Sex Addiction & Treatment
Get help for your sex addiction so that you can enjoy loving, meaningful relationships with the most important people in your life.
You may feel like your addiction controls you, but it doesn't have to. It's possible to get professional help so that you can start rebuilding your feelings of self-esteem, self-respect, and confidence. You can find out how to establish fulfilling connections and restore your focus, drive, and sense of purpose. As a sex addict, those are all things that you may not have experienced in a long time. But you can change that.
Do you like the thought of feeling better about yourself and showing your loved ones that you're serious about making changes? Then act today and start making that your reality. You'll never regret asking for help.
What is Sex Addiction?
The definition of a sex addict is a person who has an obsession or excessive preoccupation with sexual activities. It involves sexual thoughts, urges, and behaviors that negatively impact your life or the life of others (Mayo Clinic, 2014). The behaviors in sex addiction are compulsive. This means that a person feels anxiety if he or she cannot perform sexual behaviors. These behaviors can be irrational, and even harmful, but are repeated anyway (Mosby's Medical Dictionary, 2009).
Sex addiction is considered to be similar to other addictions. It is a mood-altering experience that the addict relies on, much like alcoholics and addicts rely on alcohol and drugs. There is a loss of control of one's behavior, and one's life becomes unmanageable in sexual addiction as in other addictions. Sexual activity is used by an addict the way substances are used by other addicts to deal with life circumstances, challenges, and stressors (Carnes, 1989).
Some other sex addiction symptoms and signs are:
- An inability to control one's sexual behavior even when distressed by them
- Social isolation, secrecy, and difficulty having meaningful interactions with others
- Excessive time spent fantasizing about or engaging in sexual behavior
- Escalating sexual behavior—an increased need for more sex in order to feel the desired effects (Magness, 2013)
Sex addiction has been called an intimacy disorder because addicts have an impaired relationship with those they have relations with. They are not intimate sexually, emotionally, or psychologically. Because such interactions are based on obsession and compulsion, the addict relates through sex only—without companionship, love, romance, or even the need to know the sex partner.
While many sexual offenders are sex addicts, the majority of addicts do not commit sexual crimes.
The Differences Between Sex and Sex Addiction
Healthy sex and sex addiction do have things in common. Healthy sex with a partner is consensual. The same can be true with addiction. While many sexual offenders are sex addicts, the majority of sex addicts do not commit sexual crimes. Also, the types of activities in healthy relations can be involved in a sexual addiction. Additionally, there are individuals with a high sex drive that may have healthy sex as often as those who are addicted.
The differences between sexual health and addiction occur in several areas. These chiefly involve the following:
- One's inner experiences
- Intimacy issues
- Methods of coping
- The impact of one's sex life on self and others.
Some examples of differences in these areas between a person with healthy sexual behavior and one with addiction are listed below:
- Inner Experience
The inner experience of a person includes thoughts, feelings, and beliefs about oneself, others, and the world. These are dramatically different for people who have healthy sex than they are for sex addicts. Healthy sex has been described as enriching and enhancing one's life, personality, communication, and love (World Health Organization, 2022). Sex addiction, on the other hand, has a negative effect upon the quality of one's life. The overall ability to function well declines as the addiction progresses. One's life is ruled by obsession and compulsive behavior rather than enriching or enhancing experiences with others. The thoughts, feelings, and beliefs of an addict are primarily about sex. Love is not part of the sexual addict's dealings with sex partners, and there is typically little communication, except about sexual activity.
- Intimacy Issues
Developing closeness and connection with others is considered a basic human need that contributes to one's sense of well-being and good mental and physical health. To have loving companionship and a sexual relationship with a significant other is considered by most to be an essential goal in life (Firestone & Catlett, 2000). In addiction, however, there is a false sense of intimacy. Having sex without a larger relationship creates an illusion of being intimate with another person (Schaumburg, 1997). This occurs because the sex addict is intensely involved in fantasies about others. The sexual activity and the high from it are the most important aspects of the relationship, not the other person or the relationship as a whole. Overall, the sexual addict lives in fantasy and is not emotionally or psychologically present with another person (Laaser, 2004).
- Methods of Coping
An addict uses sex to cope with life's challenges. "In simple terms, most people don't consistently utilize sexual arousal as a means of 'feeling better' when having a bad day. Healthy people reach out to friends and intimate others for support when upset and also demonstrate a greater ability to…tolerate emotional stressors than do sexual addicts" (Weiss, 2013).
Healthy sex has no negative impact upon the self or others. Sex addiction does harm to both the addict and others.
The Differences Between Sexually Addicted Women and Men
Traditionally, men have been expected and "permitted" to be more sexually active than women. This has created a sexual double standard in which the sexual activities of men are viewed differently than those of women (Rosenberg, 2014). In part due to this double standard, men are more likely to seek sexual addiction treatment since there is less stigma for them. Women, on the other hand, tend to feel more harshly judged for their sexual behavior. Consequently, women are likely to feel more shame about the issue and to be more hesitant to seek treatment (Weiss, 2011).
