Not too long ago, the idea that a person could be addicted to sex seemed either a joke or preposterous. In fact, I recall more than a few interviewers and TV hosts giving Steve McQueen a hard time about his film Shame, starring Michael Fassbender as man whose sex addiction slowly pulls his life apart. However, the data is becoming more and more clear: sex addiction is real, and neurologically speaking, it can be similar to drug addiction.
In a study published in PLOS One, researchers treating nineteen patients affected by compulsive sexual behaviour conducted a brain scan experiment, which they compared to brain scans of nineteen control subjects. According to the lead researcher, Dr. Valerie Voon, a Wellcome Trust Intermediate Clinical Fellow at the University of Cambridge, “The patients in our trial were all people who had substantial difficulties controlling their sexual behaviour and this was having significant consequences for them, affecting their lives and relationships.”
Subjects were shown pornographic videos, during which time their brains were scanned. Subjects also had to rate how good they felt said videos were. Amongst the subjects being treated for compulsive sexual behaviour, areas of the brain known to be involved in drug addiction were active—something not true for the control subjects. Also, the brain activity occurred whether or not the subjects liked their pornographic videos, suggesting their behaviour really is compulsive.
“Compulsive behaviours, including watching porn to excess, over-eating and gambling, are increasingly common. This study takes us a step further to finding out why we carry on repeating behaviours that we know are potentially damaging to us. Whether we are tackling sex addiction, substance abuse or eating disorders, knowing how best, and when, to intervene in order to break the cycle is an important goal of this research,” researcher Dr. John Williams, Head of Neuroscience and Mental Health at the Wellcome Trust, said in a statement.