What is Sex Addiction?
According to the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, 12 million Americans suffer from sex or sexual addiction. The term sex addiction is used to describe the behavior of a person who has an unusually intense sex drive or an obsession with sex. Sex and the thought of sex tend to dominate the sex addict’s thinking, making it difficult to work or engage in healthy personal relationships. Sex addicts engage in distorted thinking, often rationalizing and justifying their behavior and blaming others for problems. They generally deny they have a problem and make excuses for their actions.
Sexual addiction also is associated with risk-taking. A person with a sex addiction engages in various forms of sexual activity, despite the potential for negative and/or dangerous consequences. In addition to damaging the addict’s relationships and interfering with his or her work and social life, a sexual addiction also puts the person at risk for emotional and physical injury. For some people, the sex addiction progresses to involve illegal activities, such as exhibitionism (exposing oneself in public), making obscene phone calls, or molestation. However, it should be noted that sex addicts do not necessarily become sex offenders.
Sex addiction as a term first emerged in the mid-1970s when various members of Alcoholics Anonymous sought to apply the principles of 12-Steps toward sexual recovery from serial infidelity and other unmanageable compulsive sex behaviors that were similar to the powerlessness and un-manageability they experienced with alcoholism. Multiple 12-step style self-help groups now exist for people who identify as sex addicts, including Sex Addicts Anonymous, Sexaholics Anonymous, Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous, and Sexual Compulsives Anonymous.
Because of the denial and shame associated with sexual behaviors, it is only recently that the reality of sexual addiction has been acknowledged by those caught in its grasp or by treatment professionals. Since this problem was first addressed in 1983, some have argued that sexual addiction does not exist or is exaggerated. Nevertheless, acknowledgment of compulsive sexuality is growing, and more help is available today than ever before.
Effect On The Brain
Sexual behavior releases endorphins in the brain that resemble opiates in that they numb pain and produce a feeling of well-being. This endorphin release is compulsively pursued by the sex addict. The reward of this endorphin release is so powerful for the sex addict that he finds himself willing to pursue his activity in spite of the negative consequences he knows he will experience as well.
It also appears that the release of chemicals begins when the addict's ritual begins. That is, when the sex addict starts to fantasize about his behavior, or even brings to mind some of his past behavior, a chemical process is triggered in the brain, which entails the release of those pleasurable endorphins. This is the euphoric recall referred to by so many recovering addicts.
Our brains are organized in complex neuropathway systems. In the brain, the reward pathways associated with compulsive sexual behavior look structurally similar to the reward pathways of those addicted to substances. The more each pathway is utilized, the stronger that pathway becomes. When an individual repeatedly participates in any pleasurable behavior, the corresponding pathway in the brain is strengthened.
According to the Diagnostic Systems Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), sex addiction also involves “compulsive searching for multiple partners, compulsive fixation on an unattainable partner, compulsive masturbation, compulsive love relationships and compulsive sexuality in a relationship.” Increasing sexual provocation in our society has spawned an increase in the number of individuals engaging in a variety of unusual or illicit sexual practices, such as phone sex, the use of escort services and computer pornography. More of these individuals and their partners are seeking help.
The same compulsive behavior that characterizes other addictions also is typical of sex addiction. But these other addictions, including drug, alcohol and gambling dependency, involve substances or activities with no necessary relationship to our survival. For example, we can live normal and happy lives without ever gambling, taking illicit drugs or drinking alcohol. Even the most genetically vulnerable person will function well without ever being exposed to, or provoked by, these addictive activities.
Sexual activity is different. Like eating, having sex is necessary for human survival. Although some people are celibate — some not by choice, while others choose celibacy for cultural or religious reasons — healthy humans have a strong desire for sex. In fact, lack of interest or low interest in sex can indicate a medical problem or psychiatric illness.
