Although some would argue that sex addiction does not exist (take the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-5 for example), many others argue that it does, and back their argument with strong neurobiological evidence. Research by Patrick Carnes and Donald Hilton, among others is beginning to show that sex addiction exists and needs to be effectively treated (more on their work later). Sex addiction is an addiction, and here’s why.
Sex addiction has all of the characteristics of an addiction. The American Society of Addiction Medication describes addiction as a disease of brain reward, motivation, memory, and brain circuitry, and is characterized by:
- Inability to consistently abstain
- Impairment in behavioral control
- Craving; or increased “hunger” for drugs or rewarding experiences
- Diminished recognition of significant problems with one’s behaviors and interpersonal relationships; and
- A dysfunctional emotional response.
The American Society of Addiction Medication has recently described sex addiction as an addiction in 2011. Sex addiction meets all of the characteristics of addiction. An individual with sex addiction:
- Has an inability to abstain from sexual stimulation
- Has an impairment in behavioral control: can’t control how often and how long he/she engages in sex
- Experiences cravings for sexual experiences: an addict has different triggers into acting out
- Diminished ability to recognize problems with his/her behaviors and in interpersonal relationships
- Has a dysfunctional emotional response: uses sex for reward/and or relief.
Sex addiction is a process addiction or behavioral addiction, meaning that an individual is addicted to the act of sex. Sex becomes the “drug” of choice for an addict. Others prefer to use the term problematic sexual behavior or compulsive sexual behavior (Hentsch-Cowles & Brock, 2013). With sexual content constantly available, this “drug” can be free, always accessible, and an easy escape for an addict.
Although the “drug” in sex addiction is sex, sex addiction is not about sex. It is about emotional mismanagement. It occurs when an individual uses sex to minimize pain and painful emotions or augment pleasure. Generally, a mix of genetics and traumatic experiences underlie sex addiction. When an individual with a sex addiction feels a difficult emotion, and he/she does not have healthy ways of coping with that emotion, he/she will often turn to sex. He/she will feel a “high” with sexual release, which is very short-lived, and only helps the individual “escape” temporarily. Then the individual often feels guilt and shame (two difficult emotions), and that can start the whole process over. The individual becomes caught in the squirrel-cage of addiction.
Sex addiction, like any other type of addiction, hijacks the reward pathways in the brain and damages brain circuits. Sex addiction, like all addictions, makes addicts’ lives become out of control and unmanageable. Sex addiction harms the addict’s ability to make choices and the addict’s ability to maintain loving relationships. The severity of sex addiction and its consequences progresses if left unaddressed.
At Center for Marriage and Family Counseling (and LifeSTAR Dallas), we specialize in treatment for sex addiction. If you think that you have a sex addiction, schedule an appointment with us today. You are not alone. We can help!
American Society of Addiction Medication. (2011). Public policy statement: Definition of addiction. Retrieved from: http://www.asam.org/docs/publicy-policy-statements/1definition_of_addiction_long_4-11.pdf?sfvrsn=2#search=”sex addiction”
Hentsch-Cowles, G., & Brock, L. J. (2013). A systemic review of the literature on the role of the partner of the sex addict, treatment models, and a call for research for systems theory model in treating the partner. Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity, 20(4), 323-335. doi:10.1080/10720162.2013.845864