Sex comes in three varieties: procreative, relationship-affirming, and recreational. Humans have always indulged in all three. But from Biblical times through the 18th century, the only God-fearing justification was procreation. This made some sense in an agrarian economy where more children meant more hands to work the fields.
The Industrial Revolution changed that. Urbanized factory work led to smaller families, and religious thinking changed. God’s favorite reason for sex remained procreation, but as farming yielded to wage labor, theologians decided the Almighty also approved of sex to affirm relationships.
Meanwhile, Western culture has always included an undercurrent of recreational nookie: mistresses, sex work, group sex, and other types of erotic exuberance.
Over the past 70 years, researchers have confirmed the tremendous diversity of sexuality, shattering all illusions that Americans get down only for God’s two approved reasons. The large majority of Americans have enjoyed some forms of recreational sex, and many routinely play that way.
Recreational Sex May Cause Anxiety, Guilt, and Shame
Recreational sex is everywhere. Where would literature, movies, and TV be without it? But religious conservatives call it sin, while cultural conservatives brand it “sex addiction.”
Many people raised in socially conservative households feel distress about recreational whoopee, particularly solo sex, especially self-sexing to porn. When some women discover that their men stroke to porn, they flip. You’re a sex addict! For men who feel conflicted about sex to begin with, this accusation reinforces a lifetime of sexual confusion, guilt, and shame.
Why do people decide they’re “sex addicts?” The one consistent predictor is deeply religious upbringing:
• Croatian researchers surveyed 1,998 men. Among the most sexually active, most felt fine about their frequency, while some reported distress. The latter were usually deeply religious and raised to consider recreational sex immoral.
• University of Oklahoma investigators asked 771 men and 904 women what they thought of porn. Those who condemned it tended to identify as fundamentalist, and reported the greatest guilt and shame about viewing.
• Case Western Reserve scientists asked 2,232 adults if they felt addicted to Internet porn. Some replied “yes,” others “no.” The only difference between the two groups—identification with religions that condemn masturbation and porn.
Sex addiction is rarely about “excessive” or “disordered” sex. It’s almost always about the confusion, guilt, and shame some people feel about being sexual—especially self-sexing while viewing porn.
How Prevalent Is “Out-of-Control” Sex?
For all the discussion of “sex addiction,” it’s remarkable how little research has explored its general prevalence. The best analysis is a New Zealand study of 940 adults. Thirteen percent of the men and 7 percent of the women said that sometime during the previous year, they’d felt sexually out of control.
But feelings are not actions. Feelings often manifest as erotic fantasies, which are totally normal, healthy, and add to erotic enjoyment and satisfaction. Wild, weird erotic feelings may be disconcerting, but they cause no harm and are not a social problem.
The real issue is sexual actions. Fewer than 1 percent said their sexual activities had ever interfered with their lives—0.8 percent of the men, and 0.6 percent of the women, seven people per 1,000.
Actually, these figures have to be over-estimates. Many who reported “out-of-control” sex cited gay/lesbian encounters. But same-sex lovemaking is not out of control. It’s normal and fine.
Many of the men in the New Zealand survey called any paid sex “out of control.” Whatever you think of prostitution, an estimated 15 to 20 percent of American men have paid for sex. Some of this may signal compulsivity, but for many men, visits to sex workers reconcile big libidos with chronic marital desire differences. One Portland, Oregon, sex worker surveyed her customers, asking why they visited her. Among her married clients, the number one reason was “to save my marriage.” One may disapprove of patronizing sex workers, but paying for sex is not necessarily out of control. It may be a reasonably rational solution to chronic marital desire differences.
Many of the women said they’d acted out of control because they’d had multiple partners. Society often calls such women “sluts,” leading some to feel that something is wrong with them. But the one study of highly sexual women shows them solidly in control of themselves. Compared with other women, they just enjoy sex more.
So chances are that fewer than 7 people per 1,000 have actually acted sexually out of control, way fewer than the sex-addiction industry claims.
Worried You Might Have a Sex/Porn Problem?
Let’s say that 5 people per thousand (0.5 percent) have sex that actually harms them and/or others. That’s a tiny percentage of the population, but in a nation of 250 million people over age fourteen, it’s 1.5 million people. If you fear you’re among them:
Step 1. Why do you think you’re out of control?
