While numerous media stories circulate regarding celebrities and sexual addiction, few address sexual addiction as an illness with symptoms and destructive consequences, making it difficult to pinpoint the characteristics of this complex condition.
What Sex Addiction Looks Like
Obsessive and compulsive thoughts and actions, and an inability to control the behavior despite the consequences are key symptoms of sexual addiction, similar to substance addictions. Sexual addiction is progressive, which means the person will spend more and more time on the computer or acting out sexually, even if it means the loss of family, personal relationships and careers. What once seemed inappropriate or offensive to the user – such as certain types of pornography or sexual activities – begin to seem acceptable as the need for more intense experiences continues to climb.
Contrary to stereotypes, people with sexual addiction may engage in the behavior to avoid negative feelings, especially low self-esteem and an inability to maintain close, intimate relationships. The behavior can become a way of escape and coping, rather than as an act of sexual pleasure.
As the brain’s reward system changes as a result of the behaviors, sexual addiction can quickly grow out of control until it is all-consuming. Types of sexual addiction can include an addiction to pornography, paid sexual services, sex with multiple partners, or an addiction to sexting or cybersex.
What Is Sex Addiction?
Sexual addiction, also known as “sexual compulsion,” “hypersexuality,” and “hypersexual disorder,” is a dysfunctional preoccupation with sex, often involving the obsessive pursuit of non-intimate sexual encounters (affairs, casual sex, anonymous sex, prostitutes, pornography, compulsive masturbation, and the like). This pattern of urges, fantasies, and behaviors continues for a period of at least six months, despite the following:
- Attempts made to self-correct the problematic sexual behavior
- Promises made to self and others to change the sexual behavior
- Significant, directly related negative life consequences such as relationship instability, emotional turmoil, physical health problems, career trouble, and legal issues
In simpler terms, sexual addiction is an ongoing, out-of-control pattern of compulsive sexual fantasy and behavior that is causing problems in the addict’s life.
What Is it Like to Be a Sex Addict?
Sex addicts experience a self-induced neurochemical high when fantasizing about and preparing to act out sexually. This overwhelming neurochemical intensity is self-described by sex addicts as being in “the bubble” or “the trance.” This self-sustaining and self-perpetuating emotional experience is often more the addict’s focus than the sexual act itself. In other words, sex addicts create and use a neurochemical high to detach and dissociate from depression, anxiety, and other life stressors. They learn to control and abuse their own neurochemistry in the same way that alcoholics and drug addicts learn to abuse alcohol, heroin, and cocaine.
For the sex addict, sexual acting out takes place regardless of outward success, intelligence, physical attractiveness, and existing intimate relationships. Very often sex addicts, feeling shameful or fearful about past behavior, will tell themselves, “This is the last time that I am going to…,” yet ultimately they are compelled to return to the same or a similar sexual situation. This is their loss of control. Their sexual activities can frequently go against preexisting values and beliefs (relationship fidelity, safe sex, not hurting others, etc.). As such, most sex addicts find themselves leading a shame-based and secretive double-life, keeping their sexual acting out hidden from family and friends, and separating it from work and day-to-day life.
What Sexual Addiction Is NOT
The diagnosis of sexual addiction is not necessarily made if an individual engages in fetishistic or paraphilic sexual arousal/behavior (such as cross-dressing, sadomasochism, etc.) Such behaviors may lead people to keep sexual secrets, to feel shame or distress, and even to feel out of control, but these activities are not considered sexual addiction, per se. Nor are unwanted homosexual or bisexual arousal patterns/behavior. Sexual addiction is not in any way defined by what or who an individual finds arousing. Instead, it is defined by repetitive patterns of sexual behavior utilized to self-medicate and/or stabilize emotional distress. Sex addiction is also not automatically diagnosed in people who have active mania (due to bipolar or some other disorder) or in people who are actively abusing drugs or alcohol, as these other emotional and addictive challenges must first be ruled out.
Sex Addiction Treatment
Treatment for sexual addiction requires the guidance of professionals, and new inpatient and outpatient centers for sexual addiction are becoming available worldwide. A self-help support group program for sexual addiction can also be part of a treatment strategy, such as Sex Addicts Anonymous. It is also key to involve a spouse in the treatment, as the emotional effects for a spouse whose partner is involved in sex addiction can be severe and long-lasting.