Ladies and Gentlemen, I am venturing down a path that I have learned is incredibly taboo – the discussion of the very real issue of sex addiction. In a culture where objectification is marketed as a commodity and “sex sells”, sexual addiction and its related behaviors (compulsive: fantasizing, masturbation, use of pornography, sex sites, multiple partners or even prostitution,) becomes simply another “normal” activity. In the world of psychology, however, these compulsive behaviors are not normal, neither are they considered healthy and are characterized as behaviors consistent with “sexual addiction,” or “hypersexuality.” Currently 3-5% of the population self-identifies as suffering from sex addiction, and are seeking help. It is estimated that many more are suffering and either in denial or refusing help for their addiction, explaining it away as “normal.” With the accessibility and mainstreaming of pornography and online sex sites, sex addiction is growing problem – for the addict, their partners and their families. In today’s blog, I will address sex addiction in general and how to identify it in yourself or your partner so that you might seek support.
The downward spiral of sex addiction
Like any other addiction, sex addiction begins with an innocent act, such as the discovery of pleasure or an innocent means of alleviating stress. Sex addiction, as opposed to healthy sexual engagement, is recognized by the addict’s need for increasing intensity of activities (whether fantasizing, participating or viewing) in order to obtain the desired results, results which only satisfy temporarily, thereby provoking the addict to search for their next fix. The behaviors of a sex addict are similar in scope to any other addiction such as alcohol or drugs – always looking for the next fix and unsatisfied until the fix is obtained. Some addicts eventually find themselves turning to pornography, multiple partners, on-line sex sites, even prostitution to satisfy their “need.” Addicts continue this behavior without regard to their own emotional, mental, relational, physical or financial well-being; many tumbling into financial ruin because of their need for “more;” and many relationship have been destroyed because of the behavior of a sex addict.
Defining Sex Addiction:
While a formal definition has not yet been agreed upon, The American Psychological Association has drafted preliminary criteria for evaluating what they are now calling Hypersexual Disorder:
The symptoms of Hypersexual Disorder are:
- Over a period of at least six months, a person experiences recurrent and intense sexual fantasies, sexual urges, and sexual behavior in association with four or more of the following five criteria:
- Excessive time is consumed by sexual fantasies and urges, and by planning for and engaging in sexual behavior.
- Repetitively engaging in these sexual fantasies, urges, and behavior in response to dysphoric mood states (e.g., anxiety, depression, boredom, irritability).
- Repetitively engaging in sexual fantasies, urges, and behavior in response to stressful life events.
- Repetitive but unsuccessful efforts to control or significantly reduce these sexual fantasies, urges, and behavior.
- Repetitively engaging in sexual behavior while disregarding the risk for physical or emotional harm to self or others.
Stephanie Carnes, PhD (Mending a shattered heart – a guide for partners of sex addicts, 2009) further describes sex addiction as:
- The need to increase the intensity, frequency, number or risk level of behaviors in order to achieve the desired effect; or diminished effect with continued behaviors at the same level of intensity, frequency, number or risk.
- Distress, anxiety, restlessness or irritability if unable to engage in the behavior.
- Continuation of the behavior despite knowledge of having a persistent or recurrent social, financial, psychological or physical problem that is caused by or exacerbated by the behavior.
Sex Addiction is not about sex – in and of itself
Now, let me be very clear: Sex addiction is not about morality. Neither is sex addiction about sex, creativity, innovation, fantasizing, pornography, sex sites, prostitution, masturbation or multiple partners, in and of themselves. Sex addiction is about compulsive, repetitive, uncontrollable behaviors driven most often by anxiety which is not satisfied until the desired sexual activity is engaged in and accomplished. The causes of this anxiety can be any number of things:
- unhealed childhood wounds or trauma
- challenging life situations
- arrested development
- undiagnosed mental illness (ie: bi-polar, narcissism, borderline personality disorders, etc.)
- unacknowledged feelings of shame
The role of anxiety in sex addiction
Somewhere in their development, sex addicts discovered sexual behaviors as a way to alleviate this anxiety and never learned healthier, more fulfilling and enduring measures for dealing with anxiety or its underlying causes. As such, their anxiety and its underlying causes are never really satisfied or healed which leaves the addict in an endless hamster wheel of anxiety, engagement and more anxiety. Many sex addicts are also able to identify a specific emotional trigger which leads to the anxiety which then leads to the compulsive behavior. Compounding this cycle is the shame felt by many sex addicts who know on some level that their behavior is ultimately detrimental to their own (as well as others’) wellbeing, and the insidious way in which shame itself becomes and addiction. While there are many negative consequences to the activities of a sex addict (destroyed relationships, reduced sensitivity to sexual stimulation, impotency, financial ruin, etc.), what sex addicts ultimately miss out on is true emotional and sexual intimacy which can never be obtained while indulging in the cycle of addiction.
(See tomorrow’s blog on “Compassion for the Sex Addict”)
If you believe that you or a loved one may be suffering from sex addiction, please get help. Learn more about sex addiction HERE. Further support for recovery from sex addiction may be obtained through an experienced counselor or psychotherapist and there are 12-Step programs specifically designed for sex addicts and their loved ones.