It has long been believed that the prime reason for people to seek sex is to satisfy our instinctive need to reproduce. While this belief does still hold true, we now know that there is a lot more to it than that.
Sex is an integral part of our lifestyle. It is strongly linked to our emotions in many ways including the desire for intimacy, the yearning for love or the need to seek an emotional and physical ‘high’.
A wide variety of sexual behaviours are still considered ‘normal’ as the experience is so individual, however there does come a point when some behaviours start to become socially inappropriate. This point is not fixed and is open to interpretation, however it is generally accepted that sexual behaviour can be seen as problematic when it becomes uncontrollable, disrupts the daily life of the individual, leads to financial or relationship problems or causes harm or suffering to others.
Sex addiction is also known as hypersexuality. It refers to any sexual behaviour that becomes irrepressible. The individual may not only have frequent sex with their partner but may also indulge in masturbation, cyber-sex or pornography or seek a prostitute.
Although hypersexuality has not officially been defined as an addiction, it is generally recognized and treated as such by most mental health professionals. Studies have proven that it develops in much the same way as substance addictions with similar effects on the brain.
As the addiction progresses it generally involves the person having incessant sexual thoughts throughout the day, and a need to act on these thoughts urgently. This can often interfere with other activities such as work, study or social engagements and this negative impact often falls into a downward spiral.
Sexual arousal triggers a surge of ‘feel good’ chemicals throughout the body. The euphoric feeling generated during orgasm is very similar to the ‘high’ experienced through alcohol or drug use. Similarly, as the person builds up a resistance to the ‘highs’ the person will increasingly indulge in the addictive behaviour to achieve the same result.
As with other forms of addiction, after enjoying the bliss of a high, the person will usually experience a range of low emotions including anxiety, regret, shame, remorse and isolation along with a sense of helplessness. In the long term these feelings tend to get worse along with the impact on the person’s everyday life.
When these emotions and lifestyle issues become unbearable, they can push the person back to seek sexual gratification as a means of escape which then repeats the cycle.
Sex addiction is not necessarily determined by the frequency of the behaviour but more by the intensity of withdrawal symptoms that occur in between each ‘high’.
Exact figures representing the prevalence of sexual addiction in Australia vary as addicts have been very reluctant to come forward in the past. Many counsellors have reported an increase in the number of cases they see; however it is unclear if this means more people are engaging in sexually addictive behaviours or that people are becoming more confident about coming forward and asking for help. Some estimates suggest that as many as 3 million Australians have some form of sexual addiction with the majority of these being men.
It is difficult to determine why some people develop an addiction to sex when others do not. Like other forms of addiction, it is most likely triggered by a combination of biological and psychological factors rather than by any single cause.
The senses in the body use chemical signals (or neurotransmitters) to communicate with the brain but sometimes these signals can get mixed up, affecting how the brain responds. Sex usually also increases the production of endorphins and dopamine – the ‘feel good’ hormones. If these are inadequately controlled, the body can start to crave them.
The rush of these hormones can also serve to dampen negative feelings normally processed in the same area of the brain further adding to the lure of the addiction.
Addictions are often associated with underlying beliefs or behaviours. Sex addiction is similar to substance addiction in that it is often used as a way to escape from stress in the real world. Addicts feel the reward gained from the addiction and want more of it but they later experience feelings of guilt or remorse.
Research also shows that those from so called ‘dysfunctional families’ are more likely to engage in sexually addictive behaviour, especially if they have experienced some form of sexual, physical or emotional abuse as a child.
