Sex Addiction: How Can You End Up Addicted to Sex?

Sex Addiction

Liking sex is every bit as natural as getting hungry. One of the many things we’re “wired” for as humans is to crave sexual attention and seek sexual action – but most of the time, we have sex not to procreate, but to build a bond, release tension and connect with others. Sex is as much a relationship tool as it is a way for us to pass on our genes, and sexual appeal and attraction is so universally important and powerful that it’s one of the most important lessons in marketing. Of course, not everyone likes sex –  but most do.

But just because it’s natural to like something does not mean it’s healthy when that interest turns into a full-blown debilitating obsession. Sex addiction, as a real diagnosable condition, is a set of symptoms and factors that does not make for a “fun” or “exciting” life, but for one filled with emotional hardships, financial ruin, and social humiliation.

Sex addiction is real – but it works differently than most cases of substance dependence. To understand how a person can be addicted to sex, you must understand how addiction works, what it is, and what it is not.


What Is an Addiction to Sex?

Sex addiction, also known as hypersexual disorder, is not included in the DSM-V, the definitive guide on diagnostic criteria for psychological disorders. However, that does not make it less real – it simply represents a challenge among academics to accurately describe and categorize this condition, especially in relation to substance dependence (addiction) and what we know of addiction and the brain.

Sex addiction exists, and research shows that it is in many ways quite similar to substance-based addiction in the way the brain reacts to sexual stimuli, cravings and thoughts of sex. Someone struggling with sex addiction (or a hypersexual disorder) does not just like sex or prefers one-night stands to relationships. They don’t just display a specific fetish or sexual preference. They are not diagnosed on the basis of their “kinks”. Rather, sex addiction, like substance misuse, is identified by the inability to control the compulsion to seek sexual thrill, no matter in what way the patient seeks it.

Sex addiction manifests in many different forms, but the common thread is how the addiction essentially robs the person of their ability to live their life. In general, people are influenced by their sex drive, both consciously and subconsciously – but we can inhibit these feelings to focus on other things in life, such as work, relationships, and our hobbies and passions.

However, a person struggling with a sex addiction will seek their sexual gratification at all times, in any way they can, often endangering their relationships and jobs in order to get off. Stories of serial one-night stands, office sex, public exhibitionism and more plague a sex addict’s life, not in the context of sexual adventurism, but an inability to stop themselves from going through with their disorder’s desires. Like any addiction, it can ruin lives – both for the patient and their friends and loved ones.


How Sex Addiction Can Manifest

Sex addiction is a broad term to describe a variety of different ways in which a person can be addicted to sexual gratification. Some people are addicted to porn, spending hours a day fantasizing and looking at pornography, going out of their way to acquire and collect more pornographic material, to the point that it drastically affects their relationships with others and their productivity as a person.

Other people get off specifically on exhibitionism/voyeurism or prostitution, not simply as a personal choice or career option, but because of a deeper and debilitating compulsion.

In sex addiction, the important diagnostic distinction is the psychological reason behind someone’s engagement in sexual activity, rather than the nature of their activity. While many forms of sex addiction include excessive sexual pursuits, these are not in-and-of themselves signs of an addiction. Signs of sex addiction include:

  • Feelings of isolation, loneliness, and anger. Sexual addiction is often accompanied by mood swings, or full-blown mood disorders like depression.
  • Inability to maintain a steady relationship, and constant cheating. While sex addicts can experience love, their addiction will often trump their ability to stay faithful, leading to further shame and guilt.
  • Decline in social engagement and family communication.
  • Physical symptoms as a result of unprotected sex or dangerously frequent intercourse include sexual dysfunction, as well as STDs.

Like many other addictions, sex addiction can correlate with other forms of mental illness, such as anxiety and substance abuse. Whether these are factors in the development of the addiction, or caused/incited by the addiction, differ from person to person. Like other forms of addiction, both treatment and diagnosis depend on the specifics of an individual case.


It Is Treatable

Due to greater awareness and a better understanding of what the condition is and isn’t, more data on sex addiction in the US is available today than ever. But like most addictions, few people get treatment. Almost all feel shame and regret for their actions but can’t stop themselves.

Like any addiction, sex addiction can be treated. And like any addiction, the treatment used to help someone free themselves from their sexual compulsions is based entirely on the nature of their addiction, their personal and family history, and the circumstances and possibilities open to them. Treatment is not fast, simple, or universally applicable, requiring a professional diagnosis. However, you can get help at any local treatment center, and there are many professionals you can contact for help in your case of sex addiction.

