Sex addiction

Written by Bonnie Gifford

Bonnie Gifford

Counselling Directory Content Team

Last updated on 4th April, 2022

Sex addiction or hypersexuality is generally defined as any sexual activity that feels irrepressible. This could be through sex with a partner, but it may also involve masturbation, pornography, paying for sex or engaging in indirect sexual activity online.

What is sex addiction?

Sex addiction is typically characterised by compulsive sexual thoughts and acts. Like all addictions, over time the negative impact on a sufferer's personal life is likely to increase and the addictive behaviour will intensify as it begins to take more and more to achieve the same results or 'fix'. Someone who is addicted to sex (a ‘sex addict’) may feel out of control when it comes to sexual activities, be those with a partner (sex, foreplay), by themselves (masturbation), through accessing pornography, using sex chat lines or visiting sex worker.

While most people can take part in sexual activities or behaviours without causing any significant problems, for some people, their desire or need to do or focus on these activities may begin affecting their day to day lives. Over time, this can lead to problems in their relationships with friends, family, and loved ones; financial difficulties, and may even impact their careers. 

In this video, counsellor David Levy explains more about sex addiction, the benefits of therapy and how to find the right counsellor for you. 

Currently, sex addiction is not an officially recognised medical disorder, meaning there is no agreed-upon clinical definition used for diagnoses and treatment. Despite this, however, considerable research has been conducted in this area, most of which points to addiction developing in a similar way to alcohol and drug addiction.

During sex, the human body releases a cocktail of powerful feel-good chemicals, which produce a 'high' that can become addictive. Similarly to substance abuse, over time the body will become resistant to these 'highs' and the threshold for what's needed in order to achieve that same buzz increases.

Just like an alcohol or drug addiction, between the highs of sexual fulfilment come lows, with many addicts feeling:

  • shame
  • remorse
  • anxiety
  • isolation
  • regret
  • powerless to change

The long-term impact can also be considerable, often leading to relationship and intimacy problems as well as financial, professional, physical and social issues.

Unfortunately, it is these feelings that often result in the sufferer seeking out sex again as a way of escaping. Ironically, sex can often become the pain relief from the problem it created itself.


Can you be addicted to sex?

Is sex addiction real? Currently, experts disagree about whether you can become addicted to sex. Although it is not currently possible to be diagnosed as addicted to sex, some sex and relationship experts believe that some people can become addicted to the ‘high’ (enjoyable feelings and endorphin rush) experienced during sex.

Some people use these feelings to numb other things they may be experiencing, such as negative emotions or difficult experiences, as a way of distracting or ignoring these other problems. This can negatively impact their overall quality of life, and that of those around them. 

In his article, How sex and love addiction can align with problem gambling, counsellor Noel Bell explains more about how sex and love addiction can align with addictions.

Behavioural addictions can so often be misunderstood, which can leave you feeling confused, isolated and lonely. Sex and love addiction share a number of similarities with the issues presented by problem gambling. They each offer the immediate prospect of mood regulation and emotional relief. People who struggle in these areas will experience a gradual loss of control, and greater preoccupation with their chosen activities.

- Noel Bell, MA, PG Dip Psych, UKCP

But why are experts so divided on if sex addiction is real?

While sex addiction is a term we have heard more of in recent years, many still dismiss it as a way of judging those who enjoy sex. Others believe addiction is purely chemical (eg, a physical addiction to nicotine) and not behavioural, or think that others use the term ‘sex addict’ as an excuse for irresponsible behaviour. 

However, many believe that sex addiction actually triggers our brain’s reward system in a similar way to other addictions. As many sex addicts often have other addictions, some believe this could be a behavioural pattern, or that some people are more likely to experience addiction than others. Additionally, behaviours that fall within the sex addiction umbrella can result in significant levels of distress, and disruption in a person’s life, and can cause further issues, meaning that the individual often needs help, support, and to learn new, healthier coping mechanisms. 


