Understanding Sex Addiction

What is Sex Addiction?

Sexual addiction, also known as “sexual compulsion,” “hypersexuality,” and “hypersexual disorder,” is a dysfunctional preoccupation with sex, often involving the obsessive pursuit of non-intimate sexual encounters (affairs, casual sex, anonymous sex, prostitutes, pornography, compulsive masturbation, and the like). This pattern of urges, fantasies, and behaviors continues for a period of at least six months, despite the following:

  1. Attempts made to self-correct the problematic sexual behavior
  2. Promises made to self and others to change the sexual behavior
  3. Significant, directly related negative life consequences such as relationship instability, emotional turmoil, physical health problems, career trouble, and legal issues

In simpler terms, sexual addiction is an ongoing, out-of-control pattern of compulsive sexual fantasy and behavior that is causing problems in the addict’s life.

How Does It Happen?

Like drugs of abuse, addictive sexual fantasies and behaviors trigger a hormonal release resulting in feelings of pleasure, excitement, control, and distraction. This fantasy-induced neurochemical quagmire is a combination of dopamine (pleasure), adrenaline (anxiety, fear), oxytocin (love, jealousy), serotonin (mood stability), and endorphins (mild euphoria). Individuals who struggle with underlying emotional or psychological issues such as depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, attachment deficit disorders, and early-life or profound adult emotional trauma can unconsciously learn to abuse this neurochemical response, via sexual fantasy and behavior, as a means of coping with stressors and momentarily masking emotional pain. Repeated abuse of pleasurable fantasies and behaviors in this way eventually teaches the brain that the way to feel better (or cope) is to engage in more and more of the same activity. Over time, the brain becomes hardwired for sexual addiction.

In short, sex addicts get hooked on the dissociative euphoria produced by their intense sexual fantasy life and its related ritualistic patterns of behavior. They typically find as much excitement and escape in fantasizing about and searching for their next sexual encounter as in the sex act itself. They can spend hours, sometimes even days, in this elevated state—high on the goal/idea of having sex—without any physical contact and without engaging in any concrete sexual act… yet.

What Sexual Addiction is NOT

The diagnosis of sexual addiction is not necessarily made if an individual engages in fetishistic or paraphilic sexual arousal/behavior (such as cross-dressing, sadomasochism, etc.) Such behaviors may lead people to keep sexual secrets, to feel shame or distress, and even to feel out of control, but these activities are not considered sexual addiction, per se. Nor are unwanted homosexual or bisexual arousal patterns/behavior. Sexual addiction is not in any way defined by what or who an individual finds arousing. Instead, it is defined by repetitive patterns of sexual behavior utilized to self-medicate and/or stabilize emotional distress. Sex addiction is also not automatically diagnosed in people who have active mania (due to bipolar or some other disorder) or in people who are actively abusing drugs or alcohol, as these other emotional and addictive challenges must first be ruled out.

What is it Like to Be a Sex Addict?

Sex addicts experience a self-induced neurochemical high when fantasizing about and preparing to act out sexually. This overwhelming neurochemical intensity is self-described by sex addicts as being in “the bubble” or “the trance.” This self-sustaining and self-perpetuating emotional experience is often more the addict’s focus than the sexual act itself. In other words, sex addicts create and use a neurochemical high to detach and dissociate from depression, anxiety, and other life stressors. They learn to control and abuse their own neurochemistry in the same way that alcoholics and drug addicts learn to abuse alcohol, heroin, and cocaine.

For the sex addict, sexual acting out takes place regardless of outward success, intelligence, physical attractiveness, and existing intimate relationships. Very often sex addicts, feeling shameful or fearful about past behavior, will tell themselves, “This is the last time that I am going to…,” yet ultimately they are compelled to return to the same or a similar sexual situation. This is their loss of control. Their sexual activities can frequently go against preexisting values and beliefs (relationship fidelity, safe sex, not hurting others, etc.). As such, most sex addicts find themselves leading a shame-based and secretive double-life, keeping their sexual acting out hidden from family and friends, and separating it from work and day-to-day life.