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Are gay men having too much sex?

How to differentiate between a healthy sex life and a sex addiction that is out of control
Michael Fassbender in the movie Shame (2011) - an unflinching portrayal of the damage caused by sex addiction

Gay men have a fairly well-deserved reputation for generally being pre-occupied with sex. While saunas, sex-on-premises venues and sex parties are still the go-to option for many guys looking for a sexual release, the rapid growth of location-based dating apps such as Grindr have, for some guys, elevated the search for sex to a 24-7 occupation.

For some people, a constant need for sex can become a compulsion, an all-consuming obsession that health professionals describe as a ‘sex addiction’.

Having emerged in the US in the mid-1970s, the concept of ‘sex addiction’ as a treatable behavior disorder is a relatively new phenomenon is psychiatric terms, and has only been recently recognized by the World Health Organization and the American Psychiatric Association as a treatable condition.

Like many other addictions, it is when the behaviors that the addiction is driving start to take precedence over work, friendships, relationships or health that it becomes apparent that you have a problem.

I spoke with Nicholas Rose, a counsellor who specializes in working with gay men and same-sex couples, about how to identify the signs of a potential sex addiction.

‘It generally comes down to feelings of control and balance,' he said. 'If you are feeling that your need for sex is impacting the other key areas of your life, you will start to feel a lack of control.

‘With my clients, I use an easy self-assessment test that quickly gives an indication of how aware they are of the impact of their behavior, and questions some of the assumptions and opinions that might be driving any compulsive behavior:

  • How much sex do you have?
  • How much sex do you think other people have?
  • Write a list of things in your life that are important to you and rank them in order of priority. Where does sex fit on this list?
  • What is sex is for you? How does that compare to what sex is for others?
  • How happy (on a scale of 1-10) are you about the sex that you have?
  • How happy (on a scale of 1-10) do you think your sexual partners are about the sex that you have together?
  • Thinking about the core pillars of your life (health; home life; relationships; occupation; spirituality), does your sexual behavior support or is it detrimental to any of these key pillars?’

What’s useful about a self-assessment test such as that used by Rose, is that it can also put into context unfounded concerns (having completed the assessment I’m pretty clear that I am not having enough sex). But it is undeniable that technology is making it easier for gay men to find sex wherever they are and whenever they feel so inclined.

Joel Simkhai, founder of Grindr, is unapologetic about the impact that location-based dating has had on the approach of gay men to dating and sex.

‘It has changed things - at the most basic level it’s made it so much easier,' he said. 'You can meet someone in five to 10 minutes, which is really what I was after. The power of Grindr is that it is faster, fun, the expectations aren’t as high, and the responsibility isn’t as high.'

But why does a vigorous sex life develop into compulsive and addictive behavior for some gay men?

‘There are a range of possible factors’, believes counsellor Nicholas Rose, ‘in my work with clients who are struggling with a sex addiction there generally seems to be some sort of underlying problem or issue that is manifesting in the addictive behavior. But the key thing is that the behavior is recognized as destructive and that they choose to take action to address this.'

One growing trend that could be exacerbating the problems for sex addiction among gay men is the rising use of ‘chems’ (drugs such as GBH or Crystal Meth) to enhance sex. Specialist health services such as London Friend’s Antidote (who specialize in treating drug and alcohol issues in the LGBT community) are reporting that increasing numbers of gay men are presenting with physical addictions to chems. It’s easy to understand how a mild sexual compulsion could easily spiral out of control when also fueled by a physical addiction.

The normalization of constantly searching for casual sex can also play a role, and further expose someone who is at a vulnerable point in their life to the potential of developing a damaging addiction. I was at a dinner party in Stockwell in South London recently, it wasn’t long before everyone had pulled out their phones and were checking out the gay neighbors.

Counsellor Nicholas Rose quotes existential philosophy to illustrate the point: ‘If there is evidence that everyone else is doing it, then we are less likely to be aware or concerned about our own behavior - Sartre describes this as acting in bad faith, adopting false values and suppressing their innate authenticity due to the pressures of societal forces.’

So if you, or someone you know, is possibly suffering from a sex addiction, what are the steps that can be taken to get the behavior back under control? Rose advises the following:

  • Ensure that you are safe - physically and sexually;
  • Develop a plan of what behaviors you want to change and the steps that you need to take to do this;
  • Identify the barriers to making the changes you need - what might trigger you not to change and how do you work through that.

I pushed Rose to give me some practical examples: ‘One important step in getting your behavior back under control could be to avoid going to your local sauna on a Friday night. What are the triggers that may make you want to go to the sauna, what other activities could you engage in instead of going to the sauna - you need to find a way to replace the behavior associated with the addiction.’

With the growing acceptance of sex addiction as a damaging condition that can be treated, there are an increasing range of support services available - but obviously the first step is for the addict to recognize that they have a problem and seek help.

The question therefore isn’t whether or not you are having too much sex, it’s how that sex is making you feel. Take the test and see what it tells you - it could be time to take up a new hobby.

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