Sex Addiction: Causes, Effects & Treatment Options

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How to Recognize & Treat Sex Addiction

Sex addiction is a real disorder characterized by compulsive thoughts and behaviors. Understanding sex addiction, also called hypersexual disorder, is easier when considered in the context of alcoholism or drug addiction. As the behavior intensifies, the consequences on the struggling individual and his or her family grow worse. To get the same high, the addicted individual must escalate the behavior. Quitting sex suddenly leads to uncomfortable symptoms and often anxious or depressed behavior. This isn’t surprising, because most individuals with hypersexual disorder also suffer from anxiety or depression, and they may use sex or sexual acts to self-treat underlying tension.

The difference between sex addiction and other kinds of addictions is the innate human need to reproduce. An individual who never uses heroin or alcohol, for example, can easily live a happy and productive lifestyle without ever feeling like he or she is missing out on something vital. The same cannot be said for an individual who does not have sex. Balancing the natural human need for sexual activity with the thoughts and acts that characterize compulsive behavior is the key to identifying a true addiction to sex.

2_55percent-sex-offendersIndividuals demonstrate varying levels of addiction. Some may exhibit compulsive behaviors such as masturbation or pornography, while others progress to illegal activities or violent crime. Nevertheless, there is a link between violent sexual crime and sex addiction. About 55 percent of convicted sex offenders meet the criteria for sex addiction. In addition, about 71 percent of individuals convicted of child molestation meet the criteria for sex addiction.

For individuals with sex addiction, and especially for those who commit sexual crimes, gratification is not the goal. Instead, a desire for control, power or revenge, or a need to express anger or dominance is the motivation. The sex-addicted individual continues to engage in hypersexual activity despite significant risks to health, reputation and finances.

Signs and Symptoms of Sex Addiction

Researchers continue to debate and refine the current definition of sex addiction. By using substance addiction guidelines, clinicians have identified certain behaviors and signs sex addiction may be a problem. These behaviors and signs include:

  • Having sex with multiple partners. Individuals with sex addiction will engage in intercourse more often than they intend to, including with high-risk partners who may transmit a sexually transmitted disease.
  • Compulsive masturbation. This behavior may occur impulsively in inappropriate environments.
  • Viewing pornography obsessively. Individuals with sex addiction may spend hours a day watching online pornography. As the addiction grows, the type of porn watched has to increase in intensity, or they won’t be able to find satisfaction. Pornography that once would have disgusted now becomes appealing. This may include child pornography or violent pornography, and viewing may lead to acting out sexually in illegal ways. It may also include searching for willing partners online.
  • Having obsessive thoughts. Individual might become so obsessed they become preoccupied with sex. They may try to stop thinking about it or express a desire to stop, but self-imposed limits won’t succeed.
  • Ignoring important relationships and obligations to focus on sex. Addicted individuals often ignore important events and people, including work and personal obligations, because they are obsessed with sex. If they cannot have sex when desired, they may become angry or irritable.
  • Continuing to have multiple partners despite serious consequences. Individuals who continue to pursue sexual gratification despite relationship problems, work problems, health problems and legal problems demonstrate signs of addiction. Possible health problems may include contracting a sexually transmitted disease such as HIV/AIDS, chlamydia or gonorrhea.
  • Hiring sex workers or engaging in other illegal activity. Eventually, the constant pursuit of sexual activity may lead to hiring a sex worker. In some cases, those addicted to sex may attempt rape.
  • Organizing life around sexual activities. When the only thing that matters is having sex, and other important obligations are second in importance, the individual may be a sex addict.

If you identify with three or more of these behaviors, that may indicate sex addiction.

Identifying Hypersexual Disorder Through Diagnostic Criteria

The American Psychiatric Association identified criteria professionals can use to diagnose hypersexual disorder, which apply only to individuals over the age of 18.

