By Dr. Justin Lehmiller
In the last decade, sex researchers have shown increasing interest in the possible causes and triggers of “hypersexual” or “out of control” sexual behavior. Among the many factors that have been considered is boredom.
Boredom is a negative psychological mood state that occurs when we don’t perceive our environment as being stimulating enough. Boredom is, of course, subjective because two people can experience the same environment in very different ways. What is stimulating to one person may be boring to another.
Some people may be more easily predisposed to boredom. For example, people high in sensation-seeking tendencies may get bored easily due to their heightened need for novelty and excitement. Also, people feeling depressed or lonely might report feelings of boredom stemming from those negative emotional states.
At the same time, however, there’s also a feedback loop: while sensation seeking tendencies, depression, and loneliness can potentially lead to feelings of boredom, feeling bored can potentially trigger more of all of these things.
Regardless of the cause, though, when people feel bored, they often seek out ways of coping or relieving that negative mood state. Turning to sex might be one such coping strategy.
In a recent paper published in The Journal of Sexual Medicine, researchers scoured the literature for studies reporting on links between boredom and hypersexuality.
“Hypersexuality” is a controversial construct that different people define in different ways, with some characterizing it as “sexual addiction,” sexual compulsivity, or sexual impulsivity. However, a common thread running through all of these definitions is the idea that hypersexuality involves high levels of sexual behavior than one feels are “out of control.”
This review identified 19 studies that could speak to the potential link between boredom and hypersexuality. Of them, 15 established an association, while just four did not. Thus, the weight of the evidence suggests that hypersexual people do tend to report more feelings of boredom.
For example, one study (based primarily on heterosexually-identified men) found that 71% of participants reported that they “use online sexual activities to manage boredom.” Likewise, in a study of men who have sex with men, researchers found that using sex to cope with boredom, stress, and/or concentration issues was the strongest predictor of hypersexual behavior.
In addition, several case studies that involved qualitative interviews found that people often pointed to boredom and having time on their hands as causes of their sexual urges and desires.
One study also found that, in both men and women, being prone to boredom was a predictor of higher levels of masturbation.
It wasn’t just general feelings of boredom that were linked to hypersexuality, though. Feelings of sexual boredom specifically also predicted more hypersexuality. This suggests that having a routine and predictable sex life is another aspect of boredom that could potentially prompt more sex-seeking behavior.
That said, there are some important limitations of the existing research. One is that most studies focused on male participants only, so our understanding of how this link might vary based on gender is somewhat limited.
Another issue is that all of these studies are correlational, which creates issues when it comes to inferring cause and effect. Is it the case the boredom triggers hypersexual behavior, or does hypersexual behavior potentially lead to feelings of boredom, perhaps by increasing feelings of isolation?
In order to tease apart these explanations, we need longitudinal research to explore whether boredom predicts future sexual behavior.
While we must await the results of additional studies, the weight of the current evidence does seem to indicate a fairly reliable link between boredom and hypersexuality, which suggests the possibility that hypersexuality may often stem, in part, from feelings of boredom.
To the extent that this is true, it would have important implications for clinical treatment of hypersexual behavior, something many have referred to by the controversial term “sexual addiction” (a term that I should note in not an actual diagnosis and does not appear in the DSM-5).
In order to effectively treat people who are distressed about their “out of control” sexual behaviors, it requires a thorough understanding of the underlying cause(s). Many current treatment approaches view sex itself as the problem; however, a growing amount of research (including the work on boredom discussed above) points to sexual behavior as the symptom.
Consistent with this idea, many sex researchers and therapists have found that many patients presenting with “out of control” sexual behavior have underlying moral conflicts surrounding sex as well as mood disorders such as depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder.
In dealing with any mental or physical health-related issue, treating the symptom while neglecting the cause offers a band-aid approach that is not likely to work.
In order to develop effective treatments for patients who present with “out of control” sexual behaviors, then, we need to start by paying more attention to the triggers and causes of those behaviors (whether that is boredom, moral conflicts, or mood disorders) rather than simply viewing sex itself as the problem.
de Oliveira, L., & Carvalho, J. (2020). The Link Between Boredom and Hypersexuality: A Systematic Review. The Journal of Sexual Medicine.
Dr. Justin Lehmiller is an award-winning educator and a prolific researcher and scholar. In addition to publishing articles in some of the leading journals on sex and relationships, he has written two textbooks and produces the popular blog Sex & Psychology. Dr. Lehmiller’s research addresses topics including casual sex, sexual fantasy, sexual health, and friends with benefits. His latest book is Tell Me What You Want: The Science of Sexual Desire and How It Can Help You Improve Your Sex Life. Follow him on Twitter @JustinLehmiller or facebook.com/psychologyofsex.