• Thoughts? If your thoughts are the issue, you’re normal. Everyone has erotic thoughts. Many have them several times a day. And many have erotic fantasies they find disturbing. But we’re not responsible for our thoughts, only our actions. Don’t stress about your fantasies.
• Actions? Many call themselves “sex addicts” for sex that’s not heterosexual and monogamous. But same-sex relationships are normal. So is consensual non-monogamy—more below.
• Upbringing? Did your parents or church harangue you that masturbation and recreational sex are evil? Believe what you want, but more than 70 years of research show that self-sexing is normal and healthy, even when people stroke frequently. In addition, most Americans have engaged in recreational sex—and usually feel fine about it.
• Who? Who says your sexual activities are problematic? You? Or your partner? If it’s you, here’s the test. Do your sexual actions significantly interfere with your daily responsibilities to school, work, family, and friends? If so, proceed to Steps 3 and 4.
If it’s your partner, ask why he or she—probably she—thinks so. Your partner may be mistaken:
• Some women believe that only reprehensible men watch porn. Actually, virtually all men do.
• Some women believe that porn is violent and promotes sexual assault. In fact, porn is less violent than standard television fare video games, and does notcontribute to rape. World-wide, as porn has become more easily available, rates of sexual assault, including child sex abuse, have decreased.
• Some women believe that porn corrupts adolescents. However, since the arrival of Internet porn, young people have become moresexually responsible—more likely than ever postpone first intercourse until after high school graduation, and then to practice safe sex.
• Some women believe that the women who work in porn have been trafficked and live as virtual sex slaves. Actually, the women in porn are very similar to other women. They just enjoy sex more.
Some women don’t object to porn, per se, but feel threatened by men’s stroking to it. Sorry, ladies, marriage licenses don’t grant you the right to prohibit a partner’s self-sexing any more than they give your man the right to keep you from talking with your friends.
There is, however, one legitimate objection to porn—men habitually stroking to it while refusing to make love with their partners (below).
Step 2. If you’re concerned about your actions, which one(s)? Why?
Among women, the leading reason for self-diagnosis of “sex addiction” is multiple partners. Supposedly, “good girls” have just one.
But the leading erotic fantasy involves doing it with someone otherthan your main partner. Don’t berate yourself for your daydreams. In fantasy, everything is permitted and nothing is wrong.
What about real live sex with many lovers? There’s nothing necessarily “disordered” about this. Throughout history, many normal, mentally healthy women have participated in unconventional couplings. Today, around 5 percent of American women enjoy threesomes, swapping, and swinging. That’s who they are. Unless non-monogamy significantly interferes with life responsibilities, it’s not problematic, not an “addiction.”
Among men, the top concern is masturbation to porn. However, on closer examination, the problem is rarely stroking to porn, per se, but the guilt and shame men feel about yanking.
Step 3. If you still think your actions are out of control, treat the situation as a habit you’d like to change.
• If at first…. Many people try to lose weight or stop watching porn—and fail. They may conclude, “This habit is stronger than I am. I must be an addict.” Actually, you have a habit you’d like to change. This is a learning process. You may need several tries to figure out what works for you. Keep trying. Eventually, you’re likely to succeed.
• Itemize your triggers. Triggers are the moments you feel a strong pull toward your habit. Frequently, triggers include boredom, stress, loneliness, or the end of the workday (Traffic to PornHub, the world’s largest porn site, spikes from 5-6 p.m.). Once you identify your triggers, work around them.
• Ten minutes. Next time you feel triggered, instead of slipping into your habit, for just 10 minutes, do something else—anything. Ten minutes isn’t long. Even those in the grip of tenacious habits like smoking can usually do something else for 10 minutes. Take a walk. Run an errand. Make a cup of tea. Meditate. Call a friend—anything that postpones indulging.
• Another 10? Okay, you went 10 minutes. See? Your habit doesn’t totally control you. You’ve exerted some control over it. Congratulations. You’re on your way to overcoming it. After 10 minutes, decide if you can postpone your habit another 10 minutes. If not, don’t berate yourself. Habits often change slowly. Over time, extend one 10-minute avoidance period to several. You don’t have to stop watching porn entirely. Just confine it in a smaller corner of your life.
