What is Sexual Addiction?

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 |  April 29, 2020
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Sexual addiction, also known as hypersexuality, is a serious yet largely undefined problem. It is not yet recognized as a separate disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) but can be diagnosed using the catch-all category of “other specified sexual dysfunction.” As a result, its exact definition, prevalence, and treatment are all up for debate within the scientific community. Let’s take a closer look at this sensitive and complicated issue.

The definition of sexual addiction depends upon who you ask. Some scientists say there is not yet enough evidence to place hypersexuality within an addictions model, concluding that there are underlying problems, such as depression and anxiety, that may better explain hypersexual behavior. However, many people that study the problem tend to believe it should be considered in the same vein as other addictions, including substance abuse and gambling. The International Classification of Diseases, in its upcoming 11th edition (ICD-11), classifies sexual addiction (termed sexual compulsive disorder) with other behavioral impulse control disorders. Overall, as more research is performed in the field of sexual behavior, it appears that the medical community is trending toward recognizing hypersexual behavior as an addiction.

For a more straightforward definition, the National Council on Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity defines sexual addiction as follows: “engaging in persistent and escalating patterns of sexual behavior acted out despite increasing negative consequences to self and others.” Whatever its precise source and definition, everyone seems to agree that it a real and significant problem.

Symptoms of Sexual Addiction

Since there are no universal criteria, you might be wondering how you would know if you have a sexual addiction. The following are possible symptoms:

  • Chronic sexual thoughts and fantasies
  • Lying to cover-up sexual behavior
  • Preoccupation with sex disrupts daily functioning
  • Inability to stop or limit sexual activity
  • Engage in sexual behavior despite the knowledge that it may cause physical or psychological harm to others
  • Feeling remorse or guilt after sexual behavior
  • Feeling irritable when unable to engage in sexual activity
  • Increasing severity and frequency of an already significant amount of sexual activity
  • A desire to seek out multiple sexual partners
  • Negative professional and personal consequences of sexual behavior.
  • Increasing severity and frequency of an already significant amount of sexual activity

Treatment for Sexual Addiction

As an emerging diagnosis, the treatment for sexual addiction is not as well explored as many others. However, most of the treatment options use an addictions model and are similar to those you would find for substance abuse disorders.

Inpatient Settings

You might seek an inpatient placement for sexual addiction for the same reasons as someone with a drug dependency: you need to remove yourself from your environment in an effort to get clean. Sometimes a reset requires 24-hour supervision and intensive treatment. Just as there is a place to detox for substance abuse, there is rehab for sexual addictions.

Individual Therapy

Therapists that work with sexual addiction are much harder to find than someone who treats other psychiatric disorders. It has been estimated that there are less than 150 therapists in the United States that specialize in its treatment. That means you may have to do some extra leg work to find a suitable therapist but, with effort, you can hopefully find someone in your area or through teletherapy.

Family/Couples Therapy

Sexual addiction can take a considerable toll on families and romantic relationships. Issues of infidelity, pornography usage, and criminal activity are sure to test the strongest of relationships. If partners and family members are even willing to try and offer support and assistance, they will undoubtedly need some psychotherapy to work through their issues.

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

Almost all treatment for sexual addiction comes from a CBT orientation. CBT helps an individual to identify their triggers in order to improve coping mechanisms. It also aims to change maladaptive thoughts and behaviors to prevent future relapse. As with other CBT interventions, there are several workbooks for people to use as a self-help resource or in accordance with psychotherapy.

Support Groups

There is an irony with sexual addiction. The same people you have hurt the most are likely the ones you will look toward for support. Regrettably, some sexual behavior can be so damaging that partners and family will abandon you rather than offer assistance. That is why support groups can be such a valuable resource.

Similar to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), there are Sex Addicts Anonymous (SAA) and Sexaholics Anonymous (SA) support groups for people with sexual addictions. These groups use a 12-step model and are offered across the United States. Unlike most AA groups, support groups for sexual addiction do not promote a total abstinence model. Sexual activity, when done in a healthy manner, is considered to be normal human behavior and is not to be avoided. Almost all other components of the group, however, will seem familiar to anyone who has participated in an AA group format. 

The Most Damaging Addiction?

I could make a convincing argument that sexual addiction has more severe consequences than other addictions. Let me be clear, I am not minimizing the impact of other addictions. There is no doubt that drug and alcohol addiction is highly damaging. I mean, people are dying every day from those issues. But people are much less forgiving of deviant sexual activity than almost any other behavior. In our society, it is commonplace to give someone a second (and third) chance for substance abuse problems. People tend to not have much compassion for infidelity and frequenting prostitutes. Individuals with sexual addiction are seen as perverts and degenerates rather than someone who needs love and support. The truth is that you are much more likely to be abandoned for having a sexual addiction than for any other dependency problem. 

The scariest part is that most people don’t even know the symptoms of sexual addiction. After all, how are you supposed to know that you have a problem if you are not educated on the subject? Do you even know what is considered “normal” sexual interest and activity? In addition, sex is something that people don’t talk about much. It is considered a private matter. It is impossible to get feedback and support over a topic that is rarely openly discussed. That is why it so critical to act before it is too late. Sexual addiction gets much less attention and empathy than other disorders but it can be just as devastating. If you believe yourself or a loved one may have a sexual addiction please seek professional help immediately.

MS Broudy is a psychologist, writer, and consultant. He has a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology and a master’s degree in Social Psychology. He has spent over 20 years providing therapy and assessment services for a diverse set of clients. MS specializes in writing about mental health, parenting, and wellness. He has his own blog, mentalspokes.com, where he writes about psychological issues.
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