Sex addiction has often made headlines, with celebrities blaming their romantic foibles on the condition. However, a new study questions the notion that people can truly be "addicted" to sex.
The new study from the University of California, Los Angeles, suggests that self-professed "addicts" may simply have a high sex drive.
"It is the first time scientists have studied the brain responses specifically of people who identify as having hypersexual problems," study senior author Nicole Prause, a researcher in the department of psychiatry at UCLA, said.
What is sex addiction?
Sex addiction is typically diagnosed in people who have sexual urges that feel out of control, who engage frequently in sexual behavior, who have suffered consequences such as divorce or economic ruin as a result of their sexual behaviours, and who have a poor ability to reduce those behaviours.
However, the existence of sex addiction is controversial and it was not included in the recently updated Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which is considered the "Bible" for diagnosing mental disorders.
In the new study, Prause's team analysed brain responses in 39 men and 13 women, aged 18 to 39, whose scores on questionnaires about sexual behaviours and habits were similar to those of people who typically sought treatment for sex addiction, also called hypersexuality.
"The volunteers were shown a set of photographs that were carefully chosen to evoke pleasant or unpleasant feelings," Prause explained. "The pictures included images of dismembered bodies, people preparing food, people skiing – and, of course, sex. Some of the sexual images were romantic images, while others showed explicit intercourse between one man and one woman."
The thinking behind the experiment was that if a person was truly addicted to sex, images of sexual activity would produce a spike in brain activity – in the same way that images of cocaine have been shown to alter the brain activity of people addicted to the drug.
What the study found
However, "the brain's response to sexual pictures was not predicted by any of the three questionnaire measures of hypersexuality," according to Prause. "Brain response was only related to the measure of sexual desire. In other words, hypersexuality does not appear to explain brain responses to sexual images any more than just having a high libido."
The study was published online this month in the journal Socioaffective Neuroscience and Psychology.
"Potentially, this is an important finding," Prause said. "If our study can be replicated, these findings would represent a major challenge to existing theories of a sex 'addiction'."
The U.S. National Library of Medicine has more about sexual health.