Sex Addiction: Causes, Symptoms, Treatment Options & 9 Common Myths

by the Hope Rehab Team

What is Sex Addiction?

Sex Addiction: The morning after - there is a way outThere is a difference between a healthy desire to have sex and an obsessional need to keep engaging in this activity. Sex addiction is not the same as enjoying sex. Even if people copulate five times a day on a regular basis, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are addicted. It is a compulsive need to engage in this activity despite obvious negative consequences that makes it an addiction. It is the fact that sex has now become a source of shame, remorse, and guilt that makes it a problem that needs to be dealt with.

Progression & Denial: Stages of Sex Addiction

People who have become addicted to sex will usually have experienced a progression of their condition. This means they now need to engage in more frequent, more intense, or riskier sexual activity to get the same feeling of release they enjoyed previously. This progression also means the negative effects of the behavior increase over time. The addictive process means people can be in a state of denial about this progression for a long time, but eventually, the negative consequences can become so obvious that they are unable to ignore them – it is at this ‘rock bottom’ that people will often become willing to seek help.

Sex addiction isn’t just about copulating with a partner. It could involve an obsession with masturbation, pornography, sexual fantasies, engaging in voyeurism or indecent exposure. In fact, some people may not have had sex with a partner in a long time, but they would still be considered addicted because of their obsession with the activity.

What is a Sex Addict Called? What is the Difference between Sex Addiction and Hypersexual Disorder?

Hypersexual disorder is the term most often used by professionals when talking about sex addiction. This condition can also be referred to as:

  • compulsive sexual behaviour

  • hypersexual disorder

  • satyriasis (for men)

  • sexual compulsivity

  • hypersexuality

  • nymphomania (for females)

How Much of a Problem is Sex Addiction? – Sex Addiction Statistics

Statistics from the Society for the Advancement of Sexual Health suggest as many as 9 million people dealing with this condition in the US alone. There has also been a significant increase in recent years of people looking for professional help for this problem in countries such as the UK and Australia.

What is the Difference between Sex and Love Addiction?

Romantic love and sex often go together, but it is certainly possible to have one without the other. For those who are dealing with hypersexual disorder, the focus will be on the sex act rather than on developing a long-term loving relationship. This is different from a love addiction where the individual develops an obsessive need ‘to be in love’. In this case, the person uses romance to escape their problems, and their need to be in love can mean putting up with unhealthy relationships.

Is Sex Addiction Real?

The claim that humans can become addicted to sex in the same way as they can to drugs is still a controversial one. Cynics might view it as an attempt to justify ‘bad behaviour’. This kind of judgmental attitude is easily observed whenever a celebrity is caught up in a sex scandal and claims of sex addiction are offered.

Hypersexual disorder will soon be officially recognised as a condition in the DSM-5

We tend to associate addiction with the abuse of chemical substances, but there is a growing consensus among experts that it is also possible to become addicted to behaviours. A good example of this would be gambling addiction which is listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – Fifth Edition (DSM-5). Sexual addiction has not yet managed to make it into the DSM-5, but it is likely that hypersexual disorder will be officially recognised as a condition in the next edition.

Other Conditions Can Produce Similar Symptoms to Sex Addiction

One of the difficulties with describing sex addiction is there are other conditions that produce similar symptoms. Engaging in risky sex can also be a symptom of a personality disorder (e.g. borderline personality) or bipolar disorder (especially during the manic stage). It can also be a form of self-harm or a reaction to low self-esteem. Those who have experienced childhood sexual trauma can engage in damaging sexual behaviour in an unconscious effort to regain control. Substance abusers experience disinhibition and lose the ability to make good decisions when intoxicated, and this too can encourage unhealthy sexual behaviour.

What are the Symptoms of Sex Addiction?

  • Obsessively thinking about sex so that it becomes the most important part of your life

  • Engaging in risky sex with strangers (e.g. not using a condom)

  • Inability to stay faithful

  • Regular one-night stands

  • Becoming defensive when sexual behavior is questioned

  • Breaking the law to have sex (e.g. prostitution)

  • Engaging in sexual activity despite negative consequences (e.g. it ruins your relationships)

  • Making promises to yourself or others to change but being unable to keep these promises

  • Feeling guilty about sexual activity

  • Taking advantage of other people to have sex

  • Compulsive masturbation

  • Engaging in sexual activity to deal with stress

What are the Potential Negative Consequences of Sex Addiction?

  • It destroys relationships

  • Increased risk of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs)

  • It can involve exploitative sex

  • It can lead to unplanned pregnancies
  • It can lead to low self-esteem, guilt, and depression

  • It can encourage people to break the law

  • It destroys reputations

What Are the Causes of Sex Addiction?

