You’re at the supermarket with your husband. While you’re in the checkout queue, you pick up your mobile and begin scrolling through the dozens of contacts. Although you have already managed to have sex with 4 of them in the last 24 hours, you’re desperate to arrange another hook-up. You remember calling in sick to work recently and cancelling meeting friends to accommodate sex. Does any of this sound familiar?
What is Sex Addiction?
Although most people associate the condition with men, sex addiction can affect all genders equally. However, females report greater shame, possibly due to cultural expectations (‘boys will be boys’ and ‘good girls don’t do this, that and the other’…)
Compulsive sexual behaviour diagnoses linked to sex addiction were first recognised over 40 years ago. However, due to the associated stigma, this controversial disorder often remains hidden. Psychology studies have shown brain changes within the reward centre of the brain, associated with addiction, illustrating the powerful drives motivating behaviour in those with sex addiction.
Sex addiction* can be described as engaging in persistent and escalating patterns of sexual behaviour, despite increasing negative consequences to self and others including threats to health, finance, relationships and even the risk of arrest. This encapsulates the sheer desperateness of the situation. As with all addictions, the negative impacts increase as the addiction increases.
Sex addiction can be any sexual behaviour that feels ‘out of control’. It’s not necessarily the behaviour itself that constitutes the addiction, rather the dependency on it. The addicted person gradually has to intensify the behaviour to achieve the same results. Most will have tried to stop or limit their behaviour countless times, but despite knowing the risks, they can’t seem to.
For some, the behaviour does not venture beyond compulsive masturbation, phone/ computer sex or extensive pornography consumption; but for others, it can progress to illegal activities…exhibitionism, voyeurism, obscene communications and in some extreme cases, abuse.
Signs and Symptoms of Sex Addiction
As no person is the same, the behaviours will vary. However, there are common behaviours attributed to someone in this position. For example, due to an excessive sex drive, they will be preoccupied with having sex. This may interfere with daily life, such as work performance. It would not be unusual to find those addicted engaged in compulsive relations with strangers.
As with anyone who battles addiction, they may lie, in an attempt to cover their behaviours. They may become skilled at hiding their behaviour for fear of being found out. They may lie outright about their activities or partake at times and places they know they won’t be discovered. Addicts describe the compulsion as moments where they feel they are being controlled by a force greater than themselves.
Warning signs include:
- Pornography (legal or illegal)
- Excessive masturbation
- Exhibitionism/voyeurism Sadistic/ Excessive sexual pursuits
- Increasing secrecy, isolation, moodiness, responsibility avoidance
- Increased irritability, tiredness, depression, anxiety
Although the above signs can signal sex addiction, it’s important to remember there may be other explanations for these behaviours.
Emotional Symptoms of Sex Addiction
Anyone in the grip of addiction will feel guilt after engaging in the activity. The behaviour may have negative personal and professional consequences, yet unable to stop, they pursue their next high. This behaviour pattern gradually erodes away their self-worth. An addict will live with feelings of depression, shame and hopelessness.
What About Life Partners?
Although addiction to sex is a genuine condition, some people may claim to have a sex addiction as a way to explain infidelity in a relationship. However, genuine sexual addiction in a relationship can be distressing for both parties. Partners may experience shock, hurt and anger at the deceit. They may feel betrayed in a way usually attributed to an affair. On top of the effort to rebuild trust is the realisation they may have to face a future of trying to support their partner through recovery. Some partners may have no idea about their partner’s addiction (such is the skill of an addict to hide their disorder). The point of discovery may be the point when the addict breaks down, finally admitting their struggle or the moment a partner uncovers the truth. Partners may experience self-doubt as questions bubble up, “Why did my partner satisfy their needs outside our relationship?”
The Difference Between Sex Addiction and a High Sex Drive
It’s important to remember that enjoying sex does not constitute sex addiction. **Enjoying a healthy activity, such as sex is completely normal. Even cheating or engaging with prostitutes, whilst this may cause relationship problems, it doesn’t necessarily equal sex addiction. Also, differences in sex drive levels between partners doesn’t mean one person has a sex addiction. An addiction, like any addiction, is the point where you are having sex not for pleasure, but to help you fall asleep, face the day and cope with withdrawal symptoms. It’s important to recognise the differences.
