What is sex addiction?
People who cannot manage their own sexual behavior might suffer from sex addiction, also called hypersexuality and compulsive sexual behavior. They engage in sexual acts, but focus only on the act itself, without forming any emotional bonds with partners. People who are addicted to sex are obsessed with thoughts of sex. They spend an enormous amount of time thinking about sex, planning on having sex, engaging in sex or recovering from a sexual encounter. They often deny they have a problem, defending their actions as perfectly healthy, e.g., “I just like sex.”
A person with a sex addiction often engages in activities that can be harmful to other parts of his or her life. They might surf pornography sites at work, despite multiple warnings or the threat of losing their job. They might have problems in their relationships because of infidelity or spending inordinate amounts of time looking at pornography. They might risk their health by having unprotected sex with strangers or prostitutes. They might risk their safety by engaging in unusual sex or constantly seeking out new sexual adventures.
Is it a real disorder?
Sex addiction is not listed in the latest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Illness, therefore, it is not considered an official diagnosis or disorder. Some psychiatrists do not believe it should be listed as a disorder because:
- Making it an official diagnosis gives those who engage in these activities an excuse to continue to do so and to not accept responsibility for their behavior.
- It labels sexual deviants with a disorder instead of accepting their actions as different than the norm. This can be harmful because deviant behavior is considered any that is odd, different or inappropriate. While inappropriate sexual behaviors might be criminal, not all deviant behavior is. The fear is that everyone who likes a “different sexual experience” would be labeled with a disorder.
- Different cultures define accepted sexual behaviors differently.
Others believe that similar reasons were given before alcoholism was accepted as a disease. It was once said that people with unhealthy drinking problems were “drunks” and many people believed that including alcoholism as a disease would give people the ability to drink too much and then blame alcoholism. Today, we understand that alcoholism, as well as addiction to other substances, is a disease that affects both the brain and behavior. Those in favor of categorizing sexual addiction as an addiction disease believe the same is true for sex addiction and by not labeling it as such, people who want and need help are not receiving it.
Before sexual addiction is ruled out as a diagnosis or accepted as one, there needs to be reputable national studies which provide information on diagnostic criteria, prevalence rates, biological and neurobiological features (what happens in your brain and body when one engages in these activities, and when one abstains). Scientists would also need to further explore the causes: for example, is it a form of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), a deficit in impulsive control or a problem with emotional regulation? As more studies answer these questions, the medical community might become more accepting of it as a disease similar to alcoholism and other addictive conditions.
What are the behaviors associated with sex addiction?
There is not a list of behaviors that everyone with a sex addiction engages in. This would be similar to saying that all alcoholics drink vodka or all alcoholics only drink at home. There are, however, a number of behaviors that are associated with sex addiction.
- Compulsive masturbation
- Multiple affairs or one-night stands
- Multiple sexual partners
- Persistent use of pornography
- Practicing unsafe sex
- Engaging in sex with prostitutes
- Exhibitionist behaviors or voyeurism
- Obsessively dating through personal ads
- Sexual harassment of others
As with other types of addiction, the sex addict often finds that sexual acts don’t provide emotional or physical satisfaction and so they constantly seek "more" -- more time on pornography sites, sex several times per day, more partners. They feel powerless to stop, even though their activities can cause financial, relationship, health, and social problems. They may give up other activities in order to engage in sex or because they feel guilt and shame from their behavior. Many have made several attempts to stop but continuously revert to the same behaviors.
Where to get help
If you believe that you, or someone you know, is suffering from a sex addiction, there is help. As with all addictions, the first, difficult step is to admit you have a problem.
Addiction specialists will often work with those who seek help for sex addiction. You can look for an addiction specialist by contacting local addiction or substance abuse treatment centers. You can also ask your primary care doctor for a referral.
In the early stages of treatment, your therapist or treatment counselor might ask you to commit to a short-term abstinence from any sexual activity. Once you have learned to manage your behaviors, your therapist will talk to you about re-engaging in a sex life responsibly. Some of the methods used to treat sex addictions include:
- One-on-one counseling
- Support groups
- Medications used to treat OCD or impulse control problems
- Rebuilding relationships
- Stress management
Some treatment programs will use the 12-step program for addiction that was developed for Alcoholics Anonymous and is now used for fighting many types of addictions.
See More Helpful Articles on Sex Addiction:
When Your Spouse is a Sex Addict
Depression and Sex Addiction
Symptoms of Sexual Addiction: PsychCentral.com
Why Isn’t Sex Addiction in the DSM-5?: Addiction.com