  • The individual experiences repetitive sexual fantasies, urges and behaviors that are intense in nature. The criteria for these fantasies, urges and behaviors include: excessive time spent planning for and engaging in sexual behavior; repetitively engaging in damaging sexual behavior as a result of feeling anxious, depressed, bored or irritable; repetitively engaging in damaging sexual behavior because of stress; repetitively attempting to reduce damaging sexual behavior without success; and repetitively engaging in damaging sexual behavior despite harm to oneself or others.
  • The individual experiences significant personal problems as a result of repetitive damaging sexual behaviors and urges. This may include problems with relationships, work or health.
  • The damaging sexual behaviors are not a result of the effects of mania, drugs or medications.
  • Damaging sexual behaviors may include pornography, cybersex, masturbation, sexual activity with consenting adults, phone sex or visiting strip clubs.

Causes of Sex Addiction

It might seem simple to chalk up an individual with sex addiction as someone who simply became obsessed or addicted to pornography because of lacking interpersonal relationships. Sex addiction is about far more than gratification.

Instead, these individuals typically demonstrate signs of mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression. Some evidence suggests hypersexual disorder is similar in many respects to obsessive compulsive disorder, while other evidence indicates it could relate to abnormal levels of certain pleasure-causing brain chemicals. Attention and emotion regulation problems could also contribute to sex addiction.

Individuals with addiction — no matter what kind — share certain problems. The first is that the brain in the addicted individual associates the negative behavior with powerful feelings of reward and survival. As the addictive behavior continues, it affects the individual’s ability to make decisions and think rationally. Without the addictive behavior (or substance), the brain cannot help the body feel normal. It compels the individual to have sex while ignoring life-altering consequences. Indeed, individuals who engage in risky sexual behavior report a euphoria others do not experience. Achieving this feeling again becomes the most important goal.

Also like substance abusers, a sex-addicted individual is more likely to have a dysfunctional family or come from a background of abuse. For example:

  • Eighty-two percent of respondents in one study reported having been sexually abused as children.
  • Individuals with sex addiction are more likely to describe their parents as rigid, distant or uncaring.
  • Individuals with sex addiction are more likely to have family members who abuse drugs or alcohol.
  • Individuals with sex addiction are more likely to abuse drugs or alcohol themselves.

There are social causes as well. Some individuals who report feelings of rejection may act out in unhealthy ways to achieve sexual gratification. Individuals who feel socially isolated are also more likely to demonstrate signs of sex addiction, and they are more likely to develop other problems such as depression. Conversely, people who spend time with others who view pornography or act out in unhealthy, sexually violent or suggestive ways, are more likely to develop an addiction to sex.

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Effects and Risks of Sex Addiction

Sex addiction leads to a wide range of serious and even life-threatening problems. Not every individual who is addicted to sex demonstrates the same behaviors. For example, some might find themselves compulsively viewing pornography or engaging in masturbation or fantasy. Others may hire prostitutes, become an exhibitionist or spy on others. The most violent individuals may behave sadistically or masochistically.

As the behavior worsens, some individuals may find themselves diagnosed with a sexually transmitted disease. These diseases may include:

  • HIV/AIDS. This life-threatening condition affects gay and straight men and women around the world. It damages the immune system and prevents the body from fighting disease. HIV/AIDS is transmittable through sexual contact and IV-drug use. Although an individual with HIV/AIDS may go into remission, it is not curable. Individuals in committed relationships who practice safe sex are far less likely to contract HIV/AIDS.
  • Chlamydia. Chlamydia is a curable disease if caught in time. When left untreated, it negatively affects a woman’s ability to get pregnant. Chlamydia can also cause ectopic pregnancy, which can be fatal. It is transmittable via sexual contact. As with HIV/AIDS, people in long-term, committed relationships are less likely to develop chlamydia.
  • Gonorrhea. Commonly known as the “clap,” gonorrhea is a bacterial infection affecting the urethra, rectum or throat. It is commonly identified by a yellowish discharge and severe itching and burning, although about half of sufferers are asymptomatic. Gonorrhea can lead to life-threatening infections, sterility, heart problems, arthritis eye problems and more if it is not treated.
  • Syphilis. Syphilis is a bacterial sexually transmitted infection, which is passed when skin comes in contact with a sore. The infection can lie dormant in the body for decades without becoming active. It is curable with antibiotics, but can threaten life without treatment.
  • Genital Herpes. Herpes is a sexually transmitted virus that sometimes causes highly contagious blisters. It may also be asymptomatic. Individuals who have genital herpes may still spread the disease even if they are asymptomatic. There is no cure for genital herpes, but condoms may reduce the spread of the disease.

