There are many people who would argue that you cannot be addicted to sex. In fact, the subject of sex addiction has gotten a lot of press in recent years, because several high-profile celebrities have sought treatment for it. But is sex addiction a true clinical addiction—like an addiction to drugs or alcohol—or is it just an excuse for bad behavior? Those who have suffered the powerful and complex feelings that drive sexual addiction would argue that it is a very real, overwhelming and compulsive need that is difficult to control or overcome.
Understanding Sex Addiction
Unlike other addictions, such as addictions to alcohol or drugs, there are various types of sex addiction, and it can manifest differently. How does sex addiction manifest…what does it look like? Someone addicted to sex may masturbate frequently and compulsively, or may not be able to stop looking at pornography (even in the workplace). There is usually a preoccupation with sex. A sex addict may put his marriage and his health in jeopardy by spending an inordinate amount of time with prostitutes.
The overwhelming need to engage in certain types of habitual or compulsive sex is viewed by some experts to be a legitimate addiction. Sex as an addictive behavior has been studied by researchers, and is found to share some common characteristics with other addictions, including:
- loss of control
- failed attempts to stop the addictive (sexual) behavior
- negative psychological outcomes from the addiction (anxiety and depression)
- legal and financial issues
- relationship difficulties
Some research findings indicate that the brain reacts in the same way, physiologically and psychologically, with sex addiction as it does with other clinically recognized addictions—like compulsive over-eating or gambling.
Edward Ratush, M.D., an addiction therapist, believes that sexual addiction is a true addiction, but he feels it may be over-diagnosed. Sex addiction is not necessarily about sex. Many experts in the field agree that sex addiction is a real addiction—often referred to as "hyper-sexual disorder” or HD—that may actually stem from underlying problems of anxiety or depression that drive the sexual behavior. Sex addiction can coincide with clinically recognized personality disorders such as bipolar disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Overcoming Sex Addiction
It has been found that sex addiction can be successfully overcome by addressing the problem on two levels. The first level involves the personal issues that are underlying the sex addiction—examining those issues with a therapist or counselor in order to understand and work through them. The second level involves understanding that the addict is using sex as an escape from problems—habitually and compulsively—and that the addictive behavior needs to be replaced with healthier coping mechanisms.
One of the most common mistakes people make when they attempt to overcome sexual addiction is to address the problem on only one level—to try and stop the behavior. In order to stop the hyper-sexual behavior, it is helpful to also examine any underlying emotional or psychological issues, including problems with emotional intimacy.
Treatment for Sex Addiction
Most sexual addiction therapists will challenge patients to examine the thoughts or triggers that lead to hyper-sexual behavior—however it manifests. A therapist will typically help a patient work through ways they might cope if they don’t engage in hyper-sexual behavior.
Many addictions are defined as using any substance or activity to avoid or escape from uncomfortable feelings, so treatment for sex addiction will typically involve looking more deeply at those uncomfortable feelings and learning how to manage them.
Patients seeking treatment for sex addiction may opt for one-on-one sessions with a therapist or group counseling and support from others with similar addictive behaviors. An aspect of treatment is usually to involve the spouse or family members in some sessions to work through the hurt and the problems that have occurred as a result of the sex addiction. When a couple seeks help, it is just as important to relieve the partner’s pain as it is to successfully guide the sexually addicted person toward healthier, less destructive behavior.
Sometimes, if there is an associated clinical diagnosis—like obsessive-compulsive disorder—medications may be prescribed to help the sex addict manage the compulsive behaviors.