What is Sex Addiction?

What is Sexual Addiction?

Sexual Addiction (SA) is a real diagnosis.   Sex addicts engage in persistent and escalating sexual behaviors undeterred by negative consequences such as health risks, legal problems, financial problems, and broken relationships.  Sex addicts try to escape reality by altering their mood using sex.  The illness is progressive and creates chaos in the lives of the addicts and their families.

John is a 40 year-old male, married for 15 years to an attractive woman he met in college.  They have two children, live in the suburbs, and make a comfortable living.  However, the financial stress of a mortgage, paying for two cars and feeling like they were on a financial merry-go-round led John to use pornography to escape into a fantasy world.  Over time he also began seeking massage parlors where the woman sometimes performed illegal sexual favors.  Gradually he slipped further and further into a negative place of depression, disconnection and irritability and anger.

Sex addiction affects males and females of all ages.   The early seeds of addiction frequently begin during the teenage years but may not start until the 20’s or even 30’s.   Estimates are that between 3% to 5% of the population seek treatment for this issue, though the actual number of people afflicted is likely much higher.  Nevertheless, some studies have placed the number of sex addicts at between 10 and 15 million people in the United States.  Research also suggests that 80% of sex addicts are male.  While the exact causes are unknown, males may have a higher prevalence due to the over sexualization of women via advertising messages and cultural influences objectifying women in the United States.  Many professionals believe that the proliferation of online sexual activity is a major contributor in the development of sexual addiction. 

Sex as a Drug

Sex addiction is included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) as hypersexual disorder.  It is not yet called “sex addiction” because studies are ongoing.  Professional associations have struggled with recognizing sexual addiction as an mental disorder or brain disease much like alcoholism was not recognized as a medical illness until relatively recently.  But the lack of formal acceptance of this condition by some mainstream professional associations does not diminish the hurt, pain and devastation this condition causes to millions of individuals, couples and families.

Neuroscience uses brain imaging to verify the existence of addictions.  Imaging reveals that all addictions, including sex addiction, stimulate the same pleasure centers of the brain.  When an individual views pornography, seeks sexual contact through a provider of sexual services or seeks sexual activity outside a committed relationship, a pathway is developed in the brain and repeated acting out behavior gradually deepens this neural pathway.  As time goes on, the desire and need for continued and even escalating sexual behavior can develop into sexual addiction. 

Sex and relationship addictions are considered intimacy disorders.  It is thought that an addict lacks the skills to develop close intimate relationship with a person, usually because these skills were not learned in early life.  Many people who were raised in a harsh, controlling or perhaps highly permissive environment are at higher risk to develop sexual addiction.  Feelings of inadequacy, rejection or low self-esteem can provide an environment for sexual addiction to flourish.   When a person isn’t able to connect with their primary caregiver or parental figures in a truly healthy manner, a lack of intimacy, emotional isolation and feelings of loneliness often develop

Sex addiction often progresses to the point that an addict will risk everything for sexual escape.  Many addicts feel deep shame about acting outside their values, and fear the risks and consequences, but are unable to quit.  Others minimize their problem or deny their addiction.

Warning Signs

Sex addiction is characterized by sexual preoccupation and an inability to stop detrimental behaviors.  The following are warning signs of sexual addiction:

Preoccupation with sexual thoughts and or behavior

Using sex to cope with anxiety or escape reality

Engaging in sexual behaviors that violate personal values

Lying to others to hide sexual acting out

Frequently engaging in online sexual activities

Loss of productivity at work

Loss of income

Participating in criminal sexual behaviors such as seeking out prostitutes or child pornography

Blaming other for one’s sexual behaviors

Engaging in high risk sexual behaviors

Putting self and others at risk for STDs

Loss of relationships due to sexual acting out

Feelings of guilt and shame after sexually acting out

Recovery from Sexual Addiction

Recovery from sexual addiction requires more than stopping the behavior, it depends upon behavioral change.  There are many components to sexual addiction.  A good psychological intake is helpful in determining underlying components.  The person may need medication to help with symptoms of depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, etc.  They could also benefit from attending a support group.  If a person seriously engages in the recovery process, they can escape the chaos that sexual addiction creates.

Source – The Storm of Sex Addiction, Rescue And Recovery, by Connie A. Lofgreen, MSW, CSAT