• Which substitute works best? Experiment to identify the activities that best allow you to postpone your habit. Embrace them whenever you feel triggered.
• Relapses? Some people quit smoking or drinking or porn cold turkey, but most can’t. If you fall off the wagon, pick yourself up, analyze why you couldn’t resist your trigger, and reset with another 10 minutes of avoidance.
Step 4. If you don’t succeed after three months of diligent effort, seek help.
Do notapproach a “certified sex addiction therapist” (CSAT). They usually believe the sex-addiction industry’s pseudoscience. Instead, consult therapists certified by the American Association for Sex Educators, Counselors, and Therapists. Before you work with them, ask how they feel about “sex-addiction” and Patrick Carnes, coiner of the term. If they endorse the former and express admiration for the latter, look for someone else.
If You’d Rather Stroke to Porn Than Make Love with Your Partner
Solo sex while watching porn is usually fine, as long as it doesn’t interfere with the rest of your life—including sex with your honey. In sexual relationships, couples have a responsibility to make love at a frequency both can live with.
Here’s what sex therapists recommend: Schedule your partner sex in advance and stroke at other times. Independent of porn, in long-term relationships, desire differences are virtually inevitable. Scheduling sex is the best way around them. When porn is an issue, scheduling becomes even more crucial. With scheduled sex, women can feel reassured that their men still desire them and make time to make love with them. Meanwhile, men can play solo at times that don’t interfere with scheduled partner sex.
Some older men find that it’s easier to become aroused and raise erections stroking to porn than in partner lovemaking. You CAN become aroused with your lover. Just breathe deeply, engaging in lots of kissing, cuddling, and mutual whole-body massage. And if you don’t get hard enough for intercourse, you can still enjoy satisfying, orgasmic “outercourse:” hand jobs, oral sex, and if you feel so inclined, perhaps a bit of kink.
A very small proportion of the population exhibits truly out-of-control sexuality. For them, habit-change and sex therapy usually resolve the problem. Unfortunately, the sex-addiction industry has vastly over-stated extent of out-of-control sexuality, and their treatment approaches rarely focus on the guilt and shame at the heart of most “sex addiction.” That’s why most mental health professionals reject “sex addiction” as largely fiction.
Part 1 of this series explores whether habits like frequent porn watching constitute actual “addictions.” Part 2 explores the harm supposedly inflicted by “sex addiction.”
The real culprits in “sex addiction:” sexual guilt and shame
Gilliland, R. et al. “The Roles of Guilt and Shame I Hypersexual Behavior,” Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity (2011) 18:12.
Perry, S.L. and K.J. Snawder. “Pornography, Religion, and Parent-Child Relationship Quality,” Archives of Sexual Behavior (2017) 46:1747.
Stulhofer, A. et al. “Is High Sexual Desire A Facet of Male Hypersexuality? Results from an Online Study,” Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy (2016) 42:665.
The prevalence of “out of control” sexual behavior
Skegg, K. et al. “Perceived ‘Out of Control’ Sexual Behavior in a Cohort of Young Adults from the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study,” Archives of Sexual Behavior (2010) 39:968.
Highly sexual women
Blumberg, E. “The Lives and Voices of Highly Sexual Women,” Journal of Sex Research (2003) 40:146.
Studies showing more porn, less rape
Condron, M.K. and D.E. Nutter. “A Preliminary Examination of the Pornography Experience of Sex Offenders, Parphiliacs, Sexual Dysfunction Patients, and Controls Based on Meese Commission Recommendations,” Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy (1988) 14:285.
Cook, R.F. et al. “Pornography and the Sex Offender: Patterns of Previous Exposure and Arousal Effects of Pornographic Stimuli,” Journal of Applied Psychology (1971) 55:503.
Fisher, W.A. et al. “Pornography, Sex Crime, and Paraphilia,” Current Psychiatry Reports (2013) 15:362.
Fukui, A. and B. Westmore. “To See Or Not To See: The Debate Over Pornography and Its Relationship to Sexual Aggression,” Australia and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry (1994) 28:600.
Goldstein, M. et al. “Experience with Pornography: Rapists, Pedophiles, Homosexuals, Transsexuals, and Controls,” Archives of Sexual Behavior (1997) 1:1.
