Sex Positivity vs. Sex Addiction: How to Tell the Difference


He was alone, preferring to get his fix alone rather than dealing with someone else’s needs, wants or feelings. He described it as “sitting on a pile of heroin,” able to get his high pretty much whenever he wanted.  Just like an IV drug user finding veins between his toes, scabs and sores didn’t deter his teenage self from chasing that feeling.

Matt*, a heterosexual man now in his 30s who asked that his identity be withheld, said he was addicted to sex and his masturbation, porn and other sexual habits were destroying his relationships. As an adult, he lost the woman he loved when she found out he had been sexting other women.

Matt joined Sex Addicts Anonymous (SAA) and adhered to the system for four years, but he maintains sex rehab isn’t just a Tiger Woods way to skirt responsibility.

“For those people who don’t believe that sex addiction is a thing, I would want them to know that I understand their skepticism,” Matt, who described using masturbation as a crutch when he was depressed, anxious or needed an escape from reality, said.  “I had dinner with a buddy who I’ve known for three decades and it was the first time I had ever shared with him that I had spent four years in Sex Addicts Anonymous and his first reaction was to laugh.”

“In some cases, like my case, my behavior sounded much like that many men who exist in the city: Cheating on their partners, sexting multiple women, watching porn indiscriminately … The distinguishing factor,” Matt explained, “was that in every area of my life where I had integrity I was able to make a promise and keep it to myself. This is one area in my life where I relentlessly broke promises to myself.”


New York City-based licensed clinical psychologist Lainie Goldwert said she believes a compulsion to have sex is a symptom, not a disease. According to Goldwert, compulsive behaviors and addictions are really just attempts to regulate emotional distress. Sex involves a lot of stimulation, but in her opinion, “it doesn’t stand alone as its own particular disorder.”

That could mean the person with undiagnosed depression might self-medicate with cocaine; someone with anxiety might use cutting or the binge/purge cycle of bulimia to relieve the pressure. If you’re having a bad day and your go-to stress reliever is gambling, you’re going to feel the pull of the blackjack table. If an orgasm calms you down, that’s the feeling you’re likely to chase. After walking the steps in AA, stepping into a fitness center might replace good ol’ Smitty and his wall of brown liquor. Protein bars with a protein shake chaser takes over where a shot and a cheap beer left off.

While Goldwert says while she does believe in addictions, such as repetitive behaviors, sex addiction falls short of the definition as something that can’t be stopped. “Addiction creates certain kind of networks in the brain in terms of the kinds of rewards it gives us, even at the neurophysiological level where stopping it would cause its own kind of distress, discomfort, psychological discomfort and physical discomfort like we see with drug addiction,” she explained.

Goldwert detailed that idea further: “I would think about it in terms of what the underlying emotional issues are there and would probably think about the sort of anxiety someone is struggling with, that they’re trying to ameliorate through that kind of stimulation and that kind of touch and that kind of distraction and that kind of sense of conquest or empowerment or whatever it is that they’re getting from having a lot of sex.”

Sex could also change from a harmless behavior into a compulsion — a behavior without rational motivation — like tugging on your hair when you’re stressed.

“Compulsion is more in the moment,” sex expert and relationship coach Lia Holmgren told NSFW. “It’s a feeling that you can’t control yourself. There is also a lot of internalized shame associated with compulsion, which can cause reactionary compulsion and perpetuate the shame and aggression cycle, especially if your close relationships are impacted by your compulsive behavior.” Holmgren suggests the compulsion to have sex isn’t due to a rabid need for orgasms – especially for men.

“Men are conditioned to believe through society’s status quo that they have a certain role to play: Boys are taught they are ‘supposed to be’ tough; they ‘shouldn’t’ cry and they ‘don’t want’ romance,” the psychology graduate, whose book “BDSM for Couples” is available on Amazon explained. “When a boy grows into a man and wants intimacy, warmth and love, many men are scared to ask. They think that it is sex or nothing. This can perpetuate as a compulsive perceived need for sex. “They might be fulfilling their needs for intimacy and insecurity through sex when really those needs can be met by communicating their deepest desires and basic needs to their relationship partners,” Holmgren said.



Before we pass judgment on the “reality” of sex addiction, let’s consider the seemingly oppositional sex positive community. To those outside, the public behavior of these gangs might look a lot alike.

Sex positivity can be misinterpreted as hyper-sexuality without prejudice just as sex addiction could be marked by constant “skirt chasing” as it was labelled in olden times. An individual who has multiple partners or engages in threesomes could be viewed as a nymphomaniac by Puritan standards. A way to experience pleasure that feels normal to one person could be stigmatized by another.

Author Allena Gabosch defined sex positivity as: “An attitude towards human sexuality that regards all consensual sexual activities as fundamentally healthy and pleasurable, encouraging sexual pleasure and experimentation … The sex-positive movement advocates sex education and safer sex as part of its campaign … It does not make moral distinctions between heterosexual or homosexual sex or the type of sexual activities, regarding these choices as matters of personal preference.” One could then argue that listening with compassion to those who identify as sex addicts is really a natural extension of the safe space granted by sex positivity.

Matt, who engages in monogamous relationships, said once he saw the devastation that sex addiction caused other men in SAA — empty bank accounts, STIs given to unsuspecting partners — he became a believer.

“If people can just remain curious and ask questions instead of doubting it or trying to prove it wrong,” Matt said, “then I think that they might find there’s a whole world of people out there that are suffering that could use their compassion.”