Do you often think about having sex, maybe several times a day, to the point of distraction? Do you ever feel your desire for sex goes beyond “normal” craving? And does it make you feel different from others? If you’re a man, then you’ve historically been considered “hypersexual.” Doctors would likely have suggested you have an addiction to sex, and will have recommended different courses of therapy to help you manage the symptoms and impact on your life.
If you’re a woman, however, you might not have been given the same consideration, as women have long been dismissed when it comes to studying hypersexuality. Women aren’t generally thought of as willing and aggressive sexual beings. But new studies are emerging about female sexuality that show women can in fact exhibit “hypersexual” tendencies, and that if sex addiction exists, it certainly isn’t only for men.
Robert Weiss, founder of the Sexual Recovery Institute, noted that the number of men and women seeking therapeutic help for sex-related issues is escalating, though there is no official “hypersexual” diagnosis in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. He cites increased access to pornography online and ease of random anonymous encounters (via dating and hook-up sites) as the leading causes of sex becoming almost a drug of choice for many people battling addictions.
Weiss also says that, while the idea of sex addiction or hypersexuality has been widely embraced publicly and generally accepted as a legitimate affliction, the American Psychology Association and National Institutes of Health have avoided making provisions for research in this area, and have backed away from co-signing these disorders. What research has been done focuses primarily on men, with glaringly obvious dismissal of women’s behavior, so much of the data we have about sex addiction doesn’t exactly apply to women.
There’s plenty of research about women with low sex drives, or hypoactive sexuality. Stigma about sexual behavior in women assumes women aren’t interested in sex, as a rule, and expects women to report disinterest in sex. This simply isn’t the case for all women, and the assumption is damaging for women who are both engaging in activities that concern them and afraid to seek help. There are now a few more studies looking into what goes on with women on the opposite end of the spectrum.
Linda Hudson, a therapist who’s worked with sex-addicted clients for over 20 years, says there’s been a perpetual blind spot when it comes to studying women, though women have been treated for sexual disorders for years. Like men, early exposure to pornography is a greater predictor of hypersexuality than early sexual trauma/abuse, as previously thought.
Interestingly enough, studies now show women are more likely to be stimulated by erotic and sexual imagery than men are, which challenges previous theories about the impact of pornography on society. Lastly, women are more likely to identify their addictions to sex as relationship or love addictions, and seek therapy and treatment when their compulsions are really rooted in sexual behaviors. It’s more socially and morally acceptable for women to admit being addicted to love and companionship than being addicted to sex.
Sex addiction is a tricky topic to navigate, in that the acceptance of hypersexuality or sex addiction as legitimate diagnoses means accepting the idea that there are standards for “normal” appreciation and engagement in sex. Who determines what is normal sexual behavior, and how does this standard vary for men and women? The stigma surrounding female sexuality makes it hard to decide what these standards are and whether or not there should even be any standards at all.
Society has, in my opinion, made it quite difficult for women to be open and forthcoming about their sexual preferences, behaviors and frequency of activities. So it becomes hard to gather honest responses from women, even with the protection of anonymity in therapy and clinical studies. This same stigma imposes limits on the sexual behaviors of women; we have to wonder if women are actually thinking about sex more and feeling stronger desires to have sex than they ever act on.
If women feel pressured to maintain decency and propriety, they might forgo ever exploring certain things and indulging in certain behaviors. Clinicians suggest that sexual addiction is more than just the activities and more about the totality of the experience, including fantasies and planning. But if women aren’t acting on their desires—intense, plentiful, or unique as they may be—is there really a “problem”?
What is “normal” sexual desire and “normal” sexual behavior? Is there an acceptable number of times a day a person should (want to) have sex, and are there limits on the number of people a person should have sex with over one’s lifetime? Double standards seem to allow men more freedom to enjoy sex while chastising women who behave similarly. In fact, we often shame women for “acting like men” when it comes to certain sexual activities, but we don’t challenge men for what they do.
I don’t know if I agree with the idea of people being “hypersexual,” because I don’t know if we can collectively agree upon a standard for sexual normalcy. Much of the addiction talk focuses on how sexual behavior harms the individual’s life and livelihood, and how it has an impact on those around them. I definitely agree that working with people to mitigate the harm sex has on their lives is important. But I don’t know if there are standards that apply to all people.
There are too many factors to consider—like race, culture, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, and gender—that inform people’s perspectives about sex and guide their behaviors. Are we then going to focus on comparing individual behavior to individual beliefs? If so, how do we create a standard by which doctors and therapists can make widely accepted diagnoses and use them to “treat” people? Ultimately, this continues to be a big part of the controversy behind the exclusion of hypersexuality and sex addiction: we haven’t come to an agreement on what normal sexual behavior is.
As a woman who enjoys sex a great deal, and has often had partners who I felt couldn’t keep up with me, I find it problematic that women’s sexuality is so readily dismissed and unworthy of further study. Sexual standards lead to shaming women—especially African-American women, who have historically oscillated between being portrayed as asexual or hypersexual. I’m troubled by how long stereotypes have been perpetuated and how these stereotypes have limited women’s access to help with issues they might feel they have.
While it is promising that there seems to be an increase in studies about women’s sexuality, I’m bothered by the fact that women’s sexual behavior continues to be compared to men’s, and determinations about the normalcy of our desire and activity is based on what we understand about men’s sexuality. Women love sex just as much (if not more) as men, and when it comes down to it, we just want the freedom to explore our sexual desires without being labeled “hypersexual” addicts simply because we have sex more than the average man.
Feminista Jones is a sex-positive Black feminist, social worker and blogger from New York City. She writes about gender, race, politics, mental health and sexuality at FeministaJones.com. Follow her on Twitter at @FeministaJones.