What is Sex Addiction?
Sex addiction, which can also be called “sexual compulsion,” “hypersexuality,” or “hypersexual disorder,” is a pre-occupation with sex, often involving the obsessive pursuit of sexual encounters (pornography, casual sex, anonymous sex, prostitutes, compulsive masturbation, as examples). Most often a pattern of urges, fantasies, and behaviors continues for a period of at least six months, despite:
- Attempts made to self-correct the problematic sexual behavior
- Promises made to self and others to change the sexual behavior
- Significant, harmful consequences such as relationship instability, emotional chaos, physical health problems, career trouble, and legal issues
Simply stated: Sex Addiction is an ongoing, unmanageable pattern of compulsive sexual fantasy and behavior that is causing problems in a person’s life.
This description of losing control despite attempts and promises to make changes and obvious harmful consequences is accurate for almost all addictions.
Most people recognize and accept substance abuse as addiction. Many question how someone can be addicted to sex and also question other behavioral addictions. (sometimes referred to as process addictions) Sex addiction definitely meets the generally accepted description above.
The American Society of Addiction Medicine states that addiction is: “Reflected in an individual pathologically pursuing reward and/or relief by substance use and other behaviors.” Their use of the word behaviors certainly supports compulsive sexual behavior as being an addiction, just as gambling, some eating disorders, and recently online gaming have been classified as addictions.
It should be noted that the American Medical Association did not classify alcoholism as a disease until 1956, 21 years after the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous first recognized it as such. Just because something is not widely embraced as an addiction does not mean that it isn’t one, it just means that the medical and psychiatric professions are taking a while to catch up with what the people who are experiencing the addiction already know.
The Brain on Sex
Much of the confusion about whether sex or porn can be an addiction, centers around the fact that sex is a healthy, even essential (for reproduction) activity that most of the population has no trouble controlling.
Just as eating is essential to the survival of an individual, sex is essential to the survival of the species. Accordingly, our brains are conditioned to encourage the participation in those activities. That encouragement happens because of a chemical called dopamine being released and triggering the pleasure center of the brain. When that happens, a person feels pleasure and a sense of well-being.
It is the same thing that happens when a person drinks alcohol or uses drugs. There is a rush, or high and an accompanying feeling of pleasure.
Individuals who are dealing with emotional pain, stress, or low self-esteem as examples, can quickly eliminate those feelings by engaging in any activity which stimulates the production of dopamine. When that occurs, the unpleasant feelings go away and are replaced with euphoria and a sense of comfort.
Repeating the behavior trains the brain that the way to feel better is to use more drugs or alcohol, or sexual behavior so the feelings will go away.
Soon the person realizes that the way to eliminate discomfort or “numb out” is to use more of the substance or engage in more of the behavior.
How to Decide
If you are worried or curious about your sexual behavior, or if you are worried about someone else’s sexual behavior, there is a self-assessment on this site which you can access by clicking here.
If you already know you need help in this area of your life take our Sexual Compulsivity Program.