There are different theories to explain why some people develop hypersexual disorder, but there is not yet one definitive explanation. Some people dealing with this condition respond well to antidepressants, so there is obviously some type of biochemical abnormality. Sex is a pleasurable activity, so like other addictions, it is likely to involve the brain’s internal rewards system. It is also likely that some people have a genetic disposition that makes them more prone to being impulsive and taking risks.

Environmental factors play a significant role in the development of sex addiction. It can be a response to childhood trauma (physical, emotional, or sexual) or exposure at a young age to inappropriate sexual material (e.g. porno movies). It is also common for those who develop this condition to have poor impulse control which may be due to some underlying condition such as bipolar disorder.

What are the Sex Addiction Treatment Options?

Hypersexual disorder differs from many other types of addiction in that the final goal is usually not going to be lifelong abstinence. People who are taking part in a treatment program will be expected to refrain from sexual activity, but the eventual aim is for the individual to be able to have a ‘healthy’ sex life.

There are several treatment options that are effective for helping people overcome hypersexual disorder including:

Sex Addicts Anonymous for Sex Addiction

Sex Addicts Anonymous (SAA) is a 12-step program like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. The first step is for the individual to admit that he/she is ‘powerless over addictive sexual activity’. Once members can accept this state of personal powerless, they are then encouraged to seek strength they need to change by turning to a ‘higher power’ (this could be God or even the power of the group). The SAA approach can work well because there is so much support and understanding form other members of the group.

Therapy for Sex Addiction

A competent therapist will be able to help the client examine the underlying issues that are driving the addictive behavior. This could mean looking at childhood trauma or developing more effective coping strategies for dealing with life. It can take a bit of time for trust to develop between the therapist and a client, so this type of treatment usually needs to be ongoing for at least a few months. One of the benefits of going to rehab is there can be more of an opportunity for regular one-to-one therapy sessions.

Mindfulness for Sex Addiction

The goal of mindfulness is to help us see that we do not need to be a servant to our addictive impulses. This practice makes it possible to develop a new relationship with the thoughts and feelings that drive unhealthy behavior. It is our inability to deal with life that is behind the impulse to escape through drugs or sex, so it is vital that we find a more positive way of dealing with things. Mindfulness is not only effective at dealing with addiction, but it also provides the tools we need for dealing with stress, negative thinking, and low mood. It means we can reach a point where we experience such ease in the world that the no longer feel the need to escape.

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy for Sex Addiction

CBT is an approach that focuses on the irrational thoughts and beliefs that go hand-in-hand with the addictive behavior. The idea is that if we look more closely at these thoughts using a tool such as ABC model, we will then be able to change our behavior more easily.

Rehab for Sex Addiction

If dealing with a sex addiction was just a case of having enough will-power or choosing to behave better there would be no need for rehab. The reality for those dealing with the condition is that they feel powerless and unable to keep their promises to change – it is not so much an issue with stopping the behavior but with staying stopped. This means it can be incredibly difficult for people to succeed in long-term recovery without sufficient support.

Entering a rehab likely offers the best chance of lasting recovery from hypersexual disorder. This is a serious condition that can destroy lives just like any other type of addiction. An inpatient program means the individual can be supported through the difficult early days of recovery, and it gives them the opportunity to pick up the tools they need to sustain this change. This intensive therapeutic approach also means that the individual has the opportunity to dig down into the underlying issues driving the behavior.

Do sex addicts have an addictive personality?

Research published by the Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity Journal current found that 83 % of those with hypersexual disorder were also dealing with other addictions such as alcoholism. Here at Hope, we have found that a significant number of our clients who have come for help with a drug addiction also have issues around sex. There is also a risk that those who give up one addiction will turn to sex as a new way to escape life.

This tendency for people with one addiction to be at high risk of other addictions is sometimes blamed on them having an ‘addictive personality’. There do seem to be certain genetic and personality factors that increase the likelihood of the individual moving from one addiction to another. This is why it is so important to deal with the underlying issues driving the behaviour.

What are the Signs of Sex Addiction? How to Tell if Your Partner is a Sex Addict

Here are some of the signs that your partner may be dealing with hypersexual disorder:

  • Talks obsessively about sex

  • Spends a lot of time looking at pornography (e.g. stays up late into the night to watch porno movies online)

  • Behaves in a secretive way (e.g. goes missing for hours without any explanation)

  • Your partner seems far more interested in sex than intimacy

  • Noticeable changes to mood prior to or following sex

  • Lack of intimacy during sex (e.g. no communication or eye contact)

  • Overly demanding when it comes to sex

  • Hides pornographic material

  • Your partner becomes defensive if their behavior around sex is questioned

  • Unfaithfulness

  • Your partner promises to change (e.g. a reduction in pornography) but fails to keep these promises

  • An interest in sexual activity that would usually be considered abnormal

How Do I Deal with a Sexually Addicted Spouse/Partner?

