Sex addiction

For centuries, experts believed that the human desire for sex was primarily powered by our innate drive to procreate as a species. Today however, we now know that while there is significant truth in the age-old reproduction theory, there are other key motivators at play.

From goal-based motivation to reproduce through to a physical desire for pleasure or an emotional yearning to express love, commitment or gratitude through sex - the act is inextricably linked and intertwined on multiple levels with our emotions, relationships and with society overall. In short, for the majority, sexual activity is an inevitable and natural part of our existence.

While for most people these behaviours will sit within everyday life without causing any issues, for others these urges become uncontrollable and addictive behaviour can develop - often leading to personal, financial and professional problems.

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, as the disorder progresses over time the negative impact on a sufferer's personal life is likely to increase and the addictive behaviour will intensify as it begins take more and more to achieve the same results or 'fix'.

As it stands, 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 the fact that the addiction develops 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 is also 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.

Sex addiction symptoms and signs

While the term 'sex addiction' might imply that a sufferer 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 that may indicate an addiction should they become out of control and repetitive are as follows:

  • masturbation
  • pornography
  • cyber sex and/or phone sex
  • seeking sex with prostitutes
  • sex clubs and/or adult bookstores
  • simultaneous affairs
  • unsafe sex
  • partner sexualisation.

In terms of signs and symptoms, official diagnosis criteria do not currently exist. Leading clinicians however, have put together some general guidelines for the disorder, based upon criteria for clinical dependency. The criteria include the following:

  • Having frequent, casual sex.
  • Having sexual fantasies, behaviours and urges in response to stressful life events.
  • Feeling unable to control or reduce your behaviour, despite knowing there may be consequences.
  • Persistent pursuit of high risk or potentially destructive behaviour.
  • 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.
  • Suffering from intense 'highs' and 'lows' in mood surrounding sexual activity.
  • Feeling that you need to engage in more and more sexual activity in order to produce the same results.
  • Feeling shame and/or guilt after engaging in sexual activity.

The risks

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 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 it's 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. Below are some recommended treatment avenues that could help to encourage a healthier lifestyle:

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 principals 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 distain from carrying out obsessive and damaging behaviours.

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

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.

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 a sex addiction use similar methods to those used for the treatment of substance abuse. For example: couples and/or family therapy and psychological treatments such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

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