The Impact of a Sex Addiction
Sexual addiction negatively impacts the addict and others, often doing emotional and psychological harm to partners and other family members. Since addicts are secretive and deceptive, those close to a sex addict may not know about the problem until it has become severe. Discovery can be an overwhelming and devastating experience that creates an immediate crisis for loved ones. Partners and children of sex addicts frequently need help to cope (Carnes, Lee, & Rodriguez, 2012).
Partners often blame themselves for not being attractive enough, available enough, or sexual enough, to satisfy the addict.
Partners of Sex Addicts
Many issues arise in the addict's family after the sex addiction comes to light. Discovery is considered to be a psychological crisis and a traumatic event for loved ones. They typically respond with shock and horror followed by a great deal of emotional upset. Partners in particular have a very difficult time just after discovery.
Partners often blame themselves for not being attractive enough, available enough, or sexual enough, to satisfy the addict. They also feel "cheated on" and struggle to understand that an addiction is not caused by their own personal failures or failures in their relationship. Especially in the early days of discovery, partners may not understand that, for a sex addict, nothing is ever sexy enough, and satisfaction is at best only a fleeting experience. In fact, the sexual compulsivity of an addict causes him or her to seek satisfaction that is never gotten.
Also, partners of addicts are often repulsed by the discovery of the addict's behaviors, feeling the addict to be perverse. The notion of sex itself can become disgusting or repulsive to partners. This is a common experience that occurs because, essentially, the partner has been traumatized, and sexual trauma is a significant part of that experience.
There is typically no "other woman" or "other man" to focus on as a rival and no falling in or out of love as can occur in a more usual infidelity.
The Issue of Infidelity
Partners of sex addicts often feel abandoned, cheated on, humiliated, betrayed, outraged, and grief-stricken (Stone, 2014). For example, with discovery of the addiction comes a partner's realization of having been lied to, manipulated, and deceived. Partners feel they have been involved with someone they didn't really know. For most partners, this creates a sense of their relationship having been a fraud or having been diminished, dismissed, and violated by the addict. Consequently, there is a significant loss of trust and an abrupt relationship crisis in which the partner has many urgent questions. Some of these include: Do I stay and try to work this out? Should I leave and never come back? Can I ever trust him or her again? Will he or she get worse? Is there any hope? How will I ever recover? How will my children recover?
The sex addict's behavior feels like the betrayal of an affair for most partners; however, dealing with addiction is significantly different than coping with more common types of infidelity. For example, an addict's behavior may include multiple, even countless partners—some of whom have been forgotten by the addict or not even known in the first place. A partner, therefore, must deal with the reality that he or she can encounter people anywhere that have had sex with the addict. However, there is typically no "other woman" or "other man" to focus on as a rival and no falling in or out of love as can occur in a more usual infidelity. Sex addiction is not concerned with ending one romance and beginning another. For those who are not addicted to sex, it is difficult to imagine compulsive relations with people with whom there is no feeling and no attachment.
Even though the people seen in commercial porn have not physically been with the addict, the partner can feel "cheated on."
A Partner's Reaction to Porn
When a partner discovers the addict's use of pornography, the issue of infidelity may take another form. Some partners think of pornography use as infidelity, feeling a partner should have no sexual interest outside the relationship (Chamberlin & Streuer, 2011). Even though the people seen in commercial porn have not physically been with the addict, the partner can feel "cheated on." Porn use can literally involve a sea of nameless people that have been the addict's objects of arousal when masturbating. Partners often wonder if the people in the movies or magazines are more attractive to the addict than they are. They also ask themselves such things as Why would he or she use porn and masturbation when I am available? Some partners believe pornography is wrong and must deal with the spiritual and moral consequences of having a partner who uses it.
A partner who is still sexually active with an addict has a high risk of infectious exposure.
A Partner's Reaction to Prostitution
Many sex addicts are also involved with prostitution, and the discovery of this can further traumatize a partner. Partners must cope with the possibility of health risks to themselves such as the potential for HIV and STDs since addicts are impulsive and may not always protect themselves. A partner who is still sexually active with an addict has a high risk of infectious exposure. The sense of being violated and endangered by the addict's behavior is another level of turmoil for partners.
The use of prostitutes also causes partners to reflect upon themselves and how the addict sees him or her and their relationship. Partners may think the addict turned to prostitutes because he or she was somehow inadequate. They seek to understand why the addict would pay for sex when they are at home and available. Even though the addict's behavior is a result of obsession and compulsion, the partner often feels that the use of prostitutes is a negative and personal reflection upon themselves.
Children often feel they have lost their addicted parent, particularly if there is a great deal of upset and "everyone is mad at my mom or dad."
Children of Sex Addicts
Shame about having a sex addict in the family is common and powerful, and children, especially, are vulnerable to the many effects of shame. They may believe themselves to be somehow damaged because they see their addicted parent as damaged. Some children think they may grow up to do the same things. Others may not know the facts of the situation but are acutely aware of the crisis and the aftermath of discovery. Many times, children in such situations receive too much sexual information at too young of an age. Children overhear adults discuss these issues and do their best to understand what is happening. They may receive inappropriate information about sex that is traumatizing to them because of their immaturity. They may also have a great deal of misinformation about sex and the meaning of what has happened in their families.
