What is Sexual Addiction?

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Sex is fun and exciting—a natural high. And it plays an important role in healthy, functional relationships.

However, sometimes people develop an unhealthy relationship with sexual behavior and thoughts. Thoughts about sex are on their mind for much of the time. They seek out sexual activities that aren’t emotionally or physically healthy. And they feel unable to control or stop this compulsive behavior--even when they wish they could, and often even after negative consequences result.

What Does This Problem Look Like?

Symptoms or signs of sex addiction, which many experts prefer to call hypersexual disorder, can include:

  • Frequent, anonymous sex with multiple partners
  • Frequent masturbation and pornography use
  • Extensive “cybersex”—use of chat rooms, internet porn, sexting, etc.
  • Serial cheating on partners
  • Exchanging money for sex
  • Committing rape or incest
  • Taking risks to pursue sexual behavior

The problem often appears fairly early in life, even before age 18.

What Causes It?

According to experts, the roots of hypersexual disorder probably are not about sex at all. (In fact, it’s also probably not really an “addiction,” although that is an easily understandable way to think about it for many.)

Instead, people with hypersexual behaviors typically have other problems, such as anxiety or depression. The sexual experiences they seek offer excitement and escape from these underlying concerns.

Some say the disorder may be similar to obsessive-compulsive disorder, with sufferers feeling unable to stop seeking out sexual experiences. Others think people with this behavior have a problem handling impulses relating to sex, or issues related to fear of intimacy. Therapists and experts are still working to understand more.

What Are Its Consequences?

Whatever the cause, there are real dangers to this disorder, both for the person suffering and for his or her partner(s). People with hypersexual disorder may spread sexually transmitted infections and emotionally and physically damage themselves and others. Some engage in harmful and illegal acts, like rape, incest, or soliciting prostitutes. Others risk their jobs or get fired due to their behavior. In fact, in one study of patients thought to have hypersexual disorder, about a quarter had caught an STI, 17% had been fired, and 40% had lost a relationship due to the problem.

Being married or seriously committed unfortunately does not prevent someone with this issue from engaging in sexual relations with others outside the relationship. If you are the other partner, it is important to know that this is not your fault or “about you.” It also does not mean your partner doesn’t love you. He or she needs help.

Is it Treatable?

Yes. With the help of treatment, support groups, and therapy, people with sex addiction can learn the difference between healthy and unhealthy sexual activity and urges. It may be a long process. In some cases, medication can be helpful.

What Should I Do if I Think Sexual Addiction is a Problem in My Relationship?

If you’re concerned that this could be a problem for you or your partner, there are various screening tools available online.

Recovery Zone Sexual Addiction Test

Sexual Addiction Screening Quiz

These may be useful as a quick check, but keep in mind that anyone with concerns about this issue should see a professional.  The Society for the Advancement of Sexual Health offers a “find a therapist” service for people needing assistance with hypersexual disorder:

Find a Therapist

A family therapist, couples counselor, or individual therapist should be able to refer you to resources on this topic as well. 

People struggling with inappropriate or problematic sexual behavior and their families don’t have to suffer in silence. There are ways to treat and overcome this concern.

By Carol Church, lead writer, SMART Couples, Department of Family, Youth and Community Sciences, University of Florida

References

Hayden, D. C. (n.d.) FAQs for partners of sex addicts. Retrieved from http://psychcentral.com/lib/faqs-for-partners-of-sex-addicts/

Kafka, M. P. (2010). Hypersexual disorder: A proposed diagnosis for DSM-V. Archives of Sexual Behavior (39), 377-400.

McMillen, M. (n.d.) Is sex addiction real? Retrieved from http://www.webmd.com/sexual-conditions/features/is-sex-addiction-real#1   

Tyler, M. (2014). Sex addiction. Retrieved from http://healthtools.aarp.org/health/addiction/sex

Wheeler, M. (2012). Science supports sex addiction as a legitimate disorder. Retrieved from http://newsroom.ucla.edu/releases/how-to-prove-a-sexual-addiction-239783