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What is sex addiction?

Medically Reviewed by: Charley Allen

Table of Contents

Sex addiction is a pattern of behavior that interferes with normal life functioning, creates problems in your personal and professional relationships, and leads you to crave increasingly more extreme sexual behaviors. Sex addiction is also known as hypersexuality or sexual compulsivity. It’s not a formal diagnosis recognized by the American Psychiatric Association, but some experts believe that it might be an underlying condition for people who struggle with addictive sexual behavior. Sex addiction can involve compulsive viewing of pornography, frequenting sex clubs or online sex sites, cruising public places for sex, having affairs or anonymous sex while married or partnered, cybersex and phone sex, voyeurism, masquerading as a sex partner online or meeting strangers for casual sexual encounters. The activities related to this disorder can make life very difficult for a sex addict.

What Causes Sex Addiction?

The cause of sex addiction is not clearly understood. It may be a combination of psychological, social, and biological factors. Sex addiction may also be an underlying condition for people who struggle with other forms of addiction, such as alcohol or drug abuse. Some people may have a genetic predisposition to sex addiction. Others may have experienced childhood trauma or have been sexually abused, which can affect their sexual functioning and result in shame. Sexual addiction may also be a coping mechanism for other mental health issues, such as anxiety or depression. People who struggle with sex addiction may also have poor impulse control and difficulty regulating their emotions and feelings, two things that can contribute to addictive behavior.

In long-term gay relationships, sexual compulsion is often linked to shame and self-loathing, stemming from the view that homosexuality is shameful and sick, and that these feelings can be resolved by engaging in heterosexual sex. A study of gay men found that sexual compulsion was linked to a history of childhood sexual abuse, drug and alcohol use, and shame surrounding homosexuality. A study of lesbians found that sexual compulsion was linked to shame and self-loathing surrounding being a woman, but was not related to childhood sexual abuse as it is among gay men.

Is Sex Addiction a Mental Disorder?

Experts are divided over whether sexual compulsion is a mental disorder. There is no clear definition of a mental disorder and there is debate over what it means to be mentally healthy, so it’s difficult to say if sexual addiction fits. Some researchers suggest that compulsive sexual behavior should be considered an impulse control disorder, which is a group of mental disorders characterized by a pattern of out-of-control and harmful behavior. Some researchers believe that sexual addiction may merely be a symptom of an underlying condition for people who struggle with mental health disorders, repressed sexual urges, or substance abuse. Many mental health professionals and organizations do not view sexual addiction as a mental health disorder, but this does not mean it is not a problem — and it does not mean that managing compulsive sexual behaviors is impossible.

Signs and Symptoms of Sex Addiction

If you’re worried that you or a loved one may have a sex addiction, look out for these signs and symptoms:

  • You crave sex or sexual activity in a way that feels uncontrollable.
  • You spend a lot of time thinking about sex when you’re not actually engaged in sexual activity.
  • You keep returning to sexual activity despite the negative impact it has on your relationships and life.
  • You’re preoccupied with sexual fantasies and images, or you feel the need to view pornography.
  • You experience feelings of shame or guilt after engaging in sexual acts.

Long Term Consequences of Sexual Addiction

Sexual compulsion often leads to unsafe sexual practices, which can result in a wide range of negative consequences. Compulsive sexual behavior may lead to unsafe sex with multiple partners, which can contribute to the spread of HIV and STDs. In some cases, compulsive sexual behavior may lead to the exploitation of other people, especially young women. Long-term consequences of sexual compulsion are similar to those of substance addiction, such as developing mental health issues and interpersonal problems, financial difficulties, and legal problems. Sexual compulsion can also lead to decreased quality of life and contribute to early death.

How Compulsive Sexual Behavior Affects Marriages

Compulsive sexual behavior can destroy marriages and other forms of committed romantic partnerships. The secrecy and deception surrounding the behaviors can strain or destroy a committed relationship. Sexual acts that are committed outside of a marriage or a long-term relationship can destroy a couple’s trust in each other. Cheating is not only a breach of trust, but it can lead to the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. Even smaller infidelities, like porn addiction and compulsive masturbation, can strain a marriage, in part because these repetitive sexual impulses can lead to sexual dysfunction in the bedroom. It can be very difficult to be in a marriage or relationship with someone who struggles with sexual addiction, and it can be useful to enlist the help of a sex therapist to get through the rocky path to recovery.

