Is Sex Addiction Real?

Is Sex Addiction Real

Besides being famous, what do golfer Tiger Woods, actor David Duchovny, former ESPN sportscaster Steve Phillips–and now Jesse James (who’s married to Oscar winner Sandra Bullock)–have in common? They’re all linked to marital infidelities that were later attributed to sexual addiction.

But experts disagree about whether sex addiction, sometimes called “sexual dependency” or “sexual compulsivity,” is a true disorder or simply a lame excuse for behaving badly and ducking responsibility.

Detractors – Sex Addiction Isn’t Real

Those who don’t believe sex addiction exists fall into three main camps:

  • “Boys will be boys.” This was how Duchovny’s wife, actress Tea Leoni, first reacted to his serial dalliances.
  • Poor self-control. People who can’t control their sexual urges deserve punishment, not sympathy. Sympathy excuses—even encourages—immoral behavior.
  • No evidence. There is no accepted medical definition of sexual addiction. It’s not recognized in the current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), which is considered the definitive authority.

Supporters – Sex Addiction Is Just Like Drug Addiction

To a growing majority of advocates, sex addiction is very real, and is comparable to drug, alcohol, or tobacco addiction.

True, the DSM doesn’t contain the exact term “sex addiction.” However:

  • The most recent (2007) version of the International Classification of Diseases, published by the World Health Organization, includes “excessive sexual drive” (also called “hypersexuality”) as an official diagnosis.
  • DSM recognizes “Sexual Disorders Not Otherwise Specified,” which embrace many harmful behaviors associated with sex addiction. Furthermore, the American Psychiatric Association recommends including “hypersexual disorder’’ in the next DSM.

Nevertheless, equating sexual compulsion to substance addiction is problematic for detractors. Substance addicts ingest actual substances with documented chemical effects on the brain. For sex addicts—like gambling and shopping addicts—the “drug” is not a substance but a behavior.

But detractors are missing a crucial point. According to accumulating credible evidence, all addictions have the same motivations and neurochemical traits:

  • All addictions and addiction cycles start with personal core pain involving feelings of extremely low self-worth based on shame, anger, or unresolved conflict. Addicts can’t cope with these feelings. Irresistible urges to medicate them ratchet—intensifying the pain—and the urges eventually win out.
  • Hypersexual behavior produces the same chemicals in the brain as drugs or alcohol, delivering a “high” that temporarily blunts the core pain.

Studies confirm that an addict’s “drug of choice” can be a substance or a behavior. For example, in 2008, the Mayo Clinic successfully treated a patient’s addiction to Internet pornography with medication used to treat alcoholism. (Bostwick, J & Bucci, J. (February 2008). “Internet Sex Addiction Treated With Naltrexone.” Mayo Clinic Proceedings, Vol. 83 No. 2, pp. 226-230,

Top Seven Sex Addiction Symptoms

Interest in sex is quintessentially human. High sex drive is not sex addiction. But when urges and activities impact daily functioning and relationships, the line is crossed.

The main signs of sex addiction are:

  1. Core pain (described above).
  2. Preoccupation/obsession. An addict can’t stop thinking about sex; it takes priority over family, friends, and work. Life is organized around sex, and excessive time is spent to find, engage in, or recover from it.
  3. Compulsivity. Addicts can’t control the behavior, despite repeated attempts.
  4. No pleasure/shame. Addicts don’t enjoy sex. Their medicating high is temporary, and followed by immediate shame: they’ve betrayed their partners and their own values, and vow never to do it again.
  5. Persistence. Addicts continue their behavior despite knowing it’s harmful. They risk arrest and STDs. They neglect and jeopardize their family, friends, and jobs.
  6. Tolerance. To achieve the same high from their “drug,” addicts must escalate sexual activity.
  7. Agitation. If denied their “fix,” addicts become anxious, even violent.

(This list was distilled from many sources. See, for example: Carnes, P., Delmonico, D., & Griffin, E. (2d ed 2007). In the Shadows of the Net: Breaking Free of Online Sexual Behavior. Center City, MN: Hazelton Foundation, p. 31; Goodman, A. (2001). “What’s in a Name? Terminology for Designating a Syndrome of Driven Sexual Behavior.” Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity. Vol. 8:191–213, pp. 195-196; Hagedorn, W; Juhnke, G. (April 2005). “Treating the Sexually Addicted Client: Establishing a Need for Increased Counselor Awareness.” Journal of Addictions & Offender Counseling, Vol. 25, No. 2, p. 66.)

Sex Addiction Treatment – Getting Help

Because of the similarities between sex and substance addictions, rehab centers and professional therapists treat them the same way. In-patient and out-patient programs use the following:

  • Counseling/psychotherapy, to understand the reasons for excessive behaviors and develop new coping strategies.
  • Self-help, often via 12-step programs such as Sex Addicts Anonymous® and Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous.
  • Medication such as anti-depressants, which decrease libido.

However, sex addiction treatment and substance addiction treatment have markedly different goals. An alcoholic aspires to never drink again; sex addicts seek healthy sexual relationships, not to eliminate sex.

Conclusions About Sexual Addiction

Although detractors correctly note the dearth of reliable statistics, it appears that 3% to 10% of all Americans (men and women) are afflicted with sexual compulsion, representing nine to 30 million people—an appreciable number under any analysis.

Regardless of the uncertainty surrounding definitions and prevalence, the reality is this: many people have sexual urges they’re unable to control, harming themselves and their loved ones. The argument that sex addition “isn’t real” therefore defies both logic and the trajectory of recent science revealing the similarities between all addictions.

Rehab and 12-steps support groups have proved effective, offering hope to sufferers who feel powerless in the painful shadow of their compulsions.

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