Young man masturbating to adult content on his laptop in bed

Most alleged sex addicts aren’t compulsive or addicted, just misinformed. Sexual compulsivity or out-of-control sexual behavior has been documented. So has being sexually turned on by bees—melissaphilia. Like melissaphilia, true sexual compulsivity is rare. It hardly appeared in the psychology literature until the 1980s after the term “sex addiction” was coined. Since then, sex addiction has entered the lexicon. Many consider it prevalent and disastrous.

Today we have a tiny number of sexual compulsives who do things like getting repeatedly arrested for public masturbation. We also have a large number who fear or believe or have been told that they’re sex addicts. But oddly, when surveyed about what purported addicts actually do sexually, they don’t have any more sex or wilder sex than boatloads of people who feel certain they’re psychologically fine.

Why Men Stroke to Porn

“Sex addicts” are overwhelmingly men. Most men feel lustier than most women, and most men have most of their sex with themselves. They masturbate largely for stress relief. Why do men feel stressed? In part because of testosterone. The hormone makes men anxious and irritable. Researchers at Dennison University in Ohio asked 249 adults why they had solo or partner sex. Among the women, 25 percent cited stress relief, the men 80 percent.

Meanwhile, many women also masturbate frequently. More than half of adult American women own vibrators, and most use them only solo. But when stressed, women are more likely than men to cope non-sexually, for example, by talking with friends.

Some men also de-stress by conversing, exercising, playing video games, or watching sports. But many masturbate to pornography—girlie and porn magazines before the late-1990s, Internet porn since. Masturbation requires erotic fantasies. Men’s own get stale so they turn to the zillions available for free on porn sites. They ejaculate, which calms them. Then they return to their sane, functional, loving, in-control lives.

Many women cannot fathom why so many men feel such a deep need to polish pipe. Many also believe that only evil men watch porn. Actually, almost every man has and does. Canadian researchers wanted to compare sexual attitudes among men who had and had never watched porn. They couldn’t find a single man who hadn’t—not one.

The best research shows that around 25 percent of women think porn is a disgusting abomination. However, the vast majority of porn-watching men love and respect their mates. Stroking to videos is simply a way to feel entertained while managing their stress.

The Top Symptom of Sex Addiction

The number one symptom of sex addiction is masturbation to porn. But how much is too much? There’s no consensus. Everyone is sexually unique. If you’ve had more than one lover, were any two erotically identical? The more researchers explore human sexuality, the more diversity they find. And if everyone is sexually unique, beyond sex the legal system defines as criminal, who’s to say what’s normal or abnormal, healthy or harmful?

Some guys stroke to porn regularly and consider it an efficient way to manage their stress. Others do the exact same thing and decide they’re sex addicts—especially if their mates learn they self-sex to porn and label them.

The Main Culprit in Sex Addiction

What distinguishes men who think self-sexing is fine from those who fear it’s pathological? Religiosity. Those who consider themselves sex addicts usually come from fundamentalist backgrounds. They were raised to believe that sex should be reserved for having children and cementing holy wedlock, not just for fun, and never for self-sexing to porn. Like all men, those who believe they’re sex addicts want nookie and have it solo. But they also believe this proves they’re deranged and going to Hell. They feel deeply conflicted, which causes great stress. When they get labeled sex addicts, they become even more distraught. To calm themselves, guess what they do. Which fuels a vicious cycle resulting in emotional desperation.

The Cure for Purported Sex Addiction

Several studies have explored effective treatment for those convinced they’re sex addicts. The best approach is cognitive (aka cognitive-behavioral) therapy. Cognitive means thinking. Cognitive therapy recognizes that severe distress can result from mistaken thinking. By correcting faulty thinking, cognitive therapy reduces distress—and the behaviors distressed individuals use to cope.

Men labeled sex addicts typically hold beliefs that are mistaken:

  • Sexual thoughts and fantasies are wrong, harmful, sinful.
  • Only bad people masturbate.
  • Porn is evil.

Cognitive therapists point out:

  • There’s nothing wrong with sexual thoughts and fantasies. Everyone has them. They’re perfectly normal and enhance sex. There are no thought crimes. In fantasy, everything is permitted and nothing is wrong. Enjoy your fantasies. Control your actions.
  • Everyone has masturbated and most people continue throughout life, particularly men who feel stressed. Unless self-sexing interferes with life responsibilities or partner lovemaking, it’s not a problem, no matter how frequent. Millions of normal, productive, loving, mentally healthy single—and coupled—men masturbate daily.
  • Porn is not evil. It’s a cartoon version of men’s fantasies of effortless sexual abundance. Virtually every Internet-connected man on Earth has seen porn, many frequently, some daily or more.

Once sexually distressed men understand that their beliefs are mistaken, they usually calm down. They feel less anxious—and don’t feel the need to self-soothe as much with porn.

The Myth of Sex Addiction

When mates, clergy, or others call men sex addicts, the men rarely calm down. Confronted with such a scary label, they’re much more likely to feel more distressed—and self-soothe using one hand. Subsequently, the term “sex addiction” does more harm than good. It’s not useful for correcting men’s mistaken thinking or soothing their emotional distress.

Over the past 70 years, psychological thinking about sexual compulsivity has evolved. In the 1950s and ’60s, the condition was considered rare and pathological. In the standard guide to mental health problems, the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), sexually compulsive women were diagnosed with “nymphomania,” men with “satyriasis” (after the lusty satyrs in Greek mythology) or “Don Juanism” (after the fictional Spanish libertine).

Periodically, the nation’s mental health community has revised the DSM in light of compelling new research. Discussions about the most recent revisions began in 2003 and lasted 10 years. The process involved thousands of stakeholders who reviewed and debated tens of thousands of studies.

Some argued in favor of including sex addiction in DSM-5 (2013). Others not only wanted that diagnosis excluded but also argued for the deletion of all diagnostic terms for sexual compulsivity based on many studies showing that some people really love sex, have a great deal more than others, and yet still live functional, loving, mentally healthy lives.

In the end, the large majority of mental health professionals rejected the whole idea of sex addiction and deleted all previous diagnostic terms. In addition, the main organization that credentials U.S. sex professionals now says: “We find insufficient evidence to support sex addiction as a mental health disorder.”


Americans often use the term “addiction” loosely. Coffee lovers are java junkies, chocolate lovers chocoholics. But as far as most mental health professionals are concerned, the idea of sex addiction belongs in the trash.

If you were raised in a fundamentalist Christian home and fear you might be sexually compulsive, I urge you read. Advancing Sexual Health for the Christian Client by Rev. Beverly Dale and Rachel Keller, both evangelical Christians, who cite Christian Scripture to correct fundamentalists’ mistaken sexual beliefs.

If you think you’re sex addicted or if anyone else accuses you of it, consult a sex therapist who practices cognitive therapy. Chances are you’re not an addict just someone who grew up hearing that normal sexuality is abnormal. To find a sex therapist near you, visit the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors, and Therapists.


More great, useful sex information from Michael Castleman, the world’s most popular sexuality writer.

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