You Know, Nearly 1 in 10 Americans struggles to control sexual urges

Sexual behaviours become a problem when they influence your life in a way that's destructive.

The #MeToo movement has given many Americans a glimpse into an unfamiliar world that may have left many wondering, "What were they thinking?"

It turns out they might not have been thinking much at all. New research suggests that almost 9% of people in the United States have distress caused by difficulty controlling their sexual feelings, urges and behaviours.

But the gap between genders was very small: Just over 10% of men showed compulsive sexual behaviour, compared to 7% of women.

No excuses for aberrant behaviour

"Historically, it's been thought that compulsive sexual behaviours affect mostly men. But women are showing that they are experiencing difficulty controlling sexual urges and behaviour, too," said study author Janna Dickenson. She is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Minnesota. 

Dickenson explained that such behaviours can vary widely. "Some people might masturbate excessively so that it interferes with the ability to work, or someone might be paying for sex so much that it's damaging financially," she explained, adding that sexual behaviours become a problem when they influence your life in a way that's destructive.

So, does that mean people like Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein should be excused for aberrant and potentially criminal behaviour?

"When anyone faces a problem and there's a classification for that problem, it doesn't mean that it excuses that behaviour. [In these cases], there's this link between hypersexuality and non-consent, but these are two separate issues that can be hard to tease apart," Dickenson explained.

Michael Klein, a psychologist at Gracie Square Hospital in New York City, said it's difficult to comment on individual cases, but "it's possible that these high-profile cases reflect examples of compulsive sexual behaviour. However, it may also be better explained by something else, such as taking advantage of a power dynamic, in the context of another [psychological] condition, or any combination of factors."

Compulsive sexual behaviour disorder

Mental health professionals have long debated whether or not sexual addiction is an actual addiction or an impulse disorder. What is common to problematic sexual behaviour, no matter how it is classified, is substantial difficulty controlling sexual feelings, urges and behaviours to the point that it causes distress and impairment.

Distress and impairment includes neglecting social activities or personal health, repeatedly attempting to control sexual behaviour unsuccessfully, and engaging in sexual behaviour despite adverse consequences or minimal pleasure from his or her sexual activities, according to the researchers.

Using this definition, the study team asked more than 2 000 people to complete a screening test for compulsive sexual disorder. The study participants were already a part of a nationally representative study on sexual health and behaviour. They were all between the ages of 18 and 50.

The researchers expected between 1% and 6% of the study group would meet the definition of compulsive sexual behaviour disorder (CSBD). Instead, 8.6% of those screened were found to possibly have CSBD.

A wide spectrum of sexuality

Dickenson said it's important to note that this study only used a screening tool. Someone who tests positive on this test should be referred for further evaluation.

Klein added that "a large study such as this helps to increase our understanding of compulsive sexual behaviour and related phenomena, as well as provide for future directions of study," but there are a lot of issues left to sort out.

"There is a difference between feelings and actions, and thoughts and actions; having trouble controlling urges is not the same as acting on urges," he said. And cultural, social and religious norms and beliefs can impact how someone feels about sexual behaviour.

Both experts said that if someone is concerned about their sexual behaviours, they should seek help.

"People need to realise there is a wide spectrum of sexuality. Thoughts and feelings are one thing, but behaviour that you are unable to control is another matter. If certain behaviours interfere with your life or cause distress for you or others, you may want to speak with a professional," Klein said.

The study was published online in the journal JAMA Network Open.

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