Sexual addiction: symptoms, causes, consequences
Sexual addiction is sometimes referred to as compulsive sexual behaviour, hyper sexuality, or sexual dependency.
19 February 2018
It is often described as an intense craving and obsessional participation in sexual activities to a much greater extent and level than is healthy or sustainable.
Yet there is a lack of empathy and understanding for those with sexual addictions.
Having a strong interest in sex does not mean a person is addicted to it.
In fact it is my opinion that sexual addiction should not be defined by how much sex one has, as an individual could very well be in a healthy relationship, where they enjoy sexual activities with their partner at a high level of frequency, yet still fall foul of this definition!
You will perhaps be aware that a number of high profile celebrities have checked into clinics to seek help for their addiction to sex.
This has led to the debate whether such behaviours can truly be categorised as a sexual addiction, or whether these individuals are masking other problems - such as covering for infidelity, ‘womanising,’ or abuse of their power – which further muddies the water for those with a legitimate psychological condition, and exacerbates many of the misunderstanding concerning its true nature.
However, the World Health Organisation's forthcoming update to the International Classification of Diseases (ICD) is expected to list sexual addiction as an official diagnosis for the first time.
What are the symptoms of sexual addiction?
Sexual addiction can present with a variety of symptoms such as:
- Spending a great deal of time in activities geared to prepare, engage in, and recover from sexual activities
- Persistent use/abuse of pornographic materials and aphrodisiacs
- Engaging in multiple affairs with multiple sexual partners
- Making sexual reference in their talk, jokes, dressing and attitudes
- Engaging in sexual behaviours with people without regard for the repercussions on them
- Responding to stressful life situations by engaging in sexual fantasies, urges and behaviours
- Experiencing strong, simultaneous sexual fantasies and urges, of which they are unable to control
Men are more likely to be viewed as having an addiction to sex, and recent research showed that only a third of ‘sex addicts’ were women.
This figure may seem low, however one must consider that in this area women are less likely to seek out treatment and are therefore likely to be under-represented in research studies.
What causes sexual addiction?
Sexual addiction can develop due to factors that include all aspects of an individual’s life. Some of these factors include:
- Biological factors
The biological causes of sexual addiction include the individual's physiology and genetics. Concerning biochemical imbalances, addictive behaviours are generally associated with differences of certain chemicals in the brain, which are known as neurotransmitters.
Dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine are examples of neurotransmitters; these help to regulate a person's mood, and also play a role in their experience of pleasure. Therefore sexual addiction may be partially caused by high levels of these chemicals.
The genetic predisposition towards sexual addiction involves a number genes that are believed to play a role in its development. This may explain why some people are much more vulnerable to addictive behaviours than others.
- Environment factors
It has been estimated by Neuroscientists that the possibility of addiction for the general population is about 50% genetic and 50% environmental. It is also believed, by some, that sexual addiction can be driven by either genetics or environmental factors alone, however it’s probable that both influence it.
Whether sex was vilified or glorified, many individuals addicted to sex have been exposed to it at an unusually early age. A recent survey among adults with sexual addiction found that 41%, before the age of 12, were using pornography.
Although the brain may be responsible for the creation of sexual addiction urges, the initial triggers for addiction are often linked to the individual's past.
Many cases of people with sexual addiction have grown up in ‘dysfunctional’ families or report they have been physically or sexually abused as children.
- Emotional issues
Sexual addiction can stem from adolescence, acting as a form of self-soothing due to growing up in environments that have left them looking outside themselves for something that was lacking within.
What are the effects of sexual addiction?
Persistent sexual thoughts and behavior can become challenging for some people, and have a negative impact on their relationships, career, and sense of self-worth, often leaving sufferers drowning in shame. People who are identified as being addicted to sex, in general, experience a range of problems, such as:
- Decline in relationships with friends and family
- Feelings of guilt and shame
- Neglect of duties and obligations
- Possibility of contracting sexually transmitted diseases (STD)
- Waning physiological and emotional health
Loss of self-esteem, unexpected financial difficulties, and declining health (both physical and mental) are also frequent occurrences in those suffering with sexual addiction.
When seeking support for sexual addiction, it is advisable to talk to a professional, be it a counselor, psychologist or social worker to help address the underlying issue that may have resulted in the addiction.
And while most addiction treatment is generally focused on supporting the individual directly experiencing the problem it is also vital that treatment programs provide guidance and understanding for others affected, particularly spouses or partners.
Support in helping them to normalise their experiences, and assuring them that they’re not alone, is crucial.
Sexual addiction is a debilitating but treatable problem typically driven by unresolved early-life attachment experiences.
But with the right treatment and consistent support, a person with sexual addiction can move forward into a healthier and more fulfilling life.
About the author
Dr Funke Baffour is a Chartered Clinical Psychologist, Nutritional Advisor, and Associate Fellow of the Society, as well as an author, illustrator, and one of the UK's leading contributors to psychology in the media.