There’s a reason why some people are said to have an “addictive personality.” Addiction isn’t necessarily contingent on a specific substance – it can often involve many different substances as well as behaviors. The common denominator between addicts might, in fact, be a neurological one. Researchers and medical professionals have long wondered if there might be a connection between an addiction to sex and an addiction to drugs. Anecdotal evidence has often seemed to support this correlation, but a recent study delves more deeply into the commonalities between sex addiction and drug addiction.
The new study comes out of the University of Cambridge. Researchers in the study showed participants watching pornography who were separated into two groups – those reported to have compulsive sexual behaviors and those who did not. Among those in the group of people who had reported compulsive sexual behaviors, their brains showed something curious on the MRI scan when they watched pornography – something the other group did not demonstrate: increased brain activity in three regions, all of which have been associated in other studies with drug addiction. The amygdala, the anterior cingulate cortex, and the ventral striatum were the regions of the brain that stood out among the sexually compulsive participants.
Whether or not sex addiction should be considered a true mental illness or disorder has been the subject of much debate within the scientific and mental health communities over the last few decades. This study, however, helps to solidify the theory that sex addiction is much more about neurological pleasure and reward than it is about morality or an indulgent lack of self-control.
Thought to consist of an inability to control sexual thoughts, behaviors or urges, an addiction to sex can manifest as nymphomania, hypersexuality, erotomania or satyriasis, among other sexual compulsions. Similarly, a drug addiction is a compulsive urge to use a substance. Like an addiction to drugs, sex addiction has the potential to destroy the lives of addicts. Performance at work or in school can suffer at the hand of sex addiction while relationships with family or community members can become tattered and torn. As is the case with drug addiction, those in the throes of sex addiction can find themselves feeling as though they are not in control of their actions or their life, in general. This can lead to a sense of hopelessness and helplessness among both parties and the depression or anxiety that often accompanies these feelings can reinforce the addictive behaviors.
For some people who are addicted to drugs, sexual compulsivity is a part of their identity – or loss of identity – when using. The recklessness that fuels a drug binge can often fuel reckless sexual behavior, as well. For others who are addicted to drugs, the connection to sex can be just the opposite – they feel they are most sexually compulsive when sober. Those who fall into the latter group find themselves turning to sex to get the same “fix” they get from drugs. And it’s no wonder this tactic can work for some people for a certain amount of time – the sexual compulsivity might just be triggering the same pleasure and reward zones in their brains as drugs do.