How do I know if I'm addicted to sex? Signs and symptoms of sex addiction

While the term 'sex addiction' might imply that someone is addicted specifically to sex itself, it also covers various other forms of sexual behaviour that may be central to or part of the addiction. Some behaviours, signs and symptoms that may indicate an addiction if they become out of control and repetitive include:

  • obsessive sexual thoughts and/or fantasies
  • masturbation
  • pornography
  • cybersex and/or phone sex
  • compulsively seeking sex with multiple partners including strangers or sex workers
  • visiting sex clubs and/or adult bookstores
  • simultaneous affairs
  • unsafe sex or sexual behaviours that put yourself or others in danger
  • partner sexualisation
  • lying or attempting to hide sex-related behaviours from your partner
  • thoughts about or need to have sex interfering with daily life (relationships, work, productivity, friendships)
  • feeling out of control or unable to stop partaking in these behaviours or activities
  • feelings of guilt or remorse after sex
  • repetitively engaging in sexual behaviour while disregarding the potential risk for physical or emotional harm to yourself or others
  • neglecting recreational, occupational and social activities to engage in sexual behaviour
  • experiencing the need to engage in more sexual activity to recreate the same results
  • having intense highs and lows in mood in regards to sexual activity
  • having frequent casual sex 

Compulsive sexual behaviour disorder

While sex addiction is not a recognised disorder, compulsive sexual behaviour disorder (CSBD) has been recognised by the World Health Organisation since 2018. An impulse control disorder rather than an addiction, it has a set of very specific clinical criteria people are required to meet in order to receive a diagnosis. 

Find out more about how you can tell if you are exhibiting compulsive sexual behaviour, as well as the benefits of working with a sex-positive therapist.


What are the risks of sex addiction?

As with all addictions being addicted to sex is not without its consequences, with the impact weighing heavily on an emotional and physical level. Below are some of the ways in which it may have an effect:

Social

Sex addicts can become so preoccupied with sex that emotional distance between themselves and their loved ones begins to form and loss of central relationships may occur as a result. For those in relationships especially, a sex addiction could lead to a family breakdown.

Emotional

Both anxiety and stress are common in addicts. Often these issues have always been there beneath the surface and have perhaps acted as a trigger for the addiction, while other times it will be the addiction itself that prompts them to emerge. It's also common for addicts to feel shame and guilt about their actions - with many going on to develop a low sense of self-worth and in some cases, depression.

Physical

Physical risks include the possibility of contracting a sexually transmitted infection (STIs) or in severe cases genital injury or HIV/AIDs.

Legal

In some extreme cases, sexual addiction may lead sufferers to violate the law. Exhibitionism, obscene phone calls, prostitution, voyeurism and in some cases - sexual harassment can all stem from addictive sexual behaviours. Understandably, any legal action launched against an individual would also put their professional status at risk, demonstrating the reverberating impact this addiction can have if left unaddressed.

Financial/occupational

Debt may arise as a direct impact of the cost of cybersex, phone sex, prostitutes or purchasing adult material, or may happen indirectly as a result of job loss or family breakdown.


What causes sex addiction?

Why some people develop an addiction to sex while others do not is poorly understood at this time, though many experts have speculated that it cannot be attributed to a single cause and is a combination of biological and psychological factors.

Biological

A common school of thought is that some biochemical abnormality or other brain changes may affect the pleasure and reward pathway in the brain.

This pathway leads into the area of the brain responsible for rational thought and judgement, and, in the case of sex addiction, may be telling the addict that sexual behaviour is good, in the same way that food is good when they are hungry.

In addition, sex also produces the feel-good hormones opioids and dopamine - which give pleasure and further accentuate the addiction and preoccupation with sex.

Psychological

On a psychological level, sexual behaviours seem to be less about intimacy for addicts and more about escapism. Sex addicts reportedly use their addiction to seek pleasure that eclipses or allows them to avoid outside stressors such as family issues or problems at work. This pattern shares many similarities with drug and alcohol abuse - all see a reward gained from the addiction but this soon gives way to remorse and guilt.

There is also significant evidence to suggest that sex addicts often come from 'dysfunctional' families and are more likely than non-sex addicts to have suffered abuse during early life.

According to research carried out by Dr Patrick Carnes - a leading expert in the field and author of a number of comprehensive sex addiction studies - 81% of his patients in the advanced stages of recovery had been sexually abused during childhood, while 72% reported other physical abuse and 97% reported emotional abuse.


