Sex Addiction 101

Sexual addiction involves an ongoing preoccupation and/or obsession with sexual fantasies and behavior. For sex addicts, sex becomes a primary focus in their lives. Sex addicts are unable to quit or curtail their sexual acting out, despite a variety of negative life consequences, including:

  • Relationship issues
  • Trouble at work or in school, including reprimands or even dismissals
  • Declining physical and/or emotional health
  • Loss of interest in hobbies and other healthy and previously enjoyable activities
  • Financial woes
  • Legal problems, including arrest

Like other addicts, sex addicts often feel great shame about what they’re doing. In moments of remorse, they tell themselves, “This is the last time I’m going to do X, Y and/or Z.” But then, before they even realize it, they’re back at it, in the same or a very similar sexual situation; this is their “loss of control.” They want to quit and they try to quit, but they just can’t seem to manage it. Sometimes their acting out escalates to the point where their fantasies and behaviors go against their core values and beliefs (such as safe sex, marital fidelity and not hurting others). Because of this, sex addicts find themselves leading double lives, putting a great deal of effort into separating and compartmentalizing their sex life and their work and home lives.

Causes

Sex addiction is not driven by a desire for sexual enjoyment. Instead, sex addicts use their addiction to escape from stress and other emotional discomfort, including the pain of underlying psychological issues like depression, anxiety, social inhibition and unresolved early-life trauma. (Alcoholics drink and drug addicts use for exactly the same reasons.) So, as with other addictions, sex addicts are not looking to feel good, they’re looking to feel less. Whereas people who are not addicts reach out to supportive friends and family members when they’re having a bad day or going through a tough period, sex addicts consistently turn to sex as a means of self-soothing and/or controlling what they feel.

As with drugs of abuse, addictive sexual fantasies and behaviors trigger a neurochemical reaction in the brain that feels pleasurable to the addict. This response is fueled mostly by the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine, but also by other biochemicals, such as oxytocin, adrenaline, serotonin and various endorphins. Over time, sex addicts learn to abuse this pleasurable neurochemical response in the same way that alcoholics and drug addicts abuse alcohol and drugs, intentionally triggering it with sexual fantasies, pornography or online flirtations. In other words, sex addicts create and use a neurochemical high as a way to avoid experiencing depression, anxiety and other stressors.

As with alcoholics and drug addicts, sex addicts like to stay high for prolonged periods. For that reason, they’re typically much more interested in sustained sexual fantasies than actual sex and orgasm. In fact, orgasm ends the acting-out experience and returns the addict to real life, which is exactly what he or she is trying so hard to escape. As such, sex addicts often spend hours, sometimes even days, in a trance-like, zoned-out neurochemical bubble, thinking about and fantasizing about sexual activity without actually engaging in that activity.

Symptoms of Sex Addiction

The core symptoms of sex addiction are the same regardless of gender, life history or psychology. Behavior typically exhibited by sex addicts includes:

  • Compulsive masturbation, with or without pornography (including online porn and traditional forms of porn, like magazines, VHS tapes and DVDs)
  • Consistently visiting strip clubs, adult bookstores and other sex-focused environments
  • Engaging in multiple affairs and/or brief “serial” relationships
  • Participating in prostitution (hiring or providing), including “sensual massage”
  • Seeking and engaging in sexual activity without thinking about potential consequences
  • Repeatedly engaging in anonymous and/or casual sex with people met online or in-person
  • Repeatedly engaging in unprotected sex
  • Misdemeanor sexual offenses such as voyeurism and exhibitionism

It’s worth mentioning that male and female sex addicts often behave and talk about their behavior quite differently. Male sex addicts tend to objectify their partners and are much more likely than women to engage in sexual behavior that involves little or no emotional attachment. As such, men’s sexual acting out typically takes easily recognizable, purely sexual forms. Conversely, female sex addicts tend to view and talk about their compulsive sexual behavior in terms of romance and relationships – even when their activities are every bit as sexual and lacking in intimacy as the behaviors of male sex addicts.

Risk Factors

Since there’s comparatively little research about the causes of sexual addiction, most health care professionals who treat sex addicts tend to rely on research about other types of addiction. Generally speaking, these studies show that genetic factors can increase or decrease the risk for addiction, usually by altering the ways in which a particular substance or activity is experienced in the body and brain. Genetic makeup also plays into dozens of psychiatric disorders, including depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder, among others. And it’s well-known that individuals dealing with these emotionally painful issues often choose to compulsively “self-medicate” with an addictive substance or behavior.

Nevertheless, genetics are definitely not entirely to blame. In fact, research tells us that environmental factors are equally at play. For starters, if someone was neglected or abused in childhood, their risk of addiction jumps, just as it does if they were exposed to addictive substances and behavior early in life. (The younger a person is when he or she first uses an addictive substance or starts an addictive behavior, the greater the risk of developing an addiction.) So, it appears that most sex addicts become addicted thanks to a convergence of risk factors – typically a mix of genetic predisposition, poor parenting and early (often inappropriate) exposure to pornography and/or sexual activity.

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