Conservatively, at least 3-6% of the adult U.S. population struggles with sexual addiction.
Like an alcoholic unable to stop drinking, sexual addicts are unable to stop their self-destructive sexual behavior. Family breakups, financial disaster, loss of jobs, and risk to life are the painful themes of their stories.
Sex addicts come from all walks of life – they may be ministers, physicians, homemakers, factory workers, salespersons, secretaries, clerks, accountants, therapists, dentists, politicians, or executives, to name just a few examples. Most were abused as children – sexually, physically, and/or emotionally. The majority grew up in families in which addiction already flourished, including alcoholism, compulsive eating, and compulsive gambling. Most grapple with other addictions as well, but they find sex addiction the most difficult to stop.
Much hope nevertheless exists for these addicts and their families. Sex addicts have shown an ability to transform a life of self-destruction into a life of self-care, a life in chaos and despair into one of confidence and peace.”
– Patrick J. Carnes, Ph.D. Author of Out of the Shadows
Sexual addiction (click here) is defined as any sexually-related, compulsive behavior which interferes with normal living and causes severe stress on the family, friends, loved ones, and one’s work environment.
Sexual addiction has been called sexual dependency and sexual compulsivity. By any name, it is a compulsive behavior that completely dominates the addict’s life. Sexual addicts make sex a priority more important than family, friends, and work. Sex becomes the organizing principle of addict’s lives. They are willing to sacrifice what they cherish most in order to preserve and continue their unhealthy behavior.
Dr. Patrick Carnes estimates three to six percent of the population is facing sexual addiction. It remains unclear whether one gender has a higher incidence of sexual addiction than the other. Research by Dr. Carnes shows that approximately 20 – 25% of all patients who seek help for sexual dependency are women. (This same male-female ratio is found among those recovering from alcohol addiction, drug addiction, and pathological gambling.)
What Defines a Sex Addict?
No single behavior pattern defines sexual addiction. These behaviors, when they have taken control of addicts’ lives and become unmanageable, include compulsive masturbation, compulsive heterosexual and homosexual relationships, pornography, prostitution, exhibitionism, voyeurism, indecent phone calls, child molesting, incest, rape, and violence. Even the healthiest forms of human sexual expression can turn into self-defeating behaviors. While an actual diagnosis of sexual addiction should be carried out by a mental health professional, the following behavior patterns can indicate the presence of sexual addiction. Individuals who see any of these patterns in their own life, or in the life of someone they care about, should seek professional help.
1. Acting out: a pattern of out-of-control sexual behavior. Examples may include:
- Compulsive masturbation
- Indulging in pornography
- Having chronic affairs
- Dangerous sexual practices
- Anonymous sex
- Compulsive sexual episodes
2. Experiencing severe consequences due to sexual behavior, and an inability to stop despite these adverse consequences. In Patrick Carnes’ book, Don’t Call It Love, 1991, some of the losses reported by sex addicts include:
- Loss of partner or spouse (40%)
- Severe marital or relationship problems (70%)
- Loss of career opportunities (27%)
- Unwanted pregnancies (40%)
- Abortions (36%)
- Suicide obsession (72%)
- Suicide attempts (17%)
- Exposure to AIDS and venereal disease (68%)
- Legal risks from nuisance offenses to rape (58%)
3. Persistent pursuit of self-destructive behavior.
Even understanding that the consequences of their actions will be painful or have dire consequences does not stop addicts from acting out. They often seem to have a willfulness about their actions, and an attitude that says, “I’ll deal with the consequences when they come.”
4. Ongoing desire or effort to limit sexual behavior.
Addicts often try to control their behavior by creating external barriers to it. For example, some move to a new neighborhood or city, hoping that a new environment removed from old affairs will help. Some think marriage will keep them from acting out. An exhibitionist may buy a car in which it’s difficult to act out while driving. Others seeking control over their behavior try to immerse themselves in religion, only to find out that, while religious compulsion may soothe their shame, it does not end their acting out. Many go through periods of sexual anorexia during which they allow themselves no sexual expression at all. Such efforts, however, only fuel the addiction.
