Brien Gleeson, L.P.C., CSAC
Behavioral Health, Psychiatry & Psychology
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Editor's note: The World Health Organization recently classified compulsive sexual behavior, or sex addiction, as a mental health disorder.
The term “sex addiction” is used casually to describe behavior that seems to have become common or at least is more commonly reported in the media. Sex addiction is not a medically recognized diagnosis. However, the behaviors associated with it are treated with techniques to help resist a temptation, urge or impulse, similar to many psychiatric disorders, including addiction to pornography or online sex services.
Sex behavior as an addiction
Simply, sex addiction is an addiction to the reward experience of sex. Addiction is the consistent inability to abstain in controlling behavior or craving. Addiction is a disease of the brain that creates motivation to keep repeating an activity to fulfill relief and reward the brain. Heroin, nicotine, alcohol and gambling are common forms of addiction. Sexual behavior is the same. Addictions often are circular, with multiple cycles of relapse and remission. Without treatment or engagement in recovery activities, addiction is progressive and can result in disability or premature death. All of this is true for the sexually addicted person. Death can occur due to unsafe activity, disease, extreme jealous behavior and suicide.
Environmental impact on behavior
The statistics on sex addiction are difficult to determine accurately, partly because this type of addiction used to be ignored. Today, there is more awareness of all addictions because of the multitude of media sources, common access to communication channels and their distribution of information. It also seems likely that the prominence of sex addiction may be increasing due to increased access to sexual material, including print and online pornography devoted to hookups and sexual topics on the internet.
To understand the causes of sexual addiction, first understand that the human brain can become addicted to most anything that combines reward and avoidance. The more intense the reward experience, the more likely addiction will develop. We know that addiction to alcohol has a genetic component and suspect the same is true with process or behavioral addictions that do not involve a drug. This is because neurotransmitters are chemicals in the brain that are considered a form of drug. Under the right conditions, rewarding behaviors become addictive simply because of the manner in which our brain reacts to the neurotransmitters already there. Our stage of development also plays a role. It is well-established that children and adolescents are significantly more likely to develop an addiction to drugs and behaviors.
Our environment also feeds addictive behaviors. Our culture, created in part by the media, attempts to capture and hold our attention. The phrase “sex sells” has long been a mainstay of the advertising industry. This is evident not only on TV and in print, but on the internet in the form of clickbait. Pornography is well-established as a vehicle of sexual addiction. People also will become more vulnerable to addictive behavior under stressful conditions as they seek escape and avoidance. A history of abuse, especially sexual abuse, also can increase vulnerability.
People often wonder if sex addiction only happens with in men. While it does occur more often in men, women can be addicted, as well. Women may have a more difficult time finding help for this problem due to stigma and that they likely are greatly outnumbered by men in self-help groups.
Where to find help
Treating sex addiction is much like treating any other addiction:
- Counseling and therapy can be quite effective. There are therapists who specialize in treating sex addiction.
- There are some helpful medications, especially when combined with therapy. A patient must meet with a psychiatrist for medication.
- Self-help groups are available for the affected person and his or her family. These groups take confidentiality seriously, and group times and locations are not publicly advertised. One will need to be interviewed by a group member before attending.
- Finding intensive or inpatient treatment is difficult, but it does exist.
Most therapists recognize sex addiction as a real thing. It affects people in a number of ways and is damaging to relationships and possibly physical health. While it is difficult to know the number of people affected, it seems likely that it is underreported. However, it is treatable, and help is available.
If you or someone you know has been affected by sex addiction, contact a local behavioral health professional who can help guide you through your concerns.