What is Sex Addiction?
Sex addiction, which is often, though not always, used interchangeably with the term “love addiction,” refers to a complex of thought patterns, behaviors, and obsessions related to sex and intimacy. In many ways, sex addiction is similar to a substance use disorder. In fact, there is significant overlap between these conditions, with many people suffering from both simultaneously. However, whereas drug and alcohol addictions are satisfied by substance abuse, sex addiction revolves around performing sex acts.
People who suffer from sex addiction often find that they are unable to control or limit themselves. The urges and compulsions to have sex can feel insatiable. While it is normal for people to feel intense sexual urges, sex addicts prioritize sex to such an extent that they experience major setbacks in their lives. When sex is prioritized above all else, it can be difficult to meet commitments at work, school, or at home. Economic consequences, interpersonal problems, and even legal consequences become likely. People who suffer from sex addiction may recognize these problems and try to control or limit themselves, but they often find that they are unable to do so for long, if at all.
Like other addictions and impulse control disorders, sex addiction is a legitimate mental health condition that cannot be fixed through sheer willpower. Getting help through a treatment center or support group is essential to making a recovery, avoiding relapse, and picking up the pieces of ones life.
Sex Addiction and Sex Addicts Anonymous
Our culture heavily stigmatizes sex, prohibiting certain kinds of sex, restricting sex partners, and condemning open dialogue about sex. Nonetheless, sexual interests and sexual activity are healthy and normal. Sex can be a form of self-expression or self-discovery, a way of connecting intimately with another person, and a source of pleasure and fulfillment. However, for people afflicted by sex addiction, sex can become joyless, oppressive, and even detrimental to a person’s ability to function normally in the world.
Sex addiction is not officially recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the official book published by the American Psychiatric Association that catalogues mental health conditions. However, most mental health practitioners recognize it as an important part of many people’s lived experiences. Despite the controversies surrounding its legitimacy as an official diagnosis, sex addiction is studied by researchers. For people suffering from sex addiction, treatment centers and support groups offer a variety of services to help people recover.
Causes of Sex Addiction
Researchers only have a basic understanding of what causes sex addiction. However, most people agree that sex addiction does not stem from a single cause. Generally a variety of factors, ranging from environmental to genetic, are at play. However, certain statistical facts do point to the role of notable risk factors. The most significant cause or risk factor of sexual addiction is a history of addiction in the family. If members of a person’s family suffer or suffered from any kind of addiction, whether gambling addiction or alcohol use disorder, the chances of an individual developing sex addiction are significantly higher. This is partly because the behaviors associated with addiction, including violence, destructive and unpredictable behavior, and financial insecurity, create an environment for children that predisposes them to addiction later on in life. For many, addictive behaviors are a coping tool to deal with trauma, mental illness, and other difficulties in life. The behaviors that a sex addict engages in
Sex addiction operates in much the same way as other addictions. This is because sex is, first and foremost, a pleasurable activity. Activities that stimulate pleasure, including but not limited to substance abuse, gambling, and sex, release dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is highly implicated in areas of the brain that control motivation and decision-making. When significant amounts of dopamine are released, the behavior that led to the release is reinforced. This makes it more likely that a person will turn to that activity again. While sexual activities do release large amounts of dopamine, however, not everyone who has sex becomes a sex addict. Other factors, however, can increase the amount of dopamine released, such as having sex while abusing drugs. The most likely scenario, however, is that people who are predisposed to addiction more generally are uniquely sensitive to dopamine spikes and easily develop patterns of abuse and dependence.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is highly implicated in areas of the brain that control motivation and decision-making. When significant amounts of dopamine are released, the behavior that led to the release is reinforced. This makes it more likely that a person will turn to that activity again. While sexual activities do release large amounts of dopamine, however, not everyone who has sex becomes a sex addict. Other factors, however, can increase the amount of dopamine released, such as having sex while abusing drugs. The most likely scenario, however, is that people who are predisposed to addiction more generally are uniquely sensitive to dopamine spikes and easily develop patterns of abuse and dependence.
