Sex addiction’s not a thing

Sorry Russell, Tiger and Charlie; experts are now saying that your “sex addict” excuse is not an actual disorder…

By Kate Leaver
Sex addiction

“Many people are skeptical about the idea of what I like to call ‘sexy addiction,’ thinking it a spurious notion, invented primarily to help Hollywood film stars evade responsibility for their excesses. But I reckon there is such a thing.” Those words, if you can imagine the accent and the gravity-defying hair, belong to Russell Brand, British comedian and Katy Perry heartbreaker. He wrote a whole chapter in My Booky Wook on his stint at a sexual addiction treatment centre.

Dr David Ley, clinical psychologist and author of the book The Myth of Sex Addiction, is more than a skeptic; he’s one of the world’s loudest critics of the industry. We caught up with Dr Ley when he was in Sydney recently… and basically he’s confirmed that sex addiction isn’t a thing. “It’s just pop psychology taken too far. There’s no medical validity to ‘sex addiction’ and frankly I think it’s dangerous to keep suggesting it’s real.”

Dangerous behaviour

Forget, for a minute, Russell Brand and other infamous sex addicts like Charlie Sheen, Michael Douglas, David Duchovny and Tiger Woods. The latest high-profile person to use sex addiction as an excuse is infinitely more sinister: Ariel Castro, the 53 year old man who abducted three young women – Michelle Knight, Amanda Berry and Gina DeJesus – in Cleveland, USA, and kept them in his basement for more than a decade. He’s been sentenced to 1000 years in jail, convicted of 977 criminal charges including many rapes, violence, and the murder of an unborn child.

And this is what he told the court: “I’m not a monster, I’m sick. I have an addiction just like an alcoholic has an addiction. Alcoholics cannot control their addiction and I can’t control mine, Your Honour.” This is a man who stole a decade of life from three innocent women, keeping them chained and terrified in his home – but conveniently, it’s all because he’s addicted to porn and sex.

“For a serial rapist to use sex addiction as an excuse for his monstrous behaviour is exactly what I’m talking about,” says Dr Ley. “In that circumstance, it’s so dangerous. And more broadly, it creates the idea that men are not responsible for their sexual behaviour.” If that’s how sex and love addiction play out in a criminal court, how might it affect a good-hearted, normal person? Could the words ‘sex addiction’ ever be constructive?

Sex Addicts Anonymous

When Hedley Galt, 35, first heard the term, she laughed. “A girlfriend told me about it and I thought it was the most ridiculous thing I’d ever heard. How can anyone be addicted to something like sex? But then, of course, I found out.” She ended up at a 12-step sex and love addiction program in Sydney to break the cycle of going back to an emotionally destructive man (and then, naturally, wrote a book about it – called Finding Paris). For her, it was really important to identify as an addict. “I know women who have lots of sex with lots of different people, but it’s not a self-destructive thing for them,” she toldCosmo. “But for me, it really was. I was out of control, and it was ruining my life. The word ‘addiction’ was such a powerful label for me; it shocked me into getting help.”

Psychotherapist Sally Tayler says the choice to call yourself an addict is worth analysing in itself: “Addiction is always something I’d address, regardless of what it is someone’s addicted to. Really, you could get addicted to buying guinea pigs – but I’d want to understand when that started, whether it’s stopping you from functioning, and how to move on. If someone came to me saying they had a sex addiction, I could absolutely treat them, but I’d look at why they felt the need to use that label,” she says. “Look at Michael Douglas, who’s said for years that he’s addicted to sex. If I gave him therapy, I’d want to understand why he wants to be seen as Mr Sex, and what that means for his marriage, and his mental state.”

So really, it’s about how you use the concept of “sex addiction”. The Russell Brands of the world can get away with infidelity and extreme mischief if they whip out the “I’m a sex addict” line, and ordinary people can use it to help them stop self-destructive behaviour. But when a man like Ariel Castro screams “sex addiction” to get a lighter sentence for one of the most shocking crimes of our time, we need to look at our role in allowing it to be a valid excuse.

Photo credit: Alana Landsberry/