It might be said (an often is) that sex addiction is where alcoholism was in the 1950s in terms of public awareness and acceptance. With each new celebrity claiming sex addiction or compulsive sexual behavior as an issue it loses more of it’s stigma. However, recognition of sex addiction as a medical and mental health concern faces greater barriers than did alcoholism. Let’s face it, sex is a loaded concept in our culture. What is considered acceptable sexual behavior runs in extremes: on one side of the continuum are those who would rather pretend sex didn’t exist and should only be acknowledged in the context of a marriage bed in efforts to procreate. On the other end, almost anything goes, sexually speaking – no rules, no boundaries, and don’t judge me. Enter stage right -- sex addiction.
The term itself is often misused and overused. To complicate matters, similar terms have also become popular. Chief among them are Hypersexual Disorder and Compulsive Sexual Behavior Disorder. Despite all the confusion, these three terms have very similar meanings. See this chart to compare the characteristics of all three:
Whatever you call it, it is important to know that the issue is recognizable, has specific symptoms, and can be treated! Generally speaking, if one meets three or more of the criteria above, he or she may struggle with a sexual addiction or compulsive sexual behavior. The particular acting out behavior (regardless of social, legal, religious or family approval or disapproval) does not make one sexually compulsive or a sex addict. Rather, sex addicts exhibit one or more of the following:
They have lost control of the behavior. Though they have promised themselves or another to stop/cut back and intended to stop/cut back they return to the behavior over and over. If they do stop/cut back for a period of time, they can't reliably predict when they might start again. Once they have begun acting out again, they can't reliably predict when they will stop.
2. They are preoccupied or obsessed with sex. It takes up a lot of space and time in
their lives. Sometimes, they have even given up or missed out on other important
events and life areas because of this preoccupation. When they can’t be/or aren’t
sexual, they may feel annoyed, irritable, antsy, or anxious. Sex becomes a soothing
behavior to address stress, anxiety, and other uncomfortable feelings.
3. They continue to use sexual behaviors even though they have experienced
negative consequences as a result. Knowing that their sexual behavior will likely
make life worse in the long run, they are unable to do anything else. Some have
experienced extreme and even life-threatening outcomes because of their sexual
A 4th characteristic that can be quite common with compulsive sexual behavior is the progression. For many, the sexual compulsivity started with seemingly harmless, and even "normal", activity. Over time, their sexual activity escalated in to more extreme, intense, and/or time consuming behaviors. Examples of progression might include:
finding a parent's, older sibling's, or someone else's Playboys as a child -->
beginning to view male/female pornography online as an adolescent/child --> porn videos take on more extreme qualities (i.e., group sex, BDSM, forced sex, etc.)
being exposed to pornography at a young age --> continued viewing of mostly male/female pornography --> porn videos take on more extreme qualities, including same sex material, though he identifies as a straight male --> same sex attraction becomes stronger even leading to finding anonymous sex partners online. When not acting out, he continues to be attracted to females.
Of course, the progression probably looks different for as many people who struggle with this problem. The progression likely means if the person tried to return to behavior that used to be arousing, she or he will not have the same effect. They have developed a tolerance to the more mild acting out patterns and require something more extreme to get the pleasure they are seeking. Not every sex addict experiences this tolerance, but it is very common.
If you relate to any of this, don’t let preconceptions about the terms sexual addiction or compulsive sexual behavior or hypersexual behavior deter you from getting support. As one client told me, “It doesn’t matter what I call it. The fact is, it is destroying my life and I need help.”
If you believe you may have a problem with compulsive sexual behavior, don’t struggle alone. Recovery is possible.