Our sense of self is largely defined by our system of values and spiritual identity, along with many other aspects of the self, including our physical, cognitive, intellectual, professional and relational parts. We are also sexual human beings, and are wired to be curious about sexuality and to develop an interest and longing for sexual expression.
Religious sources teach that “straying after our hearts and eyes” is prohibited. Yet, sexual thoughts, curiosity, and fantasy are part of the normative developmental process. When sexual behaviors, such as masturbation, viewing pornography, or engaging in sexual activity online, conflict with one’s values, there is no question that this creates cognitive dissonance. When one views oneself in a certain way, yet struggles with his or her sexuality in a way that defies that view, the ensuing shame and guilt can be difficult to deal with.
If sexual thoughts and behaviors are forbidden, yet, are developmentally normative, how do we determine how much is too much and what thoughts and behaviors are problematic? Moreover, what are the actual objective criteria for defining problematic sexual behavior in the absence of distress related to moral or religious prohibition?
It is important to acknowledge that there is a great deal of debate about whether sex addiction exists. Recent scientific studies failed to demonstrate that the experience of sex itself, whether through masturbation, pornography or fantasy, or with another person, is addictive in a way similar to chemical substances, such as opium. Sexual heath experts have refuted the idea of sex being addictive because if sex is a part of being human and alive, how can it be addictive?
The label of sex addiction has also been criticized for lacking objective criteria and too often, people get labeled sex addicts for engaging in behaviors that may be normative from mental health and sexual health perspectives, but are objectionable for other reasons having to do with values, whether moral, religious, feminist or humanist.
While there are several criticisms of the sex addiction label and treatment model there is no question that some people absolutely struggle with out of control sexual behaviors. Sexual heath professionals, as opposed to sexual addiction counselors, however, prefer to better understand the distress of the struggling individual rather than label the behavior as a sex addiction. The treatment approach should be non judgmental and oriented towards getting a better understanding of what triggers the behavior and what it serves. This often requires a process of therapy.
For some people, viewing pornography is a way to satisfy curiosity or provide a sexual outlet and that behavior is well controlled. For others, it is a way to self-soothe or escape overwhelming feelings of loneliness. For some, there may be an element that heals childhood wounds. . Yet for some the behavior may become out of control. In many cases, that may stem from attempts to control and stop sexual thoughts, creating a distressful cycle. This problematic and compulsive sexual behavior is defined by emotional dysregulation, dysfunction, (such as losing one’s job due to these behaviors), a lack of ability to control the behavior, and negative thoughts about the behavior.
Join Talli Rosenbaum and Rabbi Scott Kahn on the Intimate Judaism podcast, as they discuss sex addiction, pornography, compulsive sexual behaviors, as well as identification, prevention, and treatment. Special thanks to Dr. Yaniv Efrati, educator and sex researcher, for his valuable contribution to the discussion.