Such events in the lives of children are traumatic losses. Children often feel they have lost their addicted parent, particularly if there is a great deal of upset and "everyone is mad at my mom or dad." The losses can be many for such children—family disruption, loss of a sense of safety and security, and, many times, loss of the addicted parent. Finally, some children will become interested in sexual behavior as they try to understand what has happened to their addicted parents. Anxiety, fear, depression, grief, trauma, and anger are common—not only for the children of a sex addict, but also for anyone who has been close.
The Addict's Self-Harm
The impact of sex addiction can be far-reaching and even catastrophic for the addict. All areas of one's life can be negatively affected, including self-esteem, career, family and social relationships, reputation, physical health, mental health, and financial stability (Carnes, 2010). Self-hatred, worthlessness, fear, depression, and feelings of hopelessness, shame, guilt, humiliation, anxiety, and desperation are common for the addict. Life is difficult when the addiction is in high gear, and if it is discovered by others can become even more so.
Sex addicts can incur a great many losses in their addiction. Some of these are:
- A loss of self-respect
- A loss of emotional stability
- A loss of connection to others
- A loss of purpose and meaning
- Financial loss from sex activities like Internet and other types of porn, prostitution, strip clubs, sex phone lines, and chat rooms
- Loss of focus, drive, and motivation in one's life pursuits
- Loss of marriage, friends, and family
- Loss of job
- Loss of physical health
Who Becomes a Sex Addict?
Sex addiction often has roots in sexual abuse experienced at a young age from "family, family friends, neighbors or (another) aberrant adult" (Elliot, 2014). Children who are "sexualized" (experience sex before reaching the appropriate age) learn to use sex to connect with others and to cope with challenges and stress. The use of sex becomes a core coping strategy for life.
This can occur in other situations of abuse, neglect, and childhood trauma as well. For example, there is a strong relationship between sex addiction and having grown up in a dysfunctional family with addiction and/or with parents who were rigid, distant, and emotionally unavailable (Herkov, 2006). Since sexual activity provides anxiety and tension relief, it becomes a method of soothing, comforting, and distracting oneself. The activity and the thoughts about sex can be used to break from the reality of a painful situation.
There may also be biological factors that cause a sex addiction. Medications have been beneficial for some addicts. This indicates that there may be abnormal brain chemistry affecting the sexual behavior of some individuals. Research has not yet definitively established the causes of sex addiction.
The use of sex becomes a core coping strategy for life.
Sex Addiction Treatment
Rehab for sex addiction occurs in inpatient, residential, and outpatient settings. Typically, however, the initial treatment process is more successful in a structured therapeutic environment. This helps reduce the addict's access to the activities of the addiction as well as to the triggers that continue the addiction. In a structured treatment setting, for example, Internet access to porn can be prevented, as can visiting a strip club or massage parlor, viewing pornographic movies, or having sex with others.
Treatment for addiction to sex is similar in approach to treatment for other addictions. The personal process of recovery is also similar. For example, sex addicts withdraw from their compulsive use of sex and related activities such as using the Internet, pornography, strip clubs, and prostitutes. This period of withdrawal can be as uncomfortable and tumultuous as withdrawal from alcohol and drugs.
Individual and group counseling sessions help the addict deal with emotions and issues related to their addictions. They explore the triggers to compulsive sex and find healthier coping skills to use. Educational sessions help the addict learn sex addiction recovery skills to prevent relapse. Couples or family sessions can help educate significant others about addiction and begin to rebuild damaged relationships.
Some individuals may need psychiatric services and medication in treatment, particularly if they also have another condition that has complicated their sex addiction. Some such conditions are Depressive Disorder, Anxiety Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, or Substance Disorder. All treatment should be done by a professionally-trained sex addiction therapist.
Treatment for sex addiction is similar in approach to treatment for other addictions.
There are many sex addict groups and their use is a valuable resource to complement treatment efforts. Some of these are listed below with contact information if you cannot find a local group. Typically, such groups are based upon use of the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, which are adapted to help sex addicts. They are free, member-run, and provide a supportive fellowship of other addicts.
Sexual Compulsives Anonymous
PO Box 1585, Old Chelsea Station
New York, NY 10011
Sexual Recovery Anonymous
General Service Board, Inc.
PO Box 178
New York, NY 10276
PO Box 3565
Brentwood, TN 37024
Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous
Sexual Addiction Anonymous
Begin Your Healing Today
You can overcome your sex addiction and start having healthy, satisfying relationships. Take back control of your life.
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Carnes, P. (2010). Facing the Shadow: Starting Sexual and Relationship Recovery. Carefree, AZ: Gentle Path Press.
Carnes, S., Lee, M., & Rodriguez, A. (2012). Facing Heartbreak: Steps to Recovery for Partners of Sex Addicts. Carefree, AZ: Gentle Path Press.
Chamberlin, M., & Streuer, G. (2011). Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity. Shadow Mountain.
Collins, G., & Adleman, A. (2010). Breaking the Cycle: Free Yourself from Sex Addiction, Porn Obsession, and Shame. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.
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