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Check your key terms

May 19th, 2005

Dr Petra

How many magazine or newspaper articles have you seen of late using terms like ‘epidemic’, ‘syndrome’ or ‘addiction’? Sometimes they’re used correctly, for example describing a flu epidemic, Down Syndrome, or drug addiction. Frequently they’re completely misused – often to make shocking headlines on magazine or newspaper covers.

Recently I’ve been asked to comment on various sex behaviours labelled incorrectly by the journalist as an ‘addiction’. I’ve also been asked to support features on an ‘infidelity epidemic’ (there isn’t one), and ‘hurried woman syndrome’ (not a syndrome at all but a description of an average woman’s life).

Journalists love to liven up stories with scientific sounding terms. Unfortunately they often use the wrong terms in the wrong context, misleading the public and alienating experts they’re trying to get on side to back up their story.

One of the main problems with medical terms is they have a very specific meaning, so deciding just to apply them to a story to spice it up, can actually lead to experts getting exasperated, and people either mistrusting the media, or worryingly thinking they’ve been struck down by a non-existent disorder.

So here’s what each term means. It goes without saying if something isn’t already being described using these labels; it’s not really appropriate to medicalise a condition yourself.


A collection of signs and symptoms – some physical, some psychological, that group together to suggest a person has a particular psychological or physical health problem. Usually for a syndrome to be defined it would need the agreement of a number of qualified medical/psychological practitioners and would rely on years of researching and aggregating data.
In terms of sex, certain medical syndromes can affect sexual development or functioning. However this term can’t be used to describe everyday activities that we nearly all experience (for example medicalising busy mums as having ‘hurried woman syndrome’).


A far-reaching outbreak of a disease that spreads rapidly over a period of time, affecting groups of people and often difficult to contain. ‘Epidemic’ usually refers to illness or disease, rather than behaviours.
In terms of sex, the term could be used to describe HIV or other fast spreading widespread infections. It cannot be used to describe more abstract concepts like ‘infidelity’, or ‘porn’.

Compulsive activity (e.g. drug use), psychological dependence, and continued use/activity despite causing harm to a person or those close to them. It’s normally related to substance abuse (drug or alcohol), but may be used to describe other activities such as gambling.
In terms of sex and relationships, problematic sexual behaviour that causes a person distress is more likely to be described as a ‘compulsion’ than an ‘addiction’, and would require diagnosis by a qualified psychiatric professional, rather than a self-definition by an individual or journalist.

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