Distress over sexual urges and impulses is a broader problem than previously thought — for both men and women — and could be interfering with the jobs, relationships and happiness of millions of Americans.

That was the takeaway from a new University of Minnesota study, which found that 8.6 percent of people responding to a national survey on sexual health reported “clinically relevant levels of distress and/or impairment associated with difficulty controlling sexual feelings, urges, and behaviors.”

Previous research had estimated that only 2 percent to 6 percent of people struggled with control of their sexual impulses, said Janna Dickenson, the lead author and a human sexuality researcher in the U’s School of Medicine. “This is a much higher prevalence than we thought,” she said.

The types of behavior causing distress could vary, Dickenson said, from having more sex than desired, to masturbating during work hours, to habitual sexting or viewing pornography. People who commit sexual assault could be contained within this group, but Dickenson said the survey reflects a much broader group of people struggling with everyday problems rather than illegal actions.

Media coverage of sex scandals involving celebrities such as Tiger Woods has raised the possibility of a rising problem with sexually compulsive behavior, the authors noted, but few studies have checked to see if that is true.

Distress over sexual urges is a key symptom of compulsive sexual behavior (CSB) disorder, which is newly recognized in the World Health Organization’s latest compendium of medical diagnoses, the ICD-11. Not all of the people who expressed such feelings in the survey, though, have the disorder.

U of M researchers analyzed responses by 2,325 adults to the 2016 National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior. Considered one of the richest data sets regarding sexual attitudes in the United States, the survey is conducted by Indiana University and funded by the parent company of Trojan Condoms.

Researchers said they were surprised to find only a modest gender split: 7 percent of women reported distress over sexual urges, compared to 10.3 percent of men. This in some ways defies the cultural expectations that men are much more “irrepressible” and women are “sexual gatekeepers” who keep their impulses in check, the authors wrote

The researchers found that distress was most common among people with low incomes and without high school diplomas, but also was more common among the highest-income earners. It also was more common among people who were racial minorities or who were gay, but the authors urged caution in interpreting those results. Their higher levels of sexual distress may in part reflect the higher levels of stress that come from being marginalized individuals in the first place.

Dickenson said she hopes this study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association’s online open network, would raise the profile of compulsive sexual behavior as a problem requiring doctors’ attention in assessing patients.

“CSB is clearly an important sexual health concern,” she said, “that needs greater attention.”

 

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