What Are the Dangers of Sex Addiction?
If protection is absent, obvious risks would include contraction of sexually transmitted infections and diseases, possibly leading to serious long-term health problems. Continually putting yourself in vulnerable positions may lead to a greater risk of attack. As mentioned previously, sex addiction may destroy relationships. At the sharp end of the point, there are connections between sex addiction and sex offending. Just over half of convicted sex offenders are diagnosed sex addicts. The tragedy is, the problems this sector of society suffers are so severe, imprisonment may be the only option to ensure society’s safety. However, sex addicts will not necessarily become sex offenders. Equally, not all sex offenders are sex addicts.
What’s Behind Sex Addiction?
Sex addiction has been linked to insecure attachment, poor impulse control and childhood abuse. The behaviour, developed as a coping mechanism, is an attempt to numb painful emotions. The growth of internet technology means increased accessibility to graphic content. Chronic consumption plays an influential role and early, persistent exposure to sexual content may result in ‘sexual conditioning’. Sex addicts may act out of a need for control as a perverted expression of anger.
What Should You Do if You Think You or Your Partner Has a Problem?
A vital component for any relationship is communication. If you feel there is a problem, as hard as it may be, the courageous and sometimes relationship-saving action to take is to voice your concerns. If your partner has previously struggled with addictions and you’re aware of their pornography consumption, it may be worth asking if their use has increased or become problematic.
What if Both Partners Have a Sex Addiction?
You may think on some level, this would be the perfect match. Admittedly, while each may understand the other in a way other partners may not, the problems experienced would be exacerbated. Just as it would be a toxic combination of both partners were addicted to a class A substance, both partners addicted to sex could create an enabling environment fueled with denial which only serves to perpetuate the problem. Many addicts experience a period of denial before entering the realms of acceptance. The first step is to accept the problem. The next step is to treat the issue with the importance it warrants (and each other with the respect you both deserve) and source expert assistance. It’s impossible to confirm sex addiction without a professional assessment.
What if My Partner Won’t Accept They Have a Problem?
If your partner can’t accept they may have a problem it’s unlikely they would benefit from therapy. However, it’s still beneficial to reach out for personal support. It may transpire the problem is not addiction, but something else affecting your sexual relationship.
Where To Turn?
This may be the most difficult thing you’ve ever done. To admit to yourself and/or your partner there’s a problem is the first step. Addiction is nothing to feel ashamed of, no matter what societal messages may have you believe. Addiction is a powerful controller that can be too big to handle alone. That is not a sign of ineffectiveness or weakness on yours or your loved ones part, rather an indication of exactly how difficult an addiction can be to handle alone. Please remember you are not alone. There are many others battling the same addiction. With the right help, it’s possible to overcome the obstacles to achieve recovery.
An option could be a therapist (ideally a sex addiction specialist). An assessment will reveal whether or not sex addiction therapy would be beneficial. Some people may assume only the person with the addiction needs help. However, you can seek help as a partner. Sourcing support for yourself will harness the strength you need to support yourself and your partner. The benefits of speaking with a therapist about how to move forward can be life-changing. Successful treatments involve individual therapy for the addicted person, individual therapy for the partner and couples therapy to support the relationship.
What is Sex Therapy?
The term ‘sex therapy’ may sound confusing, but don’t worry…everyone keeps their clothes on! The sex therapist won’t have sex with anyone or physically demonstrate how to have sex! Sex therapy, like any other psychotherapy, treats the condition by talking through feelings. You can work with your therapist to gain self-awareness and find healthy coping mechanisms. Whereas other addictions involve discontinuing the use of the substance, the goal of sex addiction treatment is not to banish sex. The aim is to develop a healthy attitude towards it. The therapist’s role is not to take sides or to help persuade anyone. Their role is to help you explore personal challenges and guide you towards finding your own way through.
Get in touch
The Henry Centre for Counselling and Psychotherapy
The Old Station House,
*The National Council on Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity
**professor of neuroscience, David J. Linden, in his 2011 book ‘The Compass of Pleasure’