The path forward will be difficult, and there might be times when you want to “indulge” due to stress, or emotional pain. That’s why it’s important to seek help not just from professionals at a clinic, but from your trusted friends and family. Help them understand that your condition is real and treatable, and that they can help you be the best you. Just as you have to go through treatment, the people who decide to stand by you and support you will have to learn more about your condition and how to help you stay strong.


What Is Sex Addiction?

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Due to the recent opioid crisis and years of pop-culture discussions, our concept of addiction is at times flawed. As a nation, there is still an undeniable stigma against addiction – some see it as a moral weakness rather than an illness. And as a nation, addiction is still too often tied to substances, especially illicit ones, given the role prescription medication and alcohol have played. Yet beyond that, many still see addiction as a matter of substance abuse only. That’s not true however. Addiction comes in many forms, and affects many people, regardless of background. For some, addiction is at the bottom of a wine or pill bottle, while for others, it is in the annals of a pornography website, or the seedy room of a local motel in the form of sex addiction.

Sex addiction, like many other behavioral addictions, can be just as destructive and problematic as an opioid addiction or alcoholism. But to understand why people get addicted to something as commonplace and natural as sex, it is important to clarify our definitions of addiction and understand where it starts.


Defining Addiction

Addiction can be defined as detrimental obsessive behavior. It is when a person experiences a compulsive need to do something to soothe themselves, to the point that it may hurt them and others around them. Yet unlike OCD, addiction is caused by an external trigger and tied to the reward center of the brain. It is intricately tied to pleasure and stress-relief, and to the concept of motivation. Compulsions are tied to fear and anxiety.

Addictive drugs are defined as addictive because they mimic certain neurotransmitters in the brain related to pleasure, happiness, and motivation.

Just like how drugs can become addictive, certain behavior can become addictive due to maladaptive coping. This makes behavioral addictions work like substance addictions in terms of brain chemistry and individual differences in neurobiology, but while substance use can go from innocent experimentation to full-blown addiction, behavioral addiction is typically tied to stress or trauma.

For example: food addictions, or food disorders, are often tied to self-esteem issues, and codependency with depression and anxiety. While substance use can also be a matter of self-medication and maladaptive coping, it often is not.


How Sex Addiction Affect Lives

The important thing to know when talking about sex, addiction and healthy behavior is stress. Stress is a normal part of daily life – and dealing with it is a big part of being human. Everyone copes differently to different stressors – we have our own rituals, living standards and traditions to cope with everyday stress, and we have our own ways of grieving and coping with loss and significant pain.

Yet when the stress is too great, we can get locked in a loop of needing constant relief from that lasting trauma. Certain traumas leave a psychological fracture in people – if not treated or personally overcome, that crack will leave lasting symptoms, including flashbacks, suppressed memories, depression, self-esteem issues and anxieties. Many seek out pleasurable activities to fight the symptoms, from exercise to sex to food and drugs.

While it often is, sex addiction does not have to be linked to trauma. The brain tells us sex is good, because part of our blueprint is the desire to procreate. So, we use sex to deal with stress, until that repetitive behavior becomes a loop we cannot escape from. Some people are more prone to this than others, due to unique intricacies in the brain that vary from person to person.


Healthy Behavior vs. Addictive Behavior

Sex is healthy, and for most people, it is an important part of leading a healthy life. As much as we like to avoid the topic, many of our desires and social behaviors are tied to concepts like libido and sexuality – embracing the importance of healthy, safe, and communicative sex can help address relationship issues and more. Suppressing or avoiding the topic can have negative consequences, and lead to miscommunication, and even sexual violence.

Yet just like any other enjoyable activity, sex can go from being a healthy part of life to becoming a dependence, an issue of self-control and obsession. Sex addiction implies a massive dependence on sex for happiness, fulfilment, and stress relief, to the point that it becomes an unavoidable need for many addicts, to the point where many would go so far as to sacrifice careers, relationships, and fortunes to address this need. Once a behavior crosses the line from being positive to having a massive negative influence, it is time to get help and examine things with a greater perspective.


Treating A Sex Addiction

Treatment for addiction often implies sobriety, but in the case of something like sex or food, it is hard to stay “sober”. Instead of setting patients up for failure with concepts like lifelong abstinence and chastity, the emphasis in sex addiction treatment is put on fixing a patient’s relationship to sex and others and helping them understand where their thought process went wrong – so they can catch themselves in the act and correct their thinking accordingly.

This makes specific treatment difficult to describe, as everyone must find methods that suit themselves best. Developing better coping mechanisms for stress is important, so as not to misuse sex to run away from pain or problems. Relationship counseling can help broken marriages and relationships, while therapy can help you better understand your addictive behavior and give you the tools to stop specific thoughts before they turn into actions.

Addiction treatment always begins with a desire for change. While the law has provisions in place to allow family members and the courts to forcibly send