Sign of Sex Addiction
Sex, like food, is a natural and essential part of living. Sexual practices vary considerably from person to person, so it can be difficult to determine if a person is a sex addict by applying normative criteria. The clearest signs of sex addiction are not the sex acts themselves, but the harms and consequences that come about as a result of them. The behavior of sex addicts also varies considerably; as with other addictions, a person doesn’t necessarily need to engage in an activity any specific amount to be said to suffer from an addiction. It is possible, for instance, to have sex infrequently but still suffer from sex addiction. Sex addiction is a subjective experience, marked by a helplessness to control ones cravings and urges. However, despite variation, sex addicts do frequently share certain characteristics. While not all cases of sex addiction are characterized by all of these traits, having a preponderance of them is a likely sign that there is a problem.
Long Term Risk of Sex Addiction
Sex addiction can be a painful and debilitating condition. Over a long enough time period, it can lead to serious and lasting consequences that can further impair a person’s ability to function. Common long-term risks of sex addiction include:
An increased risk of developing sexual transmitted infections (STIs) and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). People who suffer from sex addiction often engage in unsafe and unprotected sex. It is also common for them to have sex with strangers whose sexual histories are unknown. Having unsafe sex even one time can lead to contracting an STI, such as HIV, HPV, gonorrhea, or Heptatius B. Doing so more frequently further increases the risk. When drug use is combined with unsafe sex, these consequences can be more severe
Unwanted pregnancy. Unprotected sex can result in pregnancy, putting people in the uncomfortable position of choosing either to get abortions or to start a family at an inopportune time.
Relationship problems. Unsafe sex, infedelity, and nonconsensual sex can significantly damage a relationship with a spouse or significant other. In many cases, the damage is irreparable. People who suffer from sex addiction have higher rates of divorce than the rest of the population.
Recovering from sex addiction is possible. However, it is important to understand that sex addiction, like other addictions and impulse control disorders, cannot be managed through sheer force of will. People who suffer from sex addiction are unable to control or manage their cravings. While periods of abstinence may be possible, without outside help relapse is likely. While it may be embarrassing to reach out to get help for a sex addiction, the condition is common, and experienced addiction experts provide assistance without judgmment or scorn. While treating sex addiction is a journey that requires self-reflection and involves making considerable life changes, doing so can help you recover hope, freedom, and a quality life.
Treating sex addiction usually involves a combination of outpatient psychotherapy and addiction support groups. At these resource centers, sex addicts can work to develop the skills and coping tools they need to avoid relapse over the long term. Meeting other people who suffer from the same condition can offer people the understanding they so sorely need. Developing a strong social support group of other people in recovery not only allows for increased access to resources, it improves a person’s quality of life overall and decreases their likelihood of relapsing.
Treating Sex Addiction
Treating Sex Addiction Through Therapy
Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
Cognitive-behavioral therapy is a type of therapy that involves examining the thoughts and behaviors of an individual. Unlike some therapeutic models that stop at introspection, CBT goes further. In the process of self-examination, therapists work with clients to identify irrational thought patterns and maladaptive behaviors. They then work with clients to replace these thought patterns and behaviors with more productive ones. Cognitive-behavioral therapy is a practical, action-oriented therapy. It is generally conducted for finite periods of time, generally two to four months, with a concrete goal in mind.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy is uniquely suited to sex addiction. Given the CBT’s emphasis on thought patterns and behaviors, it can help address both the uncontrollable urges of sex addiction and the dangerous behavior patterns. For a few decades now, cognitive-behavioral therapy has been the preferred therapy for treating addictions. A large body of research has demonstrated CBT’s efficacy for managing the symptoms of substance use disorders and other impulse control disorders, with evidence indicating it is more effective than medication and other psychosocial interventions.
