Nymphomania is a female-specific term sometimes used to describe the unofficial mental disorder known by names that include compulsive sexual behavior, hypersexuality and sexual addiction. The male-specific term for the same condition is satyriasis. Reference to a woman as a “nymphomaniac” or “nympho” has a negative connotation linked historically to attempts to control female sexual desire and women’s roles in society. In modern times, people still sometimes use these terms for more or less the same purposes. However, in reality, while women do develop sexual addictions, the problem appears more frequently in men.
Compulsive Sexual Behavior Basics
Compulsive sexual behavior occurs when you have a preoccupation with sex-related actions, thoughts or feelings that interferes with your ability to sustain normal relationships, keep a job or stay physically or mentally healthy. Some people center this preoccupation on sexual activities that provide acceptable forms of pleasure according to the moral, legal or cultural norms of their society. Others develop a preoccupation with behaviors, actions or thoughts that violate social norms or laws. Typically, a man or woman with compulsive sexual behavior continues to pursue sexual goals even in the face of serious or potentially life-altering negative consequences.
Mental health professionals have a hard time separating healthy sexual behaviors from versions of these same behaviors that go too far and endanger your health. For this reason, compulsive sexual behavior is not officially defined by the American Psychiatric Association. Some professionals consider it a form of a condition called obsessive-compulsive disorder, while other professionals consider it a form of a condition called impulse control disorder. Regardless of these types of specific definitions, symptoms of compulsive sexual behavior can appear in women and men of any sexual orientation or relationship status, the Mayo Clinic reports.
Both women and men typically develop compulsive sexual behavior as a coping strategy to deal with serious stress or anxiety, not as a response to genuine sexual desire. Underlying factors that can potentially contribute to the onset of the disorder include altered levels of important brain chemicals such as dopamine and serotonin; altered levels of sex hormones in your body called androgens; and the presence of medical conditions such as epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, dementia and Huntington’s disease. In addition, some people develop the disorder in the aftermath of certain treatments for Parkinson’s disease. Eventually, the brain chemical alterations associated with hypersexuality can lead to long-term changes in your normal brain function. In turn, these changes can lead to a clinical addiction that resembles other types of behavioral addictions, such as addictions to gambling or shopping.
Signs and Symptoms
Potential signs and symptoms of hypersexuality include the presence of sexual impulses that you feel you can’t control, participation in sexual activities that don’t give you any real pleasure, and difficulty initiating or sustaining emotional closeness, whether or not you’re in a relationship or marriage. Other potential signs or symptoms include use of sex to avoid uncomfortable emotional states and continued involvement in sexual situations that expose you to sexually transmitted disease, job loss, serious legal consequences or loss of long-term relationships. Illegal activities sometimes linked with compulsive sexuality include pedophilia, exhibitionism and voyeurism.
Specific Harms to Women
In American society, compulsive sexual behaviors in men are sometimes excused as “natural” or “normal,” while those same behaviors in women (that is, “nymphomaniacs”) carry significant risks for disapproval and negative labeling. Apart from these potential social harms, possible consequences for compulsive sexual behavior in women include increased exposure to violence, increased risks for the development of an unwanted pregnancy and increased chances of undergoing an abortion. Along with men, hypersexual women also have increased risks for the development of a sexually transmitted disease.
Available treatments for women and men with compulsive sexual behavior include psychotherapy, participation in appropriate self-help groups and use of certain medications. Potentially effective forms of psychotherapy include group therapy, family therapy, marriage counseling, a technique — called psychodynamic psychotherapy — that emphasizes increased self-awareness, and a technique — called cognitive behavioral therapy — that emphasizes learning new behaviors in stressful situations. Choices for self-help groups include Sexaholics Anonymous, Sex Addicts Anonymous and Sexual Recovery Anonymous. Medications used to treat compulsive sexual behavior include lithium and other mood stabilizers, antidepressants known collectively as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors or SSRIs, and an anti-alcoholism drug called naltrexone. People with sexual addictions also sometimes need simultaneous treatment for additional conditions such as depression, anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder or addictions to drugs or alcohol.