March 16, 2010

New critique of proposed hypersexuality disorder

Although the construct of hypersexuality is becoming popular with clinicians, strong empirical evidence for its validity is lacking, according to a new critique in the Archives of Sexual Behavior. The author, Jason Winters, is a research psychologist involved with the High Risk Sex Offender Program of the Forensic Psychiatric Services Commission in Vancouver, BC.

As with other disorders being proposed for DSM-5, due out in 2013, the boundary between normalcy and supposed pathology is fuzzy and arbitrary, writes Winters. Findings from a recent Internet survey he conducted suggest that more than four out of every ten men and one out of five women might meet the "excessive sexuality" criterion, operationalized as an average of seven or more orgasms per week.

And if behaviors that interfere with other responsibilities are evidence of pathology in the sexual realm, why not create formal mental disorders for other types of preoccupations? For example, why not pathologize a tenure-track professor who prioritizes academic work over family and friends? (I was glad Winters did not mention excessive blogging as an example of a potential mental illness, but then I remembered that Internet Addiction has already been proposed for the DSM.)

The criterion of engaging in sexual behavior to enhance mood is similarly problematic:
[I]f we are to accept that repeatedly engaging in sexual behaviors to enhance mood is symptomatic of a distinct sexual disorder, then we must also be willing to accept that repeatedly engaging in non-sexual rewarding behaviors for a similar effect is symptomatic of other corresponding mental disorders…. [But] the DSM does not include disorders of watching too much television, or shopping, exercising, or working too much.
As Winters points out, an unstated bias against sexual expression outside of a traditional monogamous marital dyad seems the basis for calling some sexual behaviors -- such as one-night stands, anonymous sex, and multiple partners -- evidence of disease.

Ultimately, he concludes that while excessive sexuality may be problematic and distressing for some, and in such cases merits clinical attention, a new diagnosis may be of "dubious value."

Except, I might add, to the civil commitment industry, increasingly desperate for new diagnoses to justify the civil commitment of sex offenders who do not qualify for recognized mental illnesses.