5. Sexual obsession and fantasy as a primary coping strategy.
Through acting out sexually can temporarily relieve addicts’ anxieties, they still find themselves spending inordinate amounts of time in obsession and fantasy. By fantasizing, the addict can maintain an almost constant level of arousal. Together with obsessing, the two behaviors can create a kind of analgesic “fix.” Just as our bodies generate endorphins, natural anti-depressants, during vigorous exercise, our bodies naturally release peptides when sexually aroused. The molecular construction of these peptides parallels that of opiates like heroin or morphine, but is many times more powerful.
6. Regularly increasing the amount of sexual experience because the current level of activity is no longer sufficiently satisfying.
Sexual addiction is often progressive. While addicts may be able to control themselves for a time, inevitably their addictive behaviors will return and quickly escalate to previous levels and beyond. Some addicts begin adding additional acting out behaviors. Usually, addicts will have three or more behaviors which play a key role in their addiction—masturbation, affairs, and anonymous sex, for instance. In addition, 89% of addicts reported regularly “bingeing” to the point of emotional exhaustion. The emotional pain of withdrawal for sexual addicts can parallel the physical pain experienced by those withdrawing from opiate addiction.
7. Severe mood changes related to sexual activity.
Addicts experience intense mood shifts, often due to the despair and shame of having unwanted sex. Sexual addicts are caught in a crushing cycle of shame-driven and shame-creating behavior. While shame drives the sexual addicts’ actions, it also becomes the unwanted consequence of a few moments of euphoric escape into sex.
8. Inordinate amounts of time spent obtaining sex, being sexual, and recovering from sexual experiences.
Two sets of activities organize sexual addicts’ days. One involves obsessing about sex, time devoted to initiating sex, and actually being sexual. The second involves time spent dealing with the consequences of their acting out: lying, covering up, shortages of money, problems with their spouse, trouble at work, neglected children, and so on.
9. Neglect of important social, occupational, or recreational activities because of sexual behavior.
As more and more of addicts’ energy becomes focused on relationships which have sexual potential, other relationships and activities—family, friends, work, talents, and values—suffer and atrophy from neglect. Long-term relationships are stormy and often unsuccessful. Because of sexual over-extension and intimacy avoidance, short-term relationships become the norm. Sometimes, however, the desire to preserve an important long-term relationship with spouse or children, for instance, can act as the catalyst for addicts to admit their problem and seek help.
Treatment for Sexual Addiction
Sex addiction treatment helps stop uncontrollable sexual behaviors that feel secretive, shaming, or abusive. Experts suggest seeking sex addiction treatment when uncontrollable sexual behaviors cause feelings of distress or despair. Unfortunately, people struggling with sex addiction tend to ignore or minimize signs of distress before they seek professional help. And other times the sex addict will try to find ways to justify their behaviors or rationalize the consequences. Rationalizing sex addiction can even resort to blaming others for the addiction. Justification and rationalization strategies to avoid getting help are usually a pattern of denial. Denial can be the biggest obstacle for an addict to stop their behavior. Sex addiction treatment is designed to break through denial – creating hope for recovery.
Sex addiction treatment includes individual therapy, group therapy, and Intensives. Effective treatment is always focused on stopping painful and troublesome sexual patterns. Research has shown the process of recovery must be broken down into a series of discreet tasks for sex addiction treatment to be effective. Professional sex addiction specialists take the guesswork out of this complicated process. First, the client stops uncontrollable sexual behaviors through a step-by-step treatment approach. A skilled treatment team assesses each client independently. Then the therapist determines which sex addiction treatment tasks are best suited for each client. Effective recovery tasks are straightforward and practical.
How to assess for sex addiction
A comprehensive assessment period takes place in which a full history of the client is examined. This includes the origin of the sexual problem, points of escalation, current stressors, family issues, past trauma and current health concerns. Often early childhood trauma, including emotional neglect lies at the root of the problem. A complete diagnosis is made. Together with the sex addiction therapist, clearly defined sex addiction treatment plans and recovery tasks are chosen.
Treatment tasks for sexual sobriety
As part of this task-oriented approach, a sexual sobriety plan is constructed. The sexual sobriety plan leads many to experience sexual abstinence for the first time in their lives. By the end of thirty days on this sexual addiction treatment plan, people often report a sense of well-being. People also feel relief from lying and leading a double life. The outcome of good treatment is a restored sense of dignity and hope for a future free of sexually compulsive behaviors.