Excessive masturbation and pornography use

Excessive masturbation is a form of sex addiction. Men who engage in frequent or compulsive masturbation may develop sexual difficulties with a partner and also experience emotional problems. Some men may also experience physical problems such as aching hips and fatigue. These men are not alone, as a high percentage of men have some experience with compulsive masturbation. Excessive masturbation can become a problem when it interferes with daily life, causes distress, or results in social isolation. The most common type of pornography for people with sex addiction is internet pornography, which can be easily accessed, private, and often free. The ubiquity of internet pornography has led to a rise in sex addiction, though there are other factors often at play in these sexual urges, such as substance abuse and mental disorders.

Further Reading:
What is Porn Addiction?

Porn Addiction and Substance Abuse

Experts debate the extent to which porn addiction is the same as other types of substance abuse. But research suggests that people with a porn addiction are more likely to have a substance abuse problem. While some people who struggle with substance abuse also struggle with porn addiction, others don’t. There’s little evidence that treating one disorder will treat the other. And there’s no data to suggest that treating one disorder will help with the other.

Casual sex and prostitution

Casual sex, or non-committed sexual encounters, are often a part of sex addiction. It’s common for people with sex addiction to participate in casual sex, whether that’s one-night stands or finding a partner for an affair. It can also involve paying for sex, a type of sexual encounter that may be illegal in your region. There are many reasons why people with sex addiction may be drawn to casual sex. Some people may feel pressured to engage in casual sex because of a desire to be promiscuous. Others may do it because they have issues with emotional intimacy and can’t form meaningful relationships. Still others may use casual sex as a substitute for an emotional connection.

Risky sex and hidden behavior

Sexual addictions can include frequenting locations where you can engage in risky sexual behavior, such as bathhouses or massage parlors (where sex may be readily available). It may also include having sex with people who are married or in committed relationships, people who don’t know they’re being used for sexual pleasure. Sex addiction can also involve having unprotected sex, impersonating another person’s online identity in order to engage in sexual activity, buying or trading drugs to get an adrenaline rush and/or sexual high, and frequenting public places (such as parks, rest areas, and beaches) to have sex.

How is Sex Addiction Treated?

Trying to control sexual behavior and sexual impulses without outside help can be difficult. The most common treatment for sex addiction is a combination of psychotherapy (often including Cognitive Behavioral Therapy), and Sex Addiction Therapy. Sex addiction therapy is a form of CBT Treatment that is designed to help you recognize the connection between your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors related to sex. It’s also designed to help you identify what triggers your desire to engage in sexually compulsive behaviors so that you can better manage those triggers and refrain from acting on your impulses. There are also specific treatments designed to treat sex addiction in people who also have a substance use disorder. These include medications like naltrexone, an opioid antagonist, or Antabuse, a medication that causes a negative reaction when combined with alcohol.

 12 Steps and Sex Addicts

People who have sex addiction can benefit from a 12-step program (such as Sex Addicts Anonymous or Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous). Twelve-step groups can be helpful for treating sex and other addictions because they offer a supportive community where members can share their experiences, provide each other with encouragement, and remind each other of the importance of staying sober. Unlike some other addictions, sex addiction does not involve an uncontrollable physical dependence on a substance. Still, sex addicts can benefit from the same core principles that form the foundation of all 12-step programs, including:

  • Honesty
  • Open-mindedness
  • Willingness to change
  • A desire to help others
  • An emphasis on self-accountability

How to Help Someone with Sexual Addiction?

Sexual addiction is a real problem that leads to serious consequences for individuals, families, and society. The disorder is characterized by compulsive sexual behavior, shame and self-loathing, and a lack of control over one’s sexual urges. While there is no official diagnosis for sexual addiction, some researchers believe that it might be an underlying condition for people who struggle with excessive sexual behavior. If you or someone you love is struggling with compulsive sexual behavior, reach out for help before the problem spins out of control.