The realization that your partner is addicted to sex may help explain his/her behaviour, but it also means facing a problem that can seem insurmountable. If your trust has been betrayed, or you have suffered in other ways due to your partner’s behavior, the situation can feel a bit hopeless. This is even more likely to be the case if this person has previously promised to change, yet failed to keep these promises. It is understandable that many will decide to end the relationship at this stage, and in some situations, this can be the best way forward, but there is hope to salvage the relationship if there is a genuine willingness to change.

The key to dealing with a sex addicted partner is getting support and finding out as much as you can about the condition. Organizations such as Sex Addicted Anonymous (see resources below) can be helpful in this regard.

Here are some things worth considering when dealing with a sex addicted partner:

  • The behavior is not your fault, and it is not that your partner is deliberately trying to hurt you.

  • Once sex becomes an obsession, there is a loss of self-control, so it is not so much that your partner is weak-willed

  • It is usual for people caught up in addiction to be initially in denial despite the negative effects of the behavior being obvious to other people.

  • People who are caught up in addiction can become skilled at manipulation, and your partner may try to blame you for their behavior (e.g. ‘I wouldn’t be doing this if we had a better sex life’) – don’t fall for this trap.

  • It is important not to enable your sex addicted partner – this would be the case if you make excuses or you try to protect him/her from the negative consequences of the behavior.

  • Giving sex addicted partners an ultimatum can encourage them to seek help but only do this if you are willing to follow-through with your ultimatum (if you threaten to leave but then stay despite there being no change in the behavior, you damage your credibility).

  • When approaching your partner about their addiction, it is important to do this in a non-confrontational or judging way as this just puts them on the defensive.

9 Myths About Sex Addiction

  • Myth 1 – Claiming to be a sex addict is just an attempt to avoid responsibility for bad behavior. Reality – One of the key symptoms of hypersexual disorder, like other types of addiction, is loss of control. The individual may at times desperately want to change, yet there is a compulsion to keep engaging in unhealthy sexual activity.

  • Myth 2 – Enjoying pornography means you are a sex addict. Reality – pornography can be addictive, but just because a person enjoys this type of material does not necessarily mean he/she is a sex addict.

  • Myth 3 – Sexual addiction is the same as having a high sex drive. Reality – some couples have sex multiple times per day, yet they would not be considered addicted. It is not engaging in the activity that is the problem, but the compulsive need to do so.

  • Myth 4 – There is no need for a person with hypersexual disorder to go to rehab. Reality – breaking free of any type of compulsive behavior is difficult without sufficient help and support. This is a serious condition that can cause a great deal of harm for the individual and their relationships. An inpatient program can offer the best hope of recovery.

  • Myth 5 – Describing somebody as a ‘sex addict’ is just being puritan or overly-moralistic. Reality – The focus here is not on the activity but on why the person is engaging in the activity. It is the compulsive need to have sex that is the problem and not necessarily the act itself.

  • Myth 6 – You can only have a sex addiction if you engage in sex every day. Reality – some people dealing with hypersexual disorder will not have been with a partner in a long time, yet they feed their obsession through pornography, masturbation, voyeurism, or fantasy.

  • Myth 7 – People who have lots of sex enjoy high self-esteem and confidence. Reality – While researching his book ‘Don’t Call it Love’, sex addiction expert Patrick Carnes found that 97% of his study subjects experienced low self-esteem following sex.

  • Myth 8 – It is only a sex addiction if the person engages in illegal activities. Reality – while it is common for sex addicts to engage in illicit sex (e.g. prostitution), it is also possible to be hooked yet never break the law.

  • Myth 9 – If people engage in sex more than twice a day, it means they are a sex addict. Reality – Hypersexual disorder is not the same as having a ‘naturally’ high sex drive. It is not about how much sex an individual enjoy but the fact that engaging in this behavior is having a negative impact on the person’s life and there is a loss of control.

Useful Resources for Sex Addiction

Where Can I Go for Sex Addiction Help?

If you are still unsure about what is needed to overcome your sex addiction problem, please feel free to contact the team here at Hope Rehab Thailand. Our inpatient program has already helped hundreds of clients dealing with similar problems using a combination of one-to-one counselling, group therapy, mindfulness therapy, CBT, 12-step work, and wellness therapy.

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