Do you love sex just a little too much? Do you think about and engage in sexual activities so much that it’s interfering with your life, causing significant distress? It’s possible you could be addicted to sex. Roughly 12 million people in the United States are living with a sexual addiction. This number is on the rise due to the ease of availability of sexual content on the Internet, cable television, and video, according to the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy.
What is — and isn’t — a sex addiction
There’s a difference between being addicted to sex and having a healthy sex drive. A sex addiction is characterized by uncontrollable urges, whereas someone with a healthy sexual appetite enjoys sexual pleasure but doesn’t feel so overwhelmed by the urge to engage in sexual activity that it becomes disruptive. Contrary to media portrayals, an addiction to sex isn’t just about having a lot of sex. It involves excessively thinking about, engaging in, and planning for sexual activities.
“Sex addiction needs to be defined carefully and judiciously. It’s a controversial diagnosis that carries an enormous amount of shame and stigma, but it does exist. And when it’s present it causes enormous destruction,” Dr. John Peters, family and addictions therapist and senior clinical adviser to Caron Ocean Drive, told The Cheat Sheet.
Although sex addiction is real, Peters says it has yet to receive official recognition. The fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), does not include sex addiction (also referred to as hypersexual disorder).
“Central to the controversy surrounding [sex addiction] is the failure of the American Psychiatric Association to grant it an official diagnostic status. This failure has led to increased stigmatization of the people who suffer from it, a misunderstanding as to its root causes, and a refusal to move the disorder out of the realm of morality and into science. In spite of this administrative failure, I see lives, relationships, and families ravaged by destructive and compulsive sexual behaviors,” said Peters.
Both men and women can be sex addicts
Most people tend to associate men with sexual addiction, but women are affected as well, which may be due, in part, to the accessibility of sexual content through digital media.
“…As digital interconnectivity has brought easy access to an astounding array of intensely pleasurable sexual content and contacts, we’ve seen a corresponding increase in the number of women who struggle with this disorder. Unfortunately, female sex addicts are usually more difficult to diagnose and treat than male sex addicts. This may be due, at least in part, to Western socio-cultural attitudes about female sexuality. Whereas men who have a lot of sex are often celebrated as “studs” and “players,” hypersexual women are typically denigrated as “sluts,” “whores,” and “nymphomaniacs,” Romeo Janus, licensed clinical social worker and certified sexual addictions therapist, told The Cheat Sheet.
Peters and Janus say a sexual addiction is often characterized by these signs and symptoms:
1. Obsessive sexual thoughts and behaviors
A sex addiction is an ongoing, uncontrolled pattern of compulsive sexual fantasies and behaviors that result in a disruption of one’s daily life, according to Janus. He says that almost all sex addicts report an obsessive preoccupation with sexual fantasies and behaviors.
“Sex addicts spend hours, sometimes even days, fantasizing about, planning for, pursuing, and engaging in sexual activity,” said Janus.
Those with a sex addiction tend to use sex as a means to soothe emotions that are difficult to manage. One becomes dependent on sex to help them cope, similar to the way an alcoholic turns to alcohol to ease emotional pain.
“The person uses sex to self-medicate uncomfortable emotions or to avoid facing unpleasant truths about their significant relationships,” said Peters.
3. Loss of control
Despite attempting to stop, sex addicts cannot put an end to their behaviors. They are unable to control their desire to fantasize about and participate in sexual activities.
“They lose control over their sexual lives, unable to stop, even when they want to. They continue with these out-of-control sexual fantasies and behaviors even when their lives are coming apart at the seams,” said Janus.
4. Strained relationships
Janus said sexual addiction often leads to negative consequences such as relationship problems, difficulties at work or school, depression, anxiety, and isolation. Other complications may include declining health, isolation, decreased self-esteem, and loss of interest in activities that used to be enjoyable.
5. Worsening symptoms
Left unaddressed, a sexual addiction can spiral out of control. Maladaptive behaviors continue to escalate and further impact one’s life.
“Over time, their behaviors nearly always escalate. They spend increasing amounts of time in their addiction, or they increase the intensity level of their sexual fantasies and behaviors. They sometimes find themselves engaging in sexual behaviors that hadn’t even occurred to them early in the addictive process and/or activities that violate their personal moral code and value system,” said Janus.
Peters adds that over time the sex addict builds up a tolerance to the negative sexual behavior. Many are overcome with remorse about their actions due to feelings of betraying themselves and their loved ones.
“The true extent of their sexual behaviors and thoughts must be kept secret. A compartmentalization occurs where sex and the thoughts and behaviors leading up to it are kept in a separate bucket from the person’s mainstream life,” said Peters.