Health problems are only part of the issues faced by individuals with sex addiction. Divorce is an extremely common result of sex addiction. Legal and work problems are also common. Psychologically, individuals with sex addiction may experience profound feelings of shame, distress and inadequacy. When left untreated, these feelings can grow into bigger problems, including substance abuse, depression and anxiety. Treating these feelings, as well as any co-occurring mental health disorder, gives the sex-addicted individual a path back to normalcy.

Preparing for Sex Addiction Treatment

Quitting sex addiction isn’t easy. Without intervention from a qualified professional, obsessive thought patterns will continue unabated. Uncomfortable emotional withdrawal symptoms include feelings such as cravings, anxiety or depression, irritability, restlessness and overwhelming shame. The symptoms you or your loved one may feel when attempting to quit may differ from what another sex-addicted person goes through.

4_64percent-alcohol-problemsSome estimates suggest up to 64 percent of individuals with sex addiction also have a drug or alcohol problem. If you also use substances, you may also experience physical withdrawal symptoms. If alcohol abuse is a problem, never quit without professional help. Severe alcohol withdrawal can be fatal.

When you get help for sex addiction, your treatment provider will also evaluate you for depression. About 40 percent of people who demonstrate signs of hypersexual disorder also meet the criteria for disorders such as depression. Common depression symptoms include feeling persistently sad, empty or hopeless. You might also feel guilty or helpless and lose interest in activities you once found enjoyable. Ongoing fatigue and sleep problems, difficulty concentrating and irritability are also common. If you think about or have attempted suicide, the time to get help with sex addiction is now. Psychotherapy, in addition to a non-addictive antidepressant, helps many people with depression and addiction lead satisfying and safe lifestyles.

If you are concerned about a loved one who you feel needs to get help for sex addiction, consider intervention as your first step. During intervention, you and others who have been affected by your loved one’s addiction will confront him or her about the behavior.

Intervention requires careful planning. Never hold an intervention on the spur of the moment. A professional interventionist can help you plan what to say and how to say it. The interventionist can also help you choose the participants, select a time and lead the meeting. When the meeting ends, your loved one should enroll in a treatment program. Not every intervention appears successful right away, but it can help convince your loved one treatment is necessary.

You’ll also need to choose a treatment program. There are several types of plans, both outpatient and inpatient. Outpatient therapy may be suitable for an individual who is in the beginning stages of addiction or who has recently completed inpatient care. Inpatient treatment is appropriate for severely addicted people and those who also have a substance abuse disorder or mental health disorder.

If the program you choose is a holistic treatment center, your loved one will get sex addiction help in addition to care for depression or anxiety, substance abuse, family therapy, life skills training, spiritual counseling and more. What program the person you care about receives depends on the specific issues. High-quality holistic treatment programs plan customized regimens to meet the unique needs and experiences of each client.

After inpatient treatment, your loved one will need to have a post-care plan. Addiction is a chronic disease, and staying sober requires a lifetime of vigilance. That means continuing with counseling or therapy and building a strong network of loved ones who will continue to support sobriety goals.

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Get Help for Sex Addiction

While sex addiction can be difficult to treat, there is help available. Speak with your healthcare professional or research your options online to find a treatment center that can address your specific needs.

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Reviewed By:

Dr. John Elgin Wilkaitis

Dr. John Elgin Wilkaitis completed medical school at The University of Mississippi Medical Center and residency in general psychiatry in 2003. He completed a fellowship in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital in 2005. Following this, he served as Chief Medical Officer for 10 years of Brentwood Behavioral Healthcare a private health system including a 105-bed hospital, residential treatment, and intensive outpatient services.

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