Sex addiction is a treatable disorder, but it’s important to get help before the condition gets worse. Compulsive sexual behavior and sexual urges often lead to significant shame, guilt, and self-loathing, which can make it difficult to seek treatment. Sex addiction should be treated like other mental health disorders, so seek out a therapist who specializes in treating sex addiction. The best treatment for sexual addiction combines therapy and medication. Sex addiction therapy can help you identify the underlying causes of your addiction, change your sexual behavior, and repair your relationships. Medication can help you manage cravings and reduce the intensity of your addiction.

FAQ

Sex addiction is a topic that many people know little about. While you may have heard it mentioned in passing, you may not fully understand what the term means or how it differs from other addictions. To help clear things up and answer your most pressing questions, we’ve put together this Sexual Addiction FAQ. Whether you’re just learning about sex addiction for the first time or need a refresher, this article will give you all the information you need to know about this topic. Keep reading to get answers to some common questions about sexual addiction and its treatment options.

What is sexual addiction?

Sexual addiction is a term used to describe compulsive or obsessive thoughts and behaviors related to sex. For someone with this condition, the drive to engage in sexual activity becomes stronger than their ability to control it. This disorder often begins with viewing pornography on a frequent basis but can progress to other harmful sexual behaviors like visiting prostitutes, having multiple extramarital affairs, or engaging in illegal sexual activities. While the term “addiction” is often used when describing these behaviors, it isn’t always accurate. While people with an addiction may feel they have no control over their behaviors, individuals with a sex addiction often feel they have the ability to control their actions.

Is compulsive sex behavior an addiction?

It’s hard to say for sure. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), which is the standard reference book used by clinicians and researchers to diagnose mental health disorders, does not currently include sex addiction as a diagnosable condition. However, researchers and clinicians have proposed adding sex addiction to the next edition of the DSM, the DSM-VI. So it’s possible that sex addiction will be included as a diagnosable condition in the near future. At this time, it’s important to keep in mind that even though “addiction” is part of the name, sex addiction isn’t the same as substance use disorder. Sex addiction is a behavioral disorder. While it shares some characteristics with substance addictions, sexual addictions are process addictions.

What are the signs of sexual addiction?

Just as each addiction is different, the signs of sexual addiction will vary from person to person. However, signs of sex addiction include engaging in sexual activities at increasing levels of frequency or intensity. It may be that you’ve tried to stop or control your sexual behavior, but find yourself unable to do so. Some signs of sex addiction include frequenting sex shops, spending an excessive amount of time looking at sexually explicit material online, sexual relationship problems, and irritability or feelings of guilt when not engaging in sexual activity.

Is it possible to be both addicted to sex and engaged in compulsive sex at the same time?

Yes. It’s possible to experience both of these conditions at once, but they’re different issues that must be treated separately. If you feel like you’re experiencing both issues, it’s important to seek out help as soon as possible. Working with a therapist who is familiar with both issues can help you better understand how to treat both conditions.

How can you know if what you’re experiencing is an addiction or a symptom of something else?

If you feel like you’re experiencing signs of sexual addiction, it’s important to seek help from a licensed therapist who specializes in treating this condition. Working with a therapist will allow you to explore and understand your behavior to determine if what you’re experiencing is an addiction or a symptom of a larger issue.

Why is sex addiction so difficult to treat?

Many factors contribute to the difficulty of treating sex addiction. The first is the fact that researchers and clinicians don’t agree on what constitutes a sex addiction. The next is that sex addiction often goes hand in hand with other mental health disorders like depression and anxiety, which makes it more difficult to treat. Finally, dealing with sex addiction and addressing the issue can be extremely embarrassing and cause feelings of shame. These factors make it essential to seek help from a licensed therapist who specializes in treating sex addiction.

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Edited by: David Beasley

David Beasley - Design for Recovery

RADT
David Beasley is a certified RADT (Registered Alcohol/Drug Technician). David, moved to California from North Carolina after many failed attempts to get sober.

Medically Reviewed by: Charley Allen
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LMFT
Charley earned his Masters of Clinical Psychology from Antioch University, Los Angeles, and is a California Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT).He teaches mindfulness to both adults and children in group setting such as schools, corporate workplaces, and medical treatment facilities.

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