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Inventing Sex: The Short History of Sex Addiction

Abstract

This article takes a critical look at the recent history of the concept of sex addiction, an archetypal modern sexual invention. Sex addiction began as a 1980s product of late twentieth-century cultural anxieties and has remained responsive to those tensions, including its most recent iteration, “hypersexual disorder.” Its success as a concept lay with its medicalization, both as a self-help movement in terms of self-diagnosis, and as a rapidly growing industry of therapists on hand to deal with the new disease. The media has always played a role in its history, first with TV, the tabloids, and the case histories of claimed celebrity victims all helping to popularize the concept, and then with the impact of the internet. Though it is essentially mythical, creating a problem that need not exist, sex addiction has to be taken seriously as a phenomenon. Rarely has a socio-psychological discourse taken such a hold on the public imagination—and proven an influential concept in academic circles too. We argue that this strange, short history of social opportunism, diagnostic amorphism, therapeutic self-interest, and popular cultural endorsement is marked by an essential social conservatism—sex addiction has become a convenient term to describe disapproved sex. Sex addiction is a label without explanatory force.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    For the former, see Zahedi (2006). For the latter, see Brutsman (2001).

  2. 2.

    This was the case for Michael Douglas and Rob Lowe, constantly touted as two of the earliest cases of celebrity sex addiction. Douglas and Lowe went to rehab for alcohol issues, and the press reported it as sex addiction.

  3. 3.

    For the co-sex addict idea, see Carnes 2011. The quotes are taken from a book more critical of this notion of co-dependency: Steffens and Means 2010, pp. 24–25.

  4. 4.

    Once-a-day does not seem especially hypersexual.

  5. 5.

    The link between cybersex and crack cocaine was originally made by Cooper et al. (2000).

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Correspondence to Barry Reay.

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Reay, B., Attwood, N. & Gooder, C. Inventing Sex: The Short History of Sex Addiction. Sexuality & Culture 17, 1–19 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12119-012-9136-3

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Keywords

  • Sex addiction
  • Internet
  • Hypersexual disorder
  • Sexual conservatism
  • Cybersex