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‘What is Sex Addiction?’ – Demystifying Problematic Sexual Behaviour


By Iryna Gavrysh and Simone Arbour

What is Sex AddictionOver the years, sex addiction has received many labels such as hyper-sexuality, sexual impulsivity, sexual obsession, porn addiction, love addiction and nymphomania, to name a few. Recently, many high profile individuals seeking help for sex addiction have sparked public interest in the definition of the term. Some see sexual addiction as a label for people who betray their partners and loved ones in pursuit of sexual conquests, while others use it to label people who engage in sexual activity more frequently that what is considered “normal.” However, sexual addiction can be all and none of those things.

Historically, clinicians struggled to categorize or label problematic sexual behaviour because of the vague boundaries of what is considered “normal” or socially acceptable. What can be agreed upon is that such behaviours are diverse, and they can be caused by a variety of driving forces, both motivational and emotional. One feature that problematic sexual behaviours have in common is that they cause considerable distress to the individual. Despite negative consequences, the person is unable to stop engaging in the behaviour and it often results in shame and a great deal of secrecy.

Most celebrities and other individuals labeled as “sex addicts” by the layperson are perceived as such because they violate the socially desirable norm of fidelity or monogamy. However, infidelity is not necessary or sufficient for a diagnosis of sexual addiction. An individual with a persistent sense of entitlement and belief that it is okay to receive pleasure outside of a committed relationship may have more in common with a person diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder rather than sexual addiction. Similarly, two people exhibiting the same behaviour consistent with sex addiction may have different underlying causes. For example, a man who considers pornography and frequent nights out at strip clubs with his friends to be “normal” male behaviour may have a sexual addiction. On the other hand, he may have a pressing need to fit in with his peers – and it is this need to belong that is driving his behaviour and not an underlying sex addiction. It is important to assess the motivation of the individual rather than simply judge an individual by the behaviour itself.

The destructive effects of sex addiction

To determine whether the behaviour is problematic, it is important to examine the way that the behavioural pattern impacts an individual’s life rather than examining the type and frequency of the behaviour in question. Much like with substance addiction, sexual addiction can have severe negative consequences for the individual. People struggling with sexual addiction often expose themselves to a variety of dangerous circumstances such as increased risk of sexually transmitted diseases, HIV/AIDS, injury and violence. Individuals with sexual addiction also experience broken relationships with intimate partners and family members, as well as financial and employment hardships. A deteriorating emotional state of depression, anxiety, shame and guilt also often characterizes a sexual addict.

Nevertheless, without the necessary help, the negative consequences are usually not enough to stop the individual from engaging in the behaviour.  Often times, past psychological trauma and emotional distress have led to the addiction and it is important to address these issues in treatment. An individual needs to be given the tools to be able to function effectively in their environment and successfully meet life’s challenges without turning to problematic sexual behaviour.

Recovering from sex addiction

Once an individual has made the commitment to recovery, past sexual addiction does not have to be an obstacle to having healthy intimate relationships. Unlike with addiction to substances, it is not feasible to expect lifetime abstinence for a recovering sex addict. Instead, it is important to work on relapse prevention and identifying high-risk behaviours that may lead to the individuals spiralling out of control. After the initial treatment phase, it is important to have a period of complete sexual abstinence while the person returns to healthy emotional functioning and learns to initiate healthy, non-sexual touch. During this period, which usually lasts at least 90 days, a safety net of recovery practices is established.

Long term however, learning to have healthy sexual interactions and establishing intimacy with others is preferred over complete abandonment of all sexual behaviours. People who have been treated for sexual addiction often put a lot of work into their treatment process and make excellent life partners in the future. They gain tremendous insight into their disorder and practice routine self-care behaviours in order to ensure optimal psychological well-being. As with any addiction, sexual addiction is not a life sentence of pain and shame and instead, successful treatment can lead to a positive and fulfilled recovery.