Sex Addiction

Sex addiction is often the punchline of jokes or just not taken seriously, but it’s often distressing for the people who suffer from it and their loved ones. At its worst, sexual addiction can preoccupy someone’s thoughts to the point of anxiety and cause so much shame that many addicts are afraid to ask for help.

Because there’s frequently so much embarrassment and guilt surrounding sex addiction, having compassion for yourself or a loved one is the first step to finding relief.

Is Sex Addiction a Real Thing?

Like other behavioral addictions, there is much debate on whether sex addiction should have diagnostic criteria and a formal diagnosis in the DSM-5. Some researchers argue that the data doesn’t support these behaviors being addictions like substance use disorder, but many mental health professionals and addicts beg to differ.

Chemically, behavioral addictions like gambling, shopping, or sex addictions operate similarly to drug addiction. The cause of the “high” may vary, but the desire and compulsion to feel good by repeating the behavior can quickly take over someone’s life.

Explaining Sex Addiction

When someone struggles with sex addiction, it typically manifests as a lack of control over sexual impulses, thoughts, and urges. While it’s not abnormal to think about sex frequently, sex addiction happens when these behaviors become compulsive, excessive, and negatively impact their life.

Discerning between someone with a high sex drive and sex addiction can be challenging. Given how taboo sex can be in some cultures or religious communities, people may mistake normal sexual urges for addiction, especially when taught sex or masturbation is inherently harmful.

Many people disregard the serious consequences of sex addiction or imply that all people are sex addicts because it’s pleasurable. However, sex addicts often experience many negative emotions like embarrassment or frustration due to compulsions.

Individuals may also put themselves in dangerous situations to fulfill their urges, engaging in prostitution or risking exposure to sexually transmitted diseases.

Sex Addiction VS Porn Addiction

Sex and porn addiction are often used synonymously, but they are two different behavioral addictions. Porn addiction refers explicitly to the uncontrollable urge to view pornography to the point it negatively impacts the person’s life.

Sex addiction, on the other hand, is an addiction to thinking and engaging in sexual acts, no matter the risks. Many sex addicts also struggle with porn addiction and vice versa. Each addiction has unique consequences: sex addiction can put someone at risk for STDs or illegal behavior, while porn addiction can put someone in debt and damage relationships.

How Behavioral Addictions Work

Behavioral addiction is an umbrella term for any compulsive and persistent behavior that causes harm or distress to the addict. The American Psychiatric Association (APA) only officially recognizes gambling addiction in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5). However, individuals may suffer from other behavioral addiction issues, including compulsive buying, internet use, and sex addiction—all of which are treatable.

Similar to substance abuse, behavioral addictions have the potential to stimulate certain “feel-good” chemicals in the brain, like dopamine and opiate receptors, when done repeatedly. Engaging in these addictive behaviors can create a “high” that the addict begins to crave and compulsively seek out.

Some people even experience withdrawals when they stop the behavior in question, including symptoms like anxiety, irritability, and depression.

Symptoms of Sex Addiction

Understanding sex addiction and normal sexual desire is important, as some people have different libido levels or sex drives. A person’s sex drive can vary depending on hormone levels, exercise, and genetic factors. While an individual with high libido may look sex-obsessed from the outside, this doesn’t necessarily indicate they’re suffering from sex addiction.

Common symptoms of sex addiction include:

  • Obsessive sexual fantasies
  • Feeling out of control when thinking about sex
  • Spending excessive time on sex and/or masturbation
  • Feeling shame, depression, and anxiety about one’s sexual urges
  • Missing school, work, or social functions for sexual activity
  • Excessive masturbation
  • Engaging in risky or inappropriate behaviors (i.e., public sex, unprotected sex, hiring a sex worker, etc.)
  • Cheating on one’s partner to have more sex
  • In very extreme cases, committing criminal sex offenses (some sexual offenders may also be sex addicts, there is no evidence that sexual addiction can lead someone to commit sexual offenses.)

How Sex Can Become Addictive

People generally view sex as a pleasurable activity, and for good reason. During intercourse, the brain releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter responsible for feeling pleasure. When someone achieves orgasm through sex or masturbation, their body releases a hormone called endorphins, which relieve pain and reduce stress.

With so many “feel good” chemicals flooding the brain during sexual experiences, some people may begin to crave more of that feeling. Behavioral addiction forms when these cravings become uncontrollable compulsions that interfere with daily life.

How Does Sex Addiction Manifest?

Sex addiction or hypersexuality can manifest in many ways. Some people may engage in frequent masturbation and porn watching, keeping their addiction mainly to themselves. Others frequently and obsessively seek sex from multiple partners, perhaps engaging in exhibitionism or paying for sex from a sex worker.

Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for sex addicts to be unfaithful to their partners, especially if said partner can’t keep up with the addict’s desire for sex. Even for addicts who don’t cheat, their unhealthy relationship with sex often has negative consequences on their relationship.

Sex Addiction Risks and Consequences

Sex addiction can have real risks and consequences, especially involving other people. Although the sex-positive movement has been growing over the years, many still view sex as taboo or sinful. The stigma that comes with sex can lead to less education about safe sex and fewer addicts getting the help they deserve.

Risk Factors for Developing an Addiction to Sex

Like drug addiction, behavioral addictions like sex addiction can run in families. Therefore, knowing any history of addiction in your family can be an excellent tool for being more aware of potentially addictive activities.

Individuals with mental illnesses with compulsive tendencies or impulsive behavior, such as Borderline Personality Disorder or Bipolar Mania, can be more at risk of developing sex addiction.