Dialectical Behavioral Therapy
Sex Addicts and Co-Occuring Mental Health Conditions
Treating Sex Addiction Through Medication
Sex addiction isn’t recognized in the DSM-5, the book psychiatrists consult to make diagnoses of mental health conditions. Rather, sex addiction is generally regarded as a symptom of other conditions. Treating sex addiction in a psychiatric context therefore generally involves medicating other underlying conditions. While medication is rarely the ultimate solution for sex addiction, it can help people manage the symptoms of co-occuring mental health conditions. Many people find that treating these conditions alleviates many of the more destructive symptoms of sex addiction as well.
- SSRIs. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, often abbreviated to SSRIs, are a class of medication that is commonly used to treat depression. However, many psychiatrists prescribe them for other conditions as well, including anxiety disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder. A body of evidence is growing that SSRIs can also be used effectively to treat sex addiction, as well as the anxiety and depression that often accompanies it. It certainly helps that a major side effect of SSRIs is decreased sex drive.
- Naltrexone. Preliminary research has shown that naltrexone, an opiate agonist that is most frequently used to manage opioid and alcohol dependence, can help with sex addiction as well. Naltrexone helps people manage opioid dependence by limiting opiates’ ability to produce dopamine, a neurotransmitter responsible for “rewarding” the brain. By disrupting the release of dopamine generally, naltrexone can help reduce sexual cravings and feelings of sexual dependence as well.
- Mood stabilizers. This class of medication is most frequently prescribed to treat bipolar disorder. However, it can also help people suffering from sex addiction manage the ups and downs of active addiction. Mood stabilizers are so-named because people taking them find it easier to regulate their moods and impulses, which is important during sex addiction recovery.
Sex Addiction Support Groups
While psychotherapy and medication can be used to address underlying issues and mitigate some of the more severe symptoms of sex addiction, getting involved in a sex addiction support group is essential to the recovery process. Sex addiction, like other addictions and impulse control disorders, cannot be fully cured. Like other chronic illnesses, however, it can go into remission if it is consistently managed. The most important aspect of managing an addiction is developing a social support group.
Addiction is often spoken of as a “disease of loneliness.” Not only do many people turn to addictive self-soothing behaviors, such as substance abuse and sex, when they are lonely, but addiction itself tends to push other people away. When people’s social circles are smaller, their access to emotional support and other important resources becomes diminished, making it more difficult to quit. Research consistently shows that individuals who have more social support are not only more likely to enter treatment when necessary, they are more likely to continue treating their condition and avoid relapse over the long term. The strength of a person’s social support system is the best predictor of recovery success.
However, the best reason to get involved in a sex addiction support group is often more personal in nature. Sex addiction, like many addictions and mental health conditions, can be a source of shame and alienation. For people who suffer from it actively and for people in recovery, it can be a difficult subject to talk about with people who do not share similar experiences. Meeting people who suffer from the same condition can be an eye-opening experience that allows people to make sense of their own pain and feel more connected to others.
Sex Addicts Anonymous
Sex Addicts Anonymous, often shorted to SAA, is a 12-step program modeled after Alcoholics Anonymous. SAA is a community in which members work to help each other recover from active sex addiction and avoid relapse. The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop engaging in addictive sexual behavior. The program is open to all genders and sexual orientations. It is also cost-free and available throughout the world in almost every city.
Sex Addicts Anonymous understands that sex is a normal part of life and that different members will have different attitudes and beliefs about what constitutes addictive sexual behavior. In fact, the program encourages members to develop their own definitions of sexual sobriety and sex addiction relapse. Members are encouraged to respect each others’ varying definitions of relapse.
The program of Sex Addicts Anonymous is based on the 12 steps that were originally defined in Alcoholics Anonymous, the longest-running recovery group in the world. While the 12 steps were originally designed to help people recover from alcohol addiction, they have been successfully adapted to treat a variety of other substance use disorders and impulse control disorders. The 12 steps as outlined in Sex Addicts Anonymous are a course of action that is designed to free people from the obsessions and compulsions of sex addiction. In short, the 12 steps require individuals to admit to and accept their addiction, recognize a need for outside help, work to repair past damage and change unhealthy behaviors, and depend upon a higher power for support. While the term “depend upon a higher power” is loaded with religious connotations, the term can be taken to mean essentially that addicts should stop treating themselves as omnipotent. For many members of Sex Addicts Anonymous, their higher power is the community of SAA itself.