There are a number of behaviours that can be covered under the term ‘sex addiction’. It doesn’t just include sex itself. Any of these can be the central focus of the addiction or a contributing behaviour if they have become out of control and repetitive. Sexual behaviours that might indicate an addiction include:
As there is no ‘official’ recognition of sex addiction as a true addiction, official criteria for diagnosis do not exist either. However there are a number of recognised guidelines based on clinical dependency criteria that have been collated by leading clinicians. They include the person:
Every form of addiction carries some risk of consequences, especially physical and emotional ones. While the consequences may vary depending on the form of addiction and the extent to which it is carried out, they often include the following factors:
Sex addicts are attracted to the activity itself and are not generally interested in forming or enhancing any emotional bonds. Not only does this apply to the addict and their sexual partner but it can also extend to any form of relationship. Shutting other people out can lead to a breakdown in relationships with friends and family.
Trying to determine whether stress and anxiety led to an addiction or vice versa can be a conundrum. Sometimes the answer may never be fully established however there is no doubt that they can have an adverse effect on each other.
Addictive behaviour can also trigger strong feelings of guilt, shame and confusion. All of these can lead to lowered self-esteem and potentially depression.
Increased sexual activity, especially with multiple partners, increases the risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases such as infections or HIV/AIDS. There is also the possibility of genital injury.
While not all sex addicts will go on to become sex offenders, acts like exhibitionism, stalking, molestations or voyeurism often stem from addictive sexual behaviours.
Legal action resulting from inappropriate sexual behaviour can have severe and lasting effects on the life of the offender and also the people around them, particularly if the problem is not addressed early.
Financial loss can be significant for sex addicts due to the cost of phone sex, cybersex, prostitutes or adult books and other items. It can also occur indirectly as a result of family breakdown or job loss.
The first step in overcoming any addiction is for the addict to acknowledge that it exists in the first place. Many addicts go to great lengths to hide or disguise their behaviour, often over many years. It can therefore be extremely confronting to suddenly have to face up to reality. Sadly it often takes a major crisis such as a divorce for an addict to finally accept they have a problem.
While some addicts may be able to regain control of their addiction through sheer willpower or with the support of a handful of people, most will need professional help as well. There are several treatment options that have been proven to be highly effective in helping an addict to turn their life around.
The aim of these treatments is not to force the person to totally give up sex but to help them find ways to enjoy sex without engaging in obsessive or harmful behaviour.
Sometimes it may be necessary for a sex addict to be admitted as an inpatient at a dedicated clinic. They would generally need to stay there for a period of time (e.g. one month) to give them the best chance of long-term recovery. Initially they may experience overpowering physical withdrawal symptoms and will be under the care of medical professionals. In some cases medication may be beneficial but this is generally as a support to other therapies. Then the person will begin a combination of individual counselling sessions and group therapy as part of a structured programme.
An addiction recovery programme generally revolves around a set of guiding principles that outline a set of steps towards recovery. Sex addiction programmes are often based on the 12 step programme developed by Alcoholics Anonymous as it has been proven to be extremely effective. They provide the person with a set of tools, strategies and resources they can use to help them achieve full recovery. A large part of this healing comes from the emotional support shared with others throughout the programme and especially in the group therapy sessions.
The therapy format will differ depending on the needs of the group but generally all members are encouraged to share their experiences with the group. This helps them to:
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a type of therapy commonly used during individual counselling sessions for the treatment of addictions. It is based on the premise that our thoughts drive our actions so a therapist will work closely with the person to try and identify the underlying thoughts, beliefs and emotions that triggered the addictive behaviour.
Once the reason is established it can be addressed and replaced with a more constructive way to cope that does not involve sexual acts. This gives the person the necessary tools, resources and support to change their behaviour patterns and see hope in their future again.
In Australia there are currently no laws that specify what qualifications or training a counsellor needs to have before being allowed to offer addiction counselling services. However there are a number of tertiary and professional development courses that are available. Practitioners can also apply to be registered with the Australian Counselling Association (ACA), the Psychotherapy and Counselling Federation of Australia (PACFA) and other industry associations.
It is generally recommended that people struggling to overcome a substance addiction undertake a detox program alongside CBT or similar therapy. When that person is in a relationship or has a family then couples or family counselling may be also needed so finding a professional with experience with addiction in these circumstances would be very beneficial.