Some data suggest watching pornography at a young age can contribute to sex addiction later in life. For example, in a study from Cambridge University, out of over 900 sex addicts, 90% of men and 77% of women reported that watching porn was a significant factor in their sex addiction.

Harmful Consequences of Sex Addiction

Like most behavioral addictions, sex addiction can consume a person’s life. Their education, job, or relationships may suffer as the addict dedicates more time and thought to sex than anything else.

It’s also common for those with sex addiction to have co-morbidities with mental illnesses like depression, anxiety, or mood disorders.

The most apparent physical risks associated with sex addiction are sexually transmitted diseases like HIV/AIDS, genital herpes, and hepatitis B, all incurable. For sex addicts who regularly sleep with new people or engage in one-night stands, the risk of injury or sexual assault also increases.

Sex addiction can also impact the addict mentally, causing problems like lowered self-esteem, guilt, or shame.

How is Sex Addiction Diagnosed?

Because people with sex addiction often experience embarrassment and guilt about their compulsions, many fail to seek help. Between their feelings of inner shame and society’s taboos surrounding sex, many sex addicts and loved ones suffer in silence.

There is no singular test for sex addiction. Still, a licensed mental healthcare professional can assess you or a loved one to determine if you meet the criteria for hypersexuality or sex addiction.

Your doctor will typically do a psychiatric evaluation to establish if you have a sex addiction and if any co-morbidities like bipolar disorder or disorders that lack impulse control. Once diagnosed, your doctor can walk you through the treatment options and what might work best.

Treating Sex Addiction

Fortunately, there are treatments for sex addiction, and a licensed mental health care provider can guide you through the process of diagnosis and treatment.

Psychiatry is often the primary treatment for dealing with sex addiction. Therapists tailor treatment for sex addiction to the individual, and this approach usually emphasizes group therapy or one-on-one psychotherapy. The most common type of therapy is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which focuses on helping you discover unhealthy thought patterns and establishing more beneficial ones.

Couples therapy can also be beneficial, especially if your sex addiction impacts your partner. This type of therapy will allow all parties to voice their feelings and encourages the creation of a supportive strategy for future success and recovery.

Some medications shown to help with sex addiction include:

  • Antidepressants
  • Mood stabilizers
  • Naltrexone
  • Anti-androgens

Support for Partners of Sex Addicts

Watching a loved one struggle with sex addiction can be a challenging experience, especially considering the amount of shame felt by the addict. It’s common for partners to feel frustrated or inadequate when unable to keep up with their partner’s sexual compulsions.

If you suspect your partner is experiencing sex addiction or hypersexuality, getting help for you both is essential. Whether it’s one-on-one counseling for your partner or couples therapy with your participation, the sooner you address sex addiction, the less risk there is of infidelity, risky behavior, and damage to your relationship.

Get Help for Sex Addiction

If you or a loved one suffers from sex addiction, know that you’re not alone. With the right treatment and support, people struggling with sex addiction can find relief from sexual dependence and enjoy a healthier relationship with their sex life.

There are also many support groups like Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous, Sex Addicts Anonymous, and S-anon available to provide a community of others on their journey to recovery.

Frequently Asked Questions About Sex Addiction

Is it possible to be addicted to sex?

While there is no official diagnosis of sex addiction in the DSM-5, sex addiction has been well documented over the decades. Because sexual activity tends to flood the brain with feel-good chemicals, an individual could find themselves addicted to repeating those feelings to the point of compulsion. This is how sex addiction can form.

How do you know if you are addicted to sex?

Thinking about sex is a normal part of being human. However, when thoughts about sex, excessive or compulsive masturbation, and having sex preoccupy your time to the point it interferes with daily life, that might be a sex addiction.

Is sex addiction the same as porn addiction?

No. Porn addiction is specific to the consumption of pornography, while sex addiction is specific to sexual acts such as sex or masturbation. Although, it’s not uncommon for people with porn addiction to have a sex addiction and vice versa.

What are the signs of a sex addict?

Signs of sex addiction include:

  • Obsessive sexual thoughts
  • Spending excessive time on sex and/or masturbation
  • Feeling negative emotions about one’s sexual urges
  • Missing important events for sexual activity
  • Excessive masturbation
  • Engaging in risky or inappropriate behaviors (i.e., public sex, unprotected sex, hiring a sex worker, etc.)

Why do people become addicted to sex?

Because sex and, specifically, orgasms release feel-good chemicals like dopamine and endorphins in the brain, some people begin to crave these feelings. As they repeatedly engage in sexual behaviors to seek this “high,” addicts can develop an addiction to that feeling despite any negative consequences.

Jessica Miller is the Content Manager of Addiction GuideWritten by:

Content Manager

Jessica Miller is a USF graduate with a Bachelor’s Degree in English. She has written professionally for over a decade, from HR scripts and employee training to business marketing and company branding. In addition to writing, Jessica spent time in the healthcare sector (HR) and as a high school teacher. She has personally experienced the pitfalls of addiction and is delighted to bring her knowledge and writing skills together to support our mission. Jessica lives in St. Petersburg, FL with her husband and two dogs.

10 references
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  7. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. (2020, February 7). Compulsive sexual behavior. Mayo Clinic. Retrieved December 14, 2022, from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/compulsive-sexual-behavior/symptoms-causes/syc-20360434

  8. Sex addiction: Causes, symptoms, treatment & recovery. Cleveland Clinic. (2020, May 4). Retrieved December 14, 2022, from https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/treatments/22690-sex-addiction-hypersexuality-and-compulsive-sexual-behavior

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