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What Is Sex Addiction?

Can People Really Be Addicted to Sex?

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Updated February 15, 2013

What Is Sex Addiction?

Healthy sexual appetite or sex addiction?

Photo © Jan Wiggo Wiger

Sex addiction, like other addictions, is a maladaptive pattern of behavior, which involves persistent dependence on various forms of sexual expression in order to cope with the stresses of life. Like other addictions, there is a cyclical pattern of behavior, involving urges and cravings to engage in the behavior, a ritualistic way of planning and acting out the behavior, and a sense of relief and elation on engaging in the behavior, followed by a period of withdrawal and repeated cravings.

What makes sex addiction an addiction, as opposed to some other sexual problem, is this repetitive pattern of thought processes and behaviors, which continues despite negative consequences for the addict, and in some cases, for other people. The addictive behavior continues over an extended period of time, and once consequences become obvious and the addicted person is unable to stop the behavior, they feel they are losing control.

There are many different sexual behaviors that people can get addicted to, ranging from the benign to the criminal. There are many different consequences that can arise, some of which affect everyone with sex addictions (such as relationship problems), and some of which affect fewer people (sexually transmitted diseases, wounding, financial problems, legal problems).

As with other addictions, help is available and can be effective if adhered to. Similar approaches to treating other addictions have been successfully applied to sex addictions. Some addiction centers originally set up to help people overcome alcohol and drug problems also treat people with sex addictions, although this is not the case with all addictions clinics.

Specialist clinics also exist which provide treatment specifically for sex addiction, although these are likely to be private, and people will generally not receive financial support as easily as they do with alcohol and drug addictions.

There are also several 12-step support groups available for people with sex addictions.

The Controversy of Sex Addiction

Like other behavioral addictions, sex addiction is a controversial idea. Many experts balk at the idea that excessive sexuality can constitute an addiction, believing that there has to be a psychoactive substance which produces symptoms such as physical tolerance and withdrawal for an activity to be a true addiction. However, there is increasing evidence that sex addiction follows similar cognitive and behavioral patterns, and involves similar brain mechanisms to other addictions.

Sex addiction is not currently included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, although a new diagnosis of Hypersexual Disorder has been proposed for DSM-V, the next edition of the manual, due to be published in 2012. There are, however, a number of sexual behaviors that fall outside of the norm, which are included as "paraphilias".

Sex addiction is a difficult concept for both professionals and the public to take seriously. There are several reasons for this:

  • Sex covers a wide and varied range of behaviors. Some, such as masturbation, are so commonplace that almost everyone has engaged in it to some extent at some point in their lives, while others, such as unusual fetishes, are so unexpected and far removed from “normal” behavior that many people find them it difficult to relate to or understand the appeal of such behavior.
  • The discipline of sexology is based on unconditional acceptance of sexual desire as a universal and empowering force.
  • Confusion around what would constitute “recovery” from a sex addiction, as abstinence would not be considered a healthy course of action for most people.
  • Sex remains one of the most taboo topics in society, so people with sex addictions are often the subject of mockery and scorn in a way that people with other conditions are not subject to.
  • Because some people with sex addictions are, in some instances, sexually abusive to others, sex addiction can be seen as an “excuse” for irresponsible and abusive behavior.

The concept of sex addiction can be helpful in explaining some people’s difficulties with their sexual expression. It may or may not be a factor in understanding the behavior of sexually deviant individuals, as each case is different. Sex addiction does not explain all sexually troublesome behaviors, or excuse harm caused as a result of sexual acting out.

We have a responsibility as a society to provide sufficient and appropriate support and treatment to people who need it. Many who have sex addictions are a far cry from the stereotypical rapist, and are law-abiding men and women who are suffering unnecessarily as a result of their addiction. Many sex addicts who are imprisoned for sex crimes could turn their lives around and no longer be a threat to others with appropriate treatment.

And many of those who fall somewhere in between –- they do not break the law, but they wreck havoc with the lives and families of their partners –- could overcome their damaging behaviors and live happy and loving lives with fulfilling relationships, if they were able to access appropriate treatment.

Sources

Canning, M. Lust, Anger, Love: Understanding Sexual Addiction and the Road to Healthy Intimacy. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks. 2008.

Carnes, P. “Addiction or Compulsion: Politics or Illness?” Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity, 3:127-150. 1997.

Carnes, P. “Sexual Addiction.” Normal Human Sexuality and Sexual and Gender Identity Disorders, 90-100.

Cheever, S. “Desire: Where Sex Meets Addiction." New York: Simon & Schuster. 2008.

Klein, Ph.D, M. “Sex Addiction: A Dangerous Clinical Concept.” Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality, 5. 2002.

Orford, J. Excessive Appetites: A Psychological View of Addictions. (Second Edition). Chicester: Wiley.

The Society for the Advancement of Sexual Health. "Sexual Addiction." 12 Jan 2009.

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