Sex addiction treatment and help

If either yourself or a loved one are exhibiting any symptoms or signs that you suspect may be indicative of an addiction to sexual behaviours, the first step towards overcoming the problem is to acknowledge it and its potential consequences.

Many addicts will understandably find it extremely difficult to make changes to their behaviour independently; so professional help and a strong support network are essential. As with many other forms of addiction and seeking help, it’s important that the individual themselves is ready to admit that they need help, and is willing to make changes. If they aren’t ready, many if not all forms of treatments may not be effective. 

Recommended ways to tackle sex addiction can include:

Inpatient treatment

In some cases, it may be necessary for addicts to receive inpatient treatment. This involves removing addicts from their daily lives for a significant period of time (e.g. one month), in a bid to help them regain control and begin the process of recovery. Good programmes are created and overseen by medical professionals and counsellors and will generally involve a combination of individual counselling sessions and group therapy.

12-step recovery programmes

A recovery programme is essentially a set of guiding principles that outline a course of action for recovery from an addiction or other behavioural problems. Many sex addiction 12-step recovery programmes are modelled on Alcoholics Anonymous and provide tools and support designed to help you overcome your problem.

Most programmes are carried out in a support group format, where members are not obligated to give up sex entirely but to instead disdain from carrying out obsessive and damaging behaviours.

Hypnosis for sex addiction

For some people, working with a qualified, experienced hypnotherapist can help them to overcome sex addiction. A hypnotherapist may be able to help you to recognise and cope with triggers, and discover healthier ways of coping with the emotions or issues that you are trying to dampen with sex. 

Hypnotherapist Biodun Ogunyemi explains more about the benefits of hypnotherapy in his article, Can hypnosis cure your sex addiction?

Because sex addiction operates under similar principles to other types of addictions, hypnosis can treat the core of the affliction in a direct manner. Hypnotic suggestions combined with self-hypnosis can help to turn the patient away from addiction. Normal sexual behaviour can be restored.

- Biodun Ogunyemi, Certified Master Hypnotherapist

Sex addiction therapy

One-to-one counselling

One-to-one counselling or psychotherapy is a therapeutic process often used as a support avenue for individuals overcoming addiction. It provides an opportunity for clients to vocalise how they are feeling while allowing for a clearer understanding of events and emotions that may have led to this point.

The counsellor is also there to offer strategic interventions, techniques and useful ways to bring about positive change and will work collaboratively with the client in order to help them move forward.

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a type of therapy commonly used within one-to-one counselling for the treatment of addictions. The approach focuses on managing issues by altering the way you think (cognitive) and how you behave (behavioural) in response to those thoughts.

CBT focuses on the present moment (as opposed to examining the root cause of the issue) and is best used for treating specific issues as it focuses on particular problems and how to overcome them.

Group therapy or support groups

Group therapy is a form of psychological therapy that takes place in a group setting as opposed to on a one-to-one basis with the therapist. While not appropriate for all situations, a group dynamic provides individuals with an opportunity to meet, network and feel supported by others who find themselves in a similar situation.

While the therapy format will differ from group to group, commonly members are encouraged to share their experiences with the therapist and group with the purpose of helping individuals to:

  • better understand their own behaviour
  • receive feedback and advice from other members
  • feel supported in their environment

Support groups, while sharing some similarities with group therapy, offer a different kind of support. Run by a qualified professional or someone who has experienced similar issues themselves, support groups focus more on discussions between group members, rather than guided group discussions or activities that are typical in group therapy. 

Find out more about the difference between group therapy and support groups, and how to figure out which one might be right for you. 


What qualifications and experience should a sex addiction counsellor have?

As it stands there are no laws in position outlining what qualifications and/or experience a counsellor must have in order to treat sex addiction. However, it is recommended that you check to see if your therapist is experienced in this area.

A diploma-level qualification (or equivalent) in sex addiction or a related topic will provide assurance and peace of mind that your counsellor has developed the necessary skills. It is also worth noting that because sex addiction is not recognised officially as a medical disorder, there are no approved treatment or diagnosis guidelines in place for its treatment. Despite this, however, recommendations from experts advise that those struggling with sex addiction use similar methods to those used for the treatment of substance abuse. 

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