In the past few years the term “sexual addiction” has received a lot of media attention, thanks to celebrities like Tiger Woods. After being linked to multiple alleged sexual dalliances with numerous women, the pro golfer reportedly sought treatment for his addiction to sex. One of the women who claimed to have had a sexual relationship with woods told the media that he had an insatiable appetite for sex.
Does an unusually high libido equate to a sexual addiction? Many people feel that the term is used all too often as a convenient excuse for cheating. After all, if a spouse claims that he (or she) is unable to control his sexual urges then who can condemn him when he strays? However, many experts recognize that multiple extramarital affairs are often a sign of a real sexual addiction.
Much of the confusion around this disorder is due to the failure to understand the difference between merely having a high libido and having an actual addiction to sex. While the two often go hand in hand, they don’t always. In other words, there are a lot of people who enjoy very frequent sex and can’t seem to get enough of it. But unlike an addict they can control the urge when needed and their strong sex drive isn’t ruining their life, causing significant distress, or resulting in frequent risk taking to satisfy their sexual desires. In other words, they aren’t truly addicted to sex.
Currently, sexual addiction is not listed as a specific disorder in the fourth edition of the DSM (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), the diagnostic manual used by mental health professionals. However, “Hypersexual Disorder” is a diagnosis being considered for the next edition of the DSM.
The proposed criteria for hypersexual disorder closely parallel those of other addictions. They include spending excessive amounts of time thinking about, planning, and engaging in the addictive behavior; doing it in response to stress; failed repeated attempts to control it; continuing to do it despite the risks; and experiencing a lot of distress or significant life problems as a result of the behavior.
Other terms for sexual addiction
There are many terms often used interchangeably with sex addiction. These include compulsive sexual behavior, nymphomania, hypersexuality, and hypersexual disorder. Essentially, they all refer to an obsession with sex (which includes thoughts, fantasies, feelings, and sexual activity) that interferes with key areas of your life. These areas include your close personal relationships, your health, your social life, and your work.
Sexual addiction has nothing to do with love, intimacy, or emotional connection with another human being. Rather, it involves an uncontrollable craving for the euphoric high associated with the sexual fantasy or actual activity. Many experts believe this intense high is different than the normal pleasure non-addicts experience from sexual activity. The intense craving drives the addict to do whatever it takes to satisfy it.
As time goes on, sex addicts often engage in increasing risky behavior to satisfy their need. In some cases the activity may result in harm to the addict as well as others. While not all sex offenders have a sexual addiction, a high percentage of them do. Sex addiction can lead to criminal behavior, including voyeurism (e.g. spying on someone engaged in sexual activity), exhibitionism (e.g. exposing one’s genitals in public), stalking, sexual harassment, rape, and molestation.
Sex addicts, like alcoholics, gamblers, and drug addicts, typically use sex as a way to alleviate stress and numb painful or unpleasant feelings. In some cases the addict’s sexual activity may not directly involve another person, for example, masturbating excessively or viewing pornography. However, when it does involve someone else, the addict generally views the other person as nothing more than an object.
Many experts believe that sex addicts have problems with intimacy as well as close relationships in general. This may be due to the deep-seated self-loathing, shame, and sense of unworthiness that often accompanies the disorder. They keep people at arm’s length emotionally, keenly aware that they would likely be rejected if they revealed their true character.
Just as with other addictions, sexual addiction is usually progressive. In other words, most sex addicts need more of the sexual activity in order to be satisfied. In some cases, the addict needs to increase the intensity of the activity. For example, a sexual sadist (someone who derives pleasure by degrading, causing pain to, or physically harming the other person) may progress from tying someone up with ropes to eventually cutting, burning, or fatally choking the other person.
Like other types of addicts, sex addicts typically make excuses for and rationalize their behavior. They often blame their parents, their spouse, or other key people in their life for the way they are. They are usually in denial and a refuse to take any personal responsibility for their behavior.
There are a variety of behaviors that are associated with sexual addiction. These include excessive masturbation, frequent unprotected sex, regular or excessive use of pornography, multiple extramarital affairs, frequent one-night stands, sex with strangers or prostitutes, sexual sadism or masochism, frequent use of cybersex or phone sex, exhibitionism, voyeurism, pedophilia, and rape.
No one really knows what causes someone to develop an addiction to sex. Many sexual addicts report a childhood history that includes physical and / or emotional abuse. Genetics, abnormalities in brain chemistry, certain medical conditions, and / or abnormal levels of sex hormones may play a role in the development of the disorder.
Like other addictions, treatment is available for sex addiction. Treatment may include a combination of modalities including individual psychotherapy, couples therapy, family therapy, group therapy, medication, 12-step programs, and support groups. Some individuals may do well with outpatient treatment, while others may benefit most from the intense, structured treatment offered by residential treatment facilities.
Sexual addiction treatment can be very effective. Successful treatment requires a commitment to recovery, the willingness to take responsibility and be honest with treatment providers, sticking with the program, and making necessary lifestyle changes in order to prevent relapse.