Sex Addicts Anonymous meetings are the bread and butter of the program. Meetings are available in person in most major cities around the world, though they are also available online and over the phone. Specialty meetings also exist to meet the unique needs of disparate populations. These meetings include women’s meetings, men’s meetings, mixed meetings, LGBTQ+ meetings, and open meetings that welcome non-members. Members benefit considerably from regular meeting attendance. At Sex Addicts Anonymous meetings, members can share stories and commiserate over coffee. Sharing stories functions as a reminder of how severe addiction can become, and it allows people to receive empathy, support, and feedback during challenging periods. While meetings are useful for receiving support and guidance for concrete problems during addiction recovery, they are also powerful tools for strengthening a social support system. Building the kind of strong social support system that SAA encourages members to have creates a bulwark against relapse, and it also makes life more joyful.
Another important component of Sex Addicts Anonymous, and 12-step programs in general, is sponsorship. Members of SAA are encouraged to ask other members, specifically members who have completed the 12 steps, to sponsor them. Sponsors function as mentors, offering one-on-one support and guidance as newer members work through the challenges of early recovery. The initial days, weeks, and months of recovery from addiction are often very tumultuous, and sponsors can lend their experience, strength, and hope to make the process both easier and more conducive to personal growth.
It should be emphasized, however, that Sex Addicts Anonymous, like all 12-step programs, is a program about helping others. The philosophy behind 12-step-based recovery programs is that the best tool for recovering from addiction oneself is to help another achieve recovery. Thus, sponsors are not the only ones who are willing to offer support and guidance. Entering the fellowship of Sex Addicts Anonymous means joining an open-minded, welcoming, diverse, and supportive community. With a bit of recovery, even newer members can quickly discover the gratification and freedom they achieve by helping others recover from debilitating sex addiction.
Other Support Groups
Though Sex Addicts Anonymous is by far the largest support group for sex addiction, variety of other support groups for sex addiction exist as well. Several of them are also based on the 12-steps. These include Sexaholics Anonymous, Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous, and Sexual Recovery Anonymous. These programs have significant overlap in terms of their membership, and they function on similar principles.
SMART Recovery is another alternative program that is not based on the principles of the 12-steps. Unlike 12-step based programs that emphasize faith and spirituality to some extent, SMART Recovery is an entirely evidence-based program that is based on the principles of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). SMART Recovery, which is available mostly in online meetings, emphasizes personal autonomy and self-efficacy. Members work to replace maladaptive behaviors and thought patterns with ones more conducive to healthy living. They use CBT-based tools and techniques to manage cravings, sexual urges, and handle relapse triggers. SMART Recovery offers significantly less social support than Sex Addicts Anonymous, but this also makes sense given the former program’s emphasis on individual self-management.
Recovering from sex addiction is possible. However, if you or a loved one is suffering from sex addiction, it is important to understand that people rarely recover alone. As an addiction and impulse control disorder, sex addiction cannot be treated through sheer willpower, no matter how much effort a person exerts. The only way to recover is to reach out to others for help. For some, this involves working on issues with a licensed psychotherapist. For others, it involves getting involved in a support group like Sex Addicts Anonymous. Medication can also be effective, especially when other mental health disorders are at play. Most people, however, find that a combination of all these treatment modalities is the most effective approach to recovery.
If you are unsure where to turn, it can be helpful to discuss your situation with your doctor, a trusted friend, or an addiction expert. Even if they cannot provide you with direct assistance, they can likely direct you to a treatment facility or resource center that can meet your needs. Most treatment centers, including non-sex addiction treatment centers, are well aware of treatment programs more generally and are happy to point you in the right direction.
While there is no one “cure” for sex addiction, the condition can be successfully managed. Living a normal, healthy, and prosperous life is possible. Even if you have lost all hope of recovering and experienced some of the more devastating consequences of sex addiction, reach out today. It just might change your life.
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