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Researchers study risk-taking in sex addicts

A new study by Kinsey Institute researchers examines to what degree compulsive sexual behavior, sometimes called "sex addiction," is influenced by learning processes and other aspects of a person's environment.

Erick Janssen and his collaborators are finding that the development of compulsive behavior and the consumption of alcohol can act as catalysts in sexual risk-taking.

Their ongoing study, "The role of conditioning and alcohol in compulsivity and risk taking," is the first to test various aspects of sexual compulsivity in a laboratory. Focusing on the learning processes of participants as well as observing subjects who are under the influence of alcohol, the researchers can correlate external influences with a subject's self-regulation.

The study focuses mainly on subjects' inability to control their sexual behavior. This phenomenon is also known as sex addiction or hypersexuality. Janssen notes that recent indiscretions by politicians and other public personalities show a lack of restraint can ruin a career -- even a life -- if not attended to properly, and with the right kind of help.

With funding from the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, a division of the National Institutes of Health, Janssen and his team hope to generate information that can help intervention programs become more effective in dealing with sexual compulsion and risk-taking so that they may reduce the spread of sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV/AIDS.

Janssen say that problems with controlling sexual desire and behavior have a long history. Most people, when struggling with an addiction, can get therapy or attend intervention facilities. But in the case of sex, most people do not completely understand what precautions to take in dealing with this compulsion, Janssen says. There is not enough research on what approaches are most effective. In addition, Janssen says most people facing this problem find it difficult to admit they have an addiction.

"In order to help them gain control, we need to understand better what's happening," Janssen said.

The study hopes to collect data in two areas.

The research first focuses on evaluating human learning processes of sexual desire through conditioning. By presenting various scents through a nasal cannula as sexually compulsive men watch explicit sexual material, scientists are able to note if such men are more likely to mentally link sex to things that are initially neutral, such as non-sex-related smells.

In the second area of study, scientists are able to observe if alcohol reduces sexually compulsive men's ability to regulate, or control, their sexual desire and arousal.

Through the use of experimental studies, interviews, and questionnaires, research has shown that sexual emotions interact with other emotional states in causing compulsive behavior. Sex can be a way to alleviate a moody situation, but it can also be unhealthy. The need for satisfaction can fuel sexual behavior and, when unprotected, can result in a larger spread of HIV and other STIs.

Janssen says he expects the study to be completed in spring 2011.

"We are gaining a better understanding of sex using theoretical frameworks like conditioning and emotion theories, instead of simply approaching sex as a drive," Janssen said. "In the next phase, we hope to explore these processes in more depth and look at the effects of nonsexual emotions, such as depression and anxiety, on sexual compulsivity and risk taking."

This is an original article.