-normative (or kinky) sex, when it isn’t actually unhealthy or harmful. From what I’ve seen, many of these men don’t have sex drives that are insatiable—or even above what you’d typically find in the general population; if anything, they’re at the average or below average, but they feel immense guilt and shame about having a sex drive at all.

If any of above rings true for you, consider checking out AASECT’s directory for a sex-positive therapist or doing some enlightened reading, like The Myth of Sex Addiction. Or maybe, as many of the guys who have taken part in my research studies have realized, monogamy just isn’t for you and you’d benefit from trying out an open relationship. Because more often than not, the issues men struggle with when it comes to excessive sexual desire are never really about sex.


Debra W. Soh is a sex writer and sexual neuroscientist, specializing in the fMRI of hypersexuality and paraphilias (or unusual sexual interests) at York University in Toronto. She has written for Harper’s, The Wall Street Journal, The Globe and Mail, New York Magazine and many other outlets. Follow her on Twitter: @debra_soh.