Human sexuality is not only necessary for the survival of the species; it is a great source of pleasure, intimacy, and inspiration for many adults.
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.
Can Sex Be an Addiction?
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:
- Displaying a lack of ability to set limits or boundaries on sexual urges
- Spending an inordinate amount of time pursuing or engaging in sex
- Experiencing negative consequences as a result of sexual behavior, such as the loss of a job, the breakup of a relationship, financial difficulties, or legal problems
- Ignoring personal obligations or social activities in order to spend more time indulging sexual fantasies
- Frequent use of impersonal sources of sexual fulfillment that do not require emotional engagement, such as pornography, prostitution, and cybersex
- The need to intensify sexual behavior or risk-taking activities in order to achieve the same high
- Experiencing a sense of shame, guilt, or self-loathing about one’s sexual behavior, yet still being unable to stop
- Engaging in frequent attempts to stop the behavior and relapsing during times of tension or distress
Risks and Consequences
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:
- Health dangers: Promiscuous sex can result in the transmission of diseases such as HIV/AIDS, hepatitis, gonorrhea, chlamydia, human papilloma virus, and syphilis. As the disorder progresses, people with sex addiction tend to pursue more intense highs through increased risk-taking behavior, which may include having unprotected sexual encounters.
- Legal consequences: Many illicit sexual activities are subject to legal consequences. Engaging in sex with prostitutes, exposing oneself in public, or having nonconsensual sexual contact with others are all punishable by fines, jail time, and other penalties.
- Occupational risks: Sexual addiction on the job can quickly lead to demotion or unemployment. For instance, employees who use company computers to surf pornographic websites are in danger of punishment or termination.
- Loss of trust and intimacy: Although the behaviors involved with sex addiction rarely have an emotional component, these behaviors can undermine intimate relationships, destroying a partner’s sense of trust. Pursuing sexual impulses, even in a strictly visual or auditory form, requires a certain amount of secrecy or dishonesty, which can create an atmosphere of suspicion even in the most solid marriage or partnership.
- Damage to family bonds: When sex addiction leads to spousal conflict or divorce, the whole family suffers. Following the disclosure of sexual addiction, parents may lose custody of their children. They may also lose their children’s trust and respect.
- Substance abuse: People who suffer from sex addiction may use alcohol or drugs to numb feelings of guilt, shame, and remorse. They may also use these substances to overcome the psychological barriers that would otherwise prevent them from indulging in their fantasies.
The underlying causes of sex addiction are still under exploration, but many researchers agree that brain chemistry plays an important role in hypersexual behavior.
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.
When sex addiction co-occurs with substance abuse, detox may be required to clear intoxicants from the body before the more intensive work of rehab can begin. In rehab, medications may be prescribed to help control sexual urges and manage symptoms of depression or anxiety. Drugs in the SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) category, such as citalopram (Celexa), sertraline (Zoloft), and paroxetine (Paxil) have been prescribed to help individuals with sex addiction relieve their symptoms. Clients who suffer from bipolar disorder may benefit from mood-stabilizing drugs, such as valproic acid (Depakote) or lithium to manage their impulses and control their emotional states.
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.
Finding Freedom from Addiction
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.