Short Term Effects
Sexual acting out in the behaviors listed above can be used for various reasons including: to ease, or soothe emotional pain, manage stress, or as a substitute for true intimacy. As with other addictions, there is usually an escalation of these behaviors due to tolerance, as the addict continues to pursue the needed "high" and/or "anesthetic" regardless of the escalating costs. Compulsive sexual behaviors are often fueled by mismanaged anger or fears of intimacy, and have their roots in the sexual shame of one's family of origin. Incest, avoidance of sex education, double standards, sexual secrets, or sexual acting out by a parent (such as affairs or pornography use) can all lay the foundation for later sexual compulsivity.
Long Term Effects
- Sleep Disturbance/insomnia
- Denial of the problem
- Fear of being exposed
- Rationalizing behaviors social withdrawal, isolating,
- Psychological distress
- Other addictions like food, drugs, alcohol, people
- Preoccupation with sex to crucial mistakes in work and at home
- Physical illness colds and upper respiratory illness resulting from stress
Many individuals struggling with sexual addiction do not seek help, due in large part to the high degree of shame associated with a problem in this area.
Methods of Abuse
Sexual addictions take many forms including the following
- Compulsive masturbation (self-stimulation)
- Multiple affairs (extra-marital affairs)
- Multiple or anonymous sexual partners and/or one-night stands
- Consistent use of pornography
- Unsafe sex
- Use of prostitution/escorts
- Sexual aversion/anorexia
- Frequenting massage parlors
- Sexual paraphilias (a need for unusual sexual stimulation) and/or any sexually offensive behavior
- Phone or computer sex (cybersex)
- Obsessive dating through personal ads
- Voyeurism (watching others) and/or stalking
- Sexual harassment
Generally, a person with a sex addiction gains little satisfaction from the sexual activity and forms no emotional bond with his or her sex partners. In addition, the problem of sex addiction often leads to feelings of guilt and shame. A sex addict also feels a lack of control over the behavior, despite negative consequences (financial, health, social, and emotional).
Criteria for Dependence include the following
Tolerance: There is a need for increased amounts of sex activity to achieve desired effect.
Withdrawal: characteristic symptoms occur (e.g., anxiety, depression) when Sex activity is slowed or stopped, so whatever activity it is must be resumed to relieve or avoid symptoms.
Intention Effect: Sex activity and risky behaviors is often increased, and a longer time is spent doing it than is intended.
Lack of Control: a persistent desire or unsuccessful effort to cut down or control sex activity.
Time: More and more time is spent in pursuing sexual activities, fantasizing about them, reliving them and preparing for new ones.
Reduction in Other Activities: social, occupational, or recreational activities are given up or reduced.
Continuance: Sex activity is continued despite loss of relationships and diminished effectiveness at work.
What Is The Difference Between A Healthy Interest In Sex And A Sex Addiction? Take The Test To See Where You Stand
Do You Have a Sexual Addiction
- Have you ever thought you needed help for your sexual thinking or behavior?
- That you’d be better off if you didn’t keep “giving in?”
- That sex or stimuli are controlling you?
- Have you ever tried to stop or limit doing what you felt was wrong in your sexual behavior?
- Do you resort to sex to escape, relieve anxiety, or because you can’t cope?
- Do you feel guilt, remorse or depression afterward?
- Has your pursuit of sex become more compulsive?
- Does it interfere with relations with your spouse?
- Do you have to resort to images or memories during sex?
- Does an irresistible impulse arise when the other party makes the overtures or sex is offered?
- Do you keep going from one “relationship” or lover to another?
- Do you feel the “right relationship” would help you stop lusting, masturbating, or being so promiscuous?
- Do you have a destructive need—a desperate sexual or emotional need for someone?
- Does pursuit of sex make you careless for yourself or the welfare of your family or others?
- Has your effectiveness or concentration decreased as sex has become more compulsive?
- Do you lose time from work for it?
- Do you turn to a lower environment when pursuing sex?
- Do you want to get away from the sex partner as soon as possible after the act?
- Although your spouse is sexually compatible, do you still masturbate or have sex with others?
- Have you ever been arrested for a sex-related offense?
Just a few yeses on this list could be sending red flags to get some help from a professional.