Causes & Risk Factors

When it comes to any type of addiction there are still debates among experts as to the underlying causes. Part of what muddies the waters is the disagreement over whether an addiction is a disease or a habit. An addiction to sex, which is still not fully recognized as a true addiction by many, is certainly not immune to the controversy. However, more and more experts are starting to accept that people can become addicted sex just as they can alcohol, drugs, gambling, and food.

As with all addictions, it is not yet understood why only certain people develop an addiction to sex. After all, it’s a highly pleasurable activity that is a very normal part of life – in fact, it’s essential for the human race to continue to exist. Most people enjoy sex for both the physical release and emotional intimacy it provides. For the sex addict, however, the experience is often quite different.

Similarities with Other Addictions

Although sex addicts crave sex for the euphoric pleasure it provides them – much like the high that drug addicts experience when they use – they also use it for other similar reasons. For them, sex has little to do with intimacy. Rather, it’s an escape from painful or unpleasant emotions and a reaction to stress – in other words, it’s a means of self-medicating.

Just like the alcoholic, compulsive gambler, or drug addict, sex addicts are consumed with the desire to get their next fix – in spite of the risks and potential consequences. The vicious cycle of indulging in the activity, feeling guilt and remorse, resolving to change, and then giving in to the craving all over again is just the same as with any other type of addiction. The similarities between the patterns of compulsive sexual behavior and other addictions are why more and more experts have come to agree that some people truly have an addiction to sex.

Possible Causes of Sexual Addiction

Following is an overview of the various elements that may contribute to compulsive sexual behavior in terms of potential causes and risk factors.

Biochemical imbalances – Compulsive behaviors are believed to be associated with imbalances of certain chemicals in the brain known as neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters, such as dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine help with mood regulation and play a role in the experience of pleasure. An addiction to sex – particularly the intense euphoria experienced by the addict during sexual activity – may be at least partially caused by high levels of these chemicals.

This theory may explain why some sex addicts benefit from the use of antidepressants – particularly SSRIs which target serotonin – and mood stabilizers such as lithium. Certain medications, such as dopamine agonists, may also contribute to compulsive sexual behavior.

Medical conditions – There are numerous medical conditions that damage certain areas of the brain, such as dementia, multiple sclerosis, and Huntington’s disease. The damage may play a role in compulsive sexual activity.

Hormones – Both men and women have sex hormones known as androgens. Androgens affect libido and may play a role in a person’s addiction to sex. Medications that affect hormones are sometimes used in the treatment of sex addicts. These include anti-androgens and LHRH (luteinizing hormone-releasing hormone) agonists. Anti-androgens help decrease sexual urges. LHRH agonists lower testosterone production and may help with the sexual obsessions that often accompany this addiction. Both medications are often used to treat male pedophiles and other types of male sex offenders.

Genetics – A genetic predisposition towards sexual addiction that involves a number of genes is believed to play a role in its development. This is what probably makes some people much more vulnerable to addictive behavior than others.

Changes in neural pathways –The complex wiring of the brain – the neural pathways – may become altered as a result of compulsive sexual activity. These changes enhance the pleasure experienced during sexual activity and make it more difficult to overcome the addiction due to unpleasant reactions when they try to stop.

Abuse during childhood – According to some research, a high percentage of individuals with an addiction to sex have a history of being abused during childhood.

Family dysfunction – A family history of substance abuse and addiction is common amongst sex addicts. Dysfunctional family dynamics including parents who were emotionally unavailable, uncaring, or rigid in their parenting style is also a common factor.

Risk Factors for Sexual Addiction

While both women and men are susceptible to developing an addiction to sex, it happens far more frequently in men. Sexual orientation or preference is not a primary factor. Sex addicts may be straight, bisexual, or homosexual. However, those who are most likely to have an addiction to sex include those with:

• A co-occurring psychiatric disorder, such as depression, bipolar disorder, a personality disorder (e.g. narcissistic personality disorder or borderline personality disorder), or difficulties with impulse control

• A substance abuse problem or another type of addiction (including a gambling addiction)

• A background that includes sexual or physical abuse

Treatment for Sexual Addiction

There is treatment available for individuals who have an addiction to sex. Treatment may include a combination of psychotherapy (including group and family therapy), medication, and support groups. Residential treatment programs, which provide intensive treatment in a structured setting, are available and can be very beneficial.

Since shame is a huge factor, particularly with sex addicts, many never seek treatment. Many sex addicts end up receiving court mandated treatment after being convicted of a sex crime. Treatment effectiveness, as with any addiction, depends on a variety of factors.