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:
- 72 percent of participants in the study had a mood disorder, such as depression or bipolar disorder, as well as sex addiction
- 38 percent of participants also had an anxiety disorder
- 40 percent displayed symptoms of substance abuse
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.