Sex Addicts: Do They Exist?

By Eisenman, Russell | Journal of Evolutionary Psychology, August 2001 | Go to article overview

Sex Addicts: Do They Exist?


Eisenman, Russell, Journal of Evolutionary Psychology


Introduction

Humans have evolved mate seeking strategies that lead to their genes being transmitted to future generations. But, why do some engage in deviant sexual behavior, such as rapists and other sex offenders? Actually, rapists, via their crime, may be transmitting their genes to future generations (or, unconsciously, hoping to do so), although doing it in an anti-social fashion, that entails humiliation and injury to the victim. Child molesters typically do not transmit their genes to future generations via their crime. But, perhaps they think, in some symbolic or unconscious way, that they are doing so. In all these cases--rapists, child molesters, and other sex offenders--we need to account for why they choose such a deviant and anti-social way to engage in sex. One explanation has been that sex offenders, and even others who engage in sex with consent, but in a compulsive fashion, are sex addicts (Carnes, 1983, 1989). But, is it really true that some people are sex addicts, the way some people are drug addicts? The concept of sexual addiction is critically examined here.

This article discusses characteristics of adolescent and young adult sex offenders, and compares those characteristics to the sexual addiction cycle described by Carnes (1983). The purpose of this is to see if incarcerated sex offenders, encountered in a prison treatment program for youthful male offenders, fit the criteria for sexual addiction. Sandhu (1990) has described the work of Carnes (1983, 1989) and the controversial concept of sexual addiction. Duncan (1990) also has discussed treatment issues regarding sex offenders. However, the controversy comes about because "sexual addiction" is a relatively new concept, and some wonder if it is a valid construct. Perhaps all that is being done is saying that society disapproves of certain sexual behavior and making deviants of people who engage in such behavior and labeling them negatively (see Eisenman, 1991a for a discussion of how societies tend to do this sort of thing in an irrational fashion).

Background

For close to two years I served as Senior Clinical Psychologist in a prison treatment program. I worked in individual and group therapy with sex offenders, ranging in age from 16 to 28 years old. Most were still incarcerated when I left the prison job, and we can safely predict that most prisoners incarcerated in this prison system, including the sex offenders, will reoffend (Eisenman, 1991a, 1991b). However, if treatment results in only, say, 15% increase in preventing new offenses, over what would have occurred without treatment, then this is a great contribution to society, as many future potential victims will be spared. If the sex offenders I worked with fit the Carnes (1983) criteria for sexual addiction then it would add to the validity of the concept. If, however, they are notably different, then the "sex addiction" concept would not receive support, and should perhaps be questioned since these sex offenders were repeat, compulsive sex predators. If they are not sex addicts, one might wonder about the usefulness of the sex addict concept. At the very least, the concept might have to be applied selectively, being not used with certain groups such as criminal sex offenders. Sandhu (1990) used Carnes' (1983, 1989) sex addict concept to describe sexual issues in the mid-life crisis. Does the sex addict concept also apply to adolescent and young adult sex offenders seen in a prison treatment program?

The Addiction Cycle

As Sandhu (1990) pointed out, Carnes (1983) identified four steps of the sexual addiction cycle. I will describe my sex offender patients in terms of these four steps, to see it they fit the Carnes sex addict description.

Preoccupation. A sex addict's mind is said to be preoccupied with sexual thoughts and fantasies. While everyone or almost everyone may have sexual thoughts and fantasies, often to what seems like a great extent, the sex addict is even more preoccupied with sexual thoughts, such that they play an overly-important part in their life. …

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