Sexual activity is very normal. What can be a sign of a problem is when a person is unable to control their sexual impulses, activities, or behaviors—despite negative consequences.
This phenomenon is referred to by some as compulsive sexual behaviors, hypersexuality disorder, or sex addiction.
According to research, people affected by sex addiction may often have other underlying mental health issues, such as an anxiety disorder, history of trauma, or a substance use disorder.
What Is Sex Addiction?
Sex addiction is nonmedical term used to describe a compulsion to seek out and engage in sexual activities, despite negative effects it may have on health, relationships, and general way of life.
This does not refer to bestiality, pedophilia, sex work, or people who happen to have sex very often.
More important than the frequency of a person’s sex is the emotional relationship a person has to their sexual activities—what it serves, how it makes them feel, and how it affects their daily life.
People who have a sex addiction may feel unable to control how often they seek out or initiate sex, and may eventually find it more distressing than pleasurable.
Is Sex Addiction A Real Addiction?
Sex addiction is not officially recognized as a type of behavioral addiction, but it can be diagnosed as an ‘Unspecified Sexual Dysfunction’ disorder.
People with compulsive sexual behaviors often report symptoms similar to other addictions, however, such as using sex to cope with emotional problems and feeling a lack of control.
If you’re concerned about having a sex addiction, questions to ask yourself might include:
- Do you feel unable to control how often you seek out sex?
- Do you put yourself in risky situations in order to fulfill sexual urges or impulses?
- Do you use sex to validate your attractiveness or self-worth?
- Have you or others been hurt as a result of your sexual activity?
- Do you continue to seek out sex even when it hurts yourself or others?
- Has your sexual activity affected your ability to work or function in daily life?
Signs And Symptoms Of Sex Addiction
Sex addiction doesn’t refer to simply enjoying sex, or even having sex very often. It is typically identified by a dysfunctional relationship with sex or intimacy.
Signs of sex addiction might include:
- frequent, obsessive thoughts about sex
- reduced interest in other activities
- lying about one’s sexual activity
- unsuccessfully trying to stop or limit one’s sexual activity
- feeling guilt or remorse after sex
- neglecting health, personal care, or other responsibilities as a result of compulsive sexual behaviors
- seeking out sex even when you don’t want to
- compulsively practicing unsafe sex (i.e. seeking out sex with strangers)
- continuing to act on compulsive sexual behaviors despite negative consequences
- using sex to feel wanted, attractive, or worthy of love
- lack of emotional satisfaction from sex
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People with a sex addiction may seek out multiple sex partners, without telling others they are doing so. This may cause blurry lines ethically with consent and commitment in relationships.
Compulsive sexual activity can cause conflicting emotional reactions that can be distressing for people who feel unable to control their sexual impulses, fantasies, and how they act on them.
Causes Of Sex Addiction
Addiction can’t usually be traced back to a single cause. Addiction is typically rooted in environmental, interpersonal, biological, and sometimes hereditary factors.
Sex addiction is believed to be more common in people with underlying mental health conditions, such as depression, personality disorders, or a history of trauma.
Some argue that sex addiction is similar to obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), or other impulse control disorders that involve compulsive behaviors—with which it may co-occur.
Risk Factors For Sex Addiction
Researchers have identified several common characteristics, or risk factors, often seen in people who demonstrate compulsive sexual behaviors.
- low self-esteem
- history of sexual trauma
- obsessive-compulsive tendencies
- certain medical conditions (e.g. dementia)
- history of mental illness
Brain chemistry, too, has been studied as a potential risk factor and cause in sex addiction—specifically how brain differences could affect vulnerability.
Unfortunately, there has been little research studying this potential link, thereby limiting it as a consideration within the treatment and early intervention process.
Effects And Consequences Of Sex Addiction
Compulsive sexual activity can have a number of serious consequences. People who identify as being addicted to sex will often report negative effects on relationships and mental health.
Consequences of sex addiction might include:
- loss of a spouse or partner
- unsafe sexual activity
- loss of job opportunities
- unwanted pregnancy
- reduced pleasure from sex
- legal problems from unlawful sexual activity
- serious relationship problems
- suicidal thoughts
Compulsive sexual behaviors can have severe effects on a person’s closest relationships and can instill deep feelings of shame, guilt, and distress.
People with a sex addiction may also put themselves in risky situations, such as seeking out sex with strangers, masturbating in public spaces, or seeking out sex in inappropriate settings.
Treatment For Sex Addiction
Compulsive sexual behaviors, or what’s commonly referred to as a sex addiction, is treatable. There are a variety of options available, depending on each person’s needs.
Treatment options for sex addiction include:
- inpatient rehabilitation programs
- cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
- individual counseling
- couples counseling
- 12-Step programs (e.g. Sex Addicts Anonymous)
For people with other mental health or substance use disorders, a dual diagnosis rehab program may also be recommended. This is offered by some inpatient and residential treatment centers, as well as individual treatment providers.
Through counseling, people with sex addiction can process through the connection between their behaviors, thoughts, emotions, and their sexual activity.
Support groups, such as Sex Addicts Anonymous, or medication can also support people on their journey towards recovery, on either an outpatient basis or within a structured rehab program.
Find Treatment For Sex Addiction
Sex addiction is a highly stigmatized condition that can often cause shame, confusion, and depression. If you or a loved one is struggling with compulsive sexual behaviors, there is hope.
Call our helpline today to find information about sex addiction treatment options and to find an addiction treatment program that’s right for you.
Addiction Resource aims to provide only the most current, accurate information in regards to addiction and addiction treatment, which means we only reference the most credible sources available.
These include peer-reviewed journals, government entities and academic institutions, and leaders in addiction healthcare and advocacy. Learn more about how we safeguard our content by viewing our editorial policy.
- American Psychiatric Association Publishing: DSM Library—Sexual Dysfunctions
- U.S. National Library of Medicine—Relationships between Behavioural Addictions and Psychiatric Disorders: What Is Known and What Is Yet to Be Learned?
- U.S. National Library of Medicine—Understanding and Managing Compulsive Sexual Behaviors
- World Health Organization (WHO)—The ICD-10 Classification of Mental and Behavioural Disorders: Clinical descriptions and diagnostic guidelines