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Sexual Addiction (Behavioral Addiction)

From: Forever Recovery



Often referred to as sexual addiction, the disorder has been widely debated in past years. The debate is whether it is a real problem or just an excuse for irresponsible sexual behavior.


The term sexual addiction is characterized by an irresistible urge to engage in frequent and risky sexual behaviors until severe consequences are experienced by the individual, his or her family, and others who are close.


Discussions of sexual addiction often take people to memories of mainstream media, and thoughts of celebrities and athletes who have gone to treatment for what they describe to be a sexual addiction, almost always after being caught in infidelity. When considering things like this, the tendency may be to think that sexual addiction is no more than a farce. The reality is that people do suffer from irresistible urges to engage in sexual behaviors compulsively, no matter what the risk, and well after their lives have been devastated by their behaviors.




How Does Sexual Addiction Start?


Sexual addiction starts the same way any other addiction does – it serves as an escape mechanism that feels good and feeds on underlying issues of the addict. Most activities, especially those that are ingrained in human nature (i.e., eating, sex, and exercising) are healthy and rewarding when done in responsible moderation. However, when an individual begins to suffer adverse consequences as a result of his or her behaviors surrounding any activity or substance and continues to do it, addiction is likely afoot. As a progressive disease, untreated addiction only gets worse with time, and sexual addiction is no exception.

A manifestation of sexual addiction versus gambling, drug, or gaming addiction varies by the person. The reason one person will become addicted to sex, another to gambling, and another to drugs can be traced to one’s past, environment, and functionality in life. For most every addict of any kind, the one linking factor is one or several underlying issues that prompt an individual to look for an escape from his or her reality and emotions.




Does Sexual Abuse or Trauma Play a Role?


Studies show that about 80% of sex addicts suffer from some sexual abuse or emotional trauma in their past. There are also several theories that when a person suffers from trauma, abuse, or neglect, a person will likely have a hard time trusting others on an emotional level. In cases like these, sexual addiction is more likely to be manifested because the actions involved are emotionally detached, thereby giving the representation of being emotionally “safe” for one who does not trust others.

In sexual addiction, sexually charged situations and actions produce the euphoria and escapism sought by the addict. At some point in the lives of most people, there is a fantasy desire to “get away from it all” when things get too hectic or stressful. For those susceptible to addiction, the fantasy of being able to escape can be realized through almost any action, including sex.




What Happens in Sexual Addiction?


Sexual addiction does not begin with someone’s first sexual encounter, but rather manifests itself later in life when triggers of past trauma or personal struggles become overwhelming for the individual. Classified as a compulsive disorder, much like obsessive-compulsive disorder, sexual addiction is not all about sex, but more about the compulsivity and ritual surrounding the sexual act.




Behaviors Associated with Sexual Addiction

The types of sexual addiction behaviors are widely varied, but there is a cycle of sexual addiction that consists of five stages. These five stages are:

  1. Pain: Some form of pain often lies beneath the surface of sex addiction. This pain can come from past trauma, guilt from transgressions, stress, or anxiety.

  2. Fantasy: Once a sex addict feels pain and wishes to avoid it, he or she begins to fantasize about how to escape through means of acting out a sexual desire. This process disconnects the addict from reality to increase the sensibility of easing inner turmoil with sexual acts.

  3. Ritual:  A sex addict begins to take action to fulfill his or her fantasy physically. This may involve driving around aimlessly, flipping through an adult magazine, watching pornographic movies, or surfing porn sites throughout the internet. This is an especially important phase.  Once a sex addict has begun the ritual phase, it’s usually too late to turn back.

  4. Acting Out:  This is the point at which the sexual act takes place. These sexual acts can be anything and may range from picking up prostitutes to chronic masturbation, exhibition, and anonymous sex.

  5. Shame and Guilt:  Once the sexual act has been fulfilled, the individual goes through a period of guilt and shame. Knowing the dangers, destruction, and unmanageability of one’s actions is not enough to stop the cycle of sex addiction. The shame and guilt experienced exacerbate the first phase of this cycle, which is the pain.



Following the Illusion of Escapism


The cycle of a sex addict is very similar to that of most every addict. The underlying pain prompts a desire for escape, which leads to fantasies of acting on the subject of one’s addiction. Once the illusion of escapism through the addictive behavior is in place, the routine begins.


For a drug addict or alcoholic, the method may be the procurement of the substance of choice. For one who is addicted to cutting, the ritual might be the process of obtaining a cutting instrument. And after the ritual there is shame and guilt after the “high” of the action wears off.



Signs and Symptoms of Sexual Addiction


Sex is among the most basic of human needs and desires.  But, when it is the subject of addiction, the devastation can be deadly and far-reaching. Understanding that sexual addiction is just as uncontrollable as any other addiction creates a dangerous situation for everyone involved.

Some self-assessment signs of sexual addiction are:

  • Consistent inability to resist sexual impulses

  • Frequent and uncontrollable engagement in sexual activities despite best intentions to abstain

  • Several failed attempts to decrease or stop sexual behaviors

  • Preoccupation with sexual preparation (rituals)

  • Neglect of responsibilities and obligations resulting from compulsive engagement in sexual behavior

  • Continuation of sexual behaviors despite negative consequences in marriage, career, personal relationships, and finances

  • Isolation from social, recreational, or occupational events and activities

  • Depression or anxiety if an effort to engage in sexual behavior fails


More often than not, a sex addict can recognize that he or she has a problem.  This happens because of the incredible intensity of sexual urges associated with the addiction and the inability to control them. A lack of control over such strong urges can lead to dangerous and reckless behavior. Sex is among the most common methods of transmitting infectious diseases.  Therefore sexual addiction can have grave consequences on the health of the addict and everyone around him or her.




Signs That a Loved One May Be Trapped in Sexual Addiction


The signs of sexual addiction are behavioral changes such as:

  • Obsessive viewing of pornographic material such as magazines, movies, and lingerie catalogs

  • Increasing isolation from his or her spouse without disclosure of whereabouts

  • Becoming more controlling during sex with significant other

  • Experiencing mood swings before or after sex

  • Becoming increasingly less affectionate after sex, with the development of emotional detachment

  • Being demanding about the location, style, and time of sex

  • Reacting angrily to questions about sexual behaviors

  • Hiding pornography at home, in the car, or at work

  • Justifying compulsive or excessive sexual behaviors


Like all addicts, if a sex addict could change independent of professional help, he or she likely would.


No one wants to see a loved one suffer in any way.   Therefore, the natural coping mechanism for many loved ones is enabling.  They fall victim to codependency to keep the peace. This is especially important for spouses and significant others of sexual addicts.




Sexual Addiction Can Be Treated


The turmoil and pain of sexual addiction can devastate the lives of the addict and his or her loved ones. If left untreated, addiction is an unending and progressive disease that takes the lives of millions of people.


Contrary to substance addiction, and many other behavioral addictions, recovery from sexual addiction is not as simple as abstaining from sex. Sex is part of human nature and survival of the human race.  Therefore, effective recovery from sexual addiction must integrate healthy and safe sexual practices.



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