Yet the intimacy and beauty of sex can be undermined by sex addiction, a disorder that causes an unhealthy obsession with seeking, observing, or engaging in sexual activity. Individuals with an addiction to sex will go to extremes to satisfy their cravings or live out their fantasies, regardless of the consequences to themselves or others. The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy estimates that sex addiction affects approximately 12 million adults in the US.
Also known as hypersexual disorder, sex addiction is a condition marked by fantasies or urges that consume excessive amounts of time and resources. An individual with sex addiction typically spends hours planning for sex or engaging in sexual activity, at the expense of jobs, family activities, or social interactions. The person may also spend a great deal of money pursuing gratification in the form of pornography, prostitution, online sex forums, strip clubs, telephone sex lines, and other expensive outlets.
The costs of sex addiction can be enormous, affecting all aspects of the individual’s life as well as the lives of loved ones.
Sex addiction treatment programs can intervene in the destructive progression of this disorder and help clients rebuild their lives on a foundation of integrity, self-worth, and trust.
Like other positive, life-affirming behaviors â€” eating, exercising, and falling in love are similar examples â€” sex can become an addiction if the need for sexual gratification begins to take precedence over other needs, responsibilities, or values.
Although it is natural for some adults to have a stronger sex drive than others, those with a healthy approach to sexuality are able to keep their needs in perspective and set limits on their sexual behavior.
People with sex addiction, on the other hand, display the following characteristics:
Even though sex is frequently associated with love and emotional intimacy, sex addiction usually lacks an emotional component. The drive for sexual fulfillment comes from an unmet psychological need to relieve anxiety, depression, or psychological tension, not from a need for closeness or the desire to form a relationship. Treating sex addiction requires an exploration of the underlying causes of the problem, along with the development of effective coping strategies to deal with triggers and resolve psychological needs.
Sex addiction is not included in the most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5); however, people who struggle with this condition are aware that it is all too real. The popularity of support groups like Sex Addicts Anonymous, a 12-Step program for people seeking freedom from sex addiction, and the growing availability of rehab programs for sex addicts offer evidence of the widespread need for treatment for this disorder.
Hypersexual behavior poses serious risks to the individual, to the individual’s intimate partners, and to children or other close family members. Engaging in high-risk sexual activities can endanger the individual the following ways:
Like other activities that are essential to the survival of the species, such as consuming food or seeking sources of warmth, sexual activity is reinforced by the brain’s natural reward pathway. A sexual encounter can trigger the release of dopamine, a brain chemical that generates feelings of elation, happiness, or contentment. These positive sensations encourage the individual to pursue sexual gratification again, ensuring that reproduction will occur and the species will continue.
In addictive disorders, including alcohol or drug dependence, the brain’s reward pathway becomes a means of reinforcing harmful behaviors that trigger the same neurotransmitters. For sex addicts, the release of dopamine that occurs after a sexual experience may resemble the euphoric rush of a chemical high. The pursuit of this high encourages the individual to continue the same behavior, even if it is risky or destructive.
Other researchers propose that sex addiction is often part of a cluster of psychiatric conditions that are characterized by impulsive, uncontrollable behavior. An article published in Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity indicates that people with sex addiction often have a dual diagnosis, or a co-occurring disorder, that goes hand in hand with their hypersexual behavior. One study revealed the following statistics about sexual addiction:
Sexual dysfunction, impulse control disorders, and personality disorders were also associated with higher than average rates of sex addiction. Substance abuse, in particular, is very common in individuals with sex addiction. Drugs or alcohol may be used to release inhibitions, to overcome feelings of shame and guilt, or to soothe feelings of depression. Because substance abuse impairs judgment, it also increases the risk of dangerous behavior that exposes the individual to harmful consequences.
An individual’s family background and childhood history of trauma can contribute to sex addiction later in life. Patrick J. Carnes, PhD, quotes statistics showing that up to 72 percent of people with sex addiction have a history of physical abuse in childhood, while as many as 81 percent were exposed to physical abuse. People who grew up in a household where one or both parents displayed addictive behavior were significantly more likely to experience sex addiction as adults. The treatment of sex addiction often requires therapeutic interventions that address unresolved traumas and past emotional pain.
Depending on the individual’s needs, level of motivation, and any co-occurring conditions, treatment may take place at either a residential facility or outpatient recovery center. Inpatient or residential treatment offers the advantage of a focused, supportive environment where the client can concentrate exclusively on recovery, and where triggers and distractions are minimized. Outpatient treatment provides a greater level of independence and autonomy for clients whose personal obligations prevent them from leaving home, or for those who start treatment with a high level of autonomy and motivation.
Treatment for sex addiction can be effective if the client’s psychological, emotional, and psychosocial needs are met. Because this disorder involves a great deal of emotional pain and personal shame, members of the treatment team must be highly sensitive to the potential for increased depression or even suicidal ideation. A sex addiction treatment program must include a comprehensive set of recovery resources that include therapies which address the multiple dimensions of this disorder, including past trauma, substance abuse, and co-occurring psychiatric disorders.
The goals of sex addiction treatment are to help clients find the sources of their compulsive behaviors, to aid them in developing healthy approaches for dealing with triggers, and to strengthen their sense of self-worth. By striving for these goals, clients in sex addiction treatment programs can attain a sense of freedom from destructive, obsessive behaviors.
Approaching a loved one about the topic of sex addiction can be painful or embarrassing; however, the sooner the problem is brought out into the open, the sooner the issue can be addressed and the greater the chances of avoiding harmful consequences. Too often, the pain and shame of sex addiction remain a secret, with even the addicted individual denying the reality of the disorder.
Treatment programs that target sex addiction are the most effective way to resolve the issues that drive this disorder and to overcome the obstacles to recovery.