Gwee, K.P. et al. “The Sexual Profile of Rapists in Singapore,” Medicine, Science and the Law (2002) 42:51.
Kohut, T. et al. “Is Pornography Really About ‘Making Hate to Women?’ Pornography Users Hold More Gender-Egalitarian Attitudes Than Nonusers in a Representative American Sample,” Journal of Sex Research (2016) 53:1.
Langevin, R. et al. “Pornography and Sexual Offences,” Annals of Sex Research (1988) 1:335.
Nutter, D.E. and M.E. Kearns. “Patterns of Exposure to Sexually Explicit Material Among Sex Offenders, Child Molesters, and Controls,” Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy (1993) 19:77.
Seto, M.C. et al. “The Role of Pornography in the Etiology of Sexual Aggression,” Aggression and Violent Behavior (2001) 6:35.
Since 1995, U.S. the rate of sexual assault has plummeted 58 percent
Around the world, more porn, less rape
Diamond, M. et al. “Pornography and Sex Crimes in the Czech Republic,” Archives of Sexual Behavior (2011) 40:1037
Diamond, M. “The Effects of Pornography: An International Perspective,” in Pornography 101: Eroticism, Sexuality, and the First Amendment, edited by J. Elias et al. Prometheus Press, Amherst, NY, 1999.
Diamond, M. and A. Uchiyama. “Pornography, Rape, and Sex Crimes in Japan,” International Journal of Law and Psychiatry (1999) 22:1.
Kutchinsky, B. Pornography and Rape: Theory and Practice? Evidence from crime Data in Four Countries, Where Pornography is Easily Available,” International Journal of Law and Psychiatry (1991) 14:47.
Kutchinsky, B. “The Effect of Easy Availability of Pornography on the Incidence of Sex Crimes: The Danish Experience,” Journal of Social Issues (1973) 29:163.
Goldstein, M. et al. “Experience with Pornography: Rapists, Pedophiles, Homosexuals, Transsexuals, and Controls,” Archives of Sexual Behavior (1997) 1:1.
Porn is not associated with sexual risk-taking
Luder, M.T. et al. “Associations Between Online Pornography and Sexual Behavior Among Adolescents: Myth or Reality?” Archives of Sexual Behavior (2011) 40:1027.
Sinkovic, M. et al. “Revisiting the Association Between Pornography Use and Risky Sexual Behaviors: The Role of Early Exposure to Pornography and Sexual Sensation Seeking,” Journal of Sex Research (2013) 50:633.
Porn exposure early in life has no significantly harmful impact
Stulhofer, A. et al. “Pornography, Sexual Socialization, and Satisfaction AmongYoung Men,” Archives of Sexual Behavior (2010) 39:168.
Hald, G.M. et al. “Does Viewing Explain Doing? Assessing the Association Between Sexually Explicit Materials and Sexual Behaviors in a Large Sample of Dutch Adolescents and Young Adults,” Journal of Sexual Medicine (2013) 10:2986.
Porn actresses are very similar to other women
Griffith, JD. et al. “Pornography Actresses: As Assessment of the ‘Damaged Goods’ Hypothesis,” Journal of Sex Research (2013) 50:621.
Critiques of the sex-addiction model
Braun-Harvey, D. and M.A. Vigorito. Treating Out-Of-Control Sexual Behavior. Springer, NY, 2016.
Klein, M. His Porn, Her Pain: Confronting Amerca’s Porn Panic with Honest Talk About Sex. Praeger/ABC-Clio, Santa Barbara, CA, 2016.
Kraus, S.W. et al. “Should Compulsive Sexual Behavior Be Considered an Addiction?” Addiction (2016) 111:2097.
Ley, D.J. The Myth of Sex Addiction. Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham, MD, 2012.
Reay, B. et al. “Inventing Sex: The Short History of Sex Addiction,” Sexuality & Culture (2013) 17:1.
Voros, F. “The Invention of Addiction to Pornography,” Sexologies (2009) 18:243.
Winters, J. “Hypersexual Disorder: A More Cautious Approach,” Archives of Sexual Behavior (2010) Letter: DOI 10.1007/s10508-010-9607-2
Winters, J. et al. “Dysregulated Sexuality and High Sexual Desire: Distinct Constructs?” Archives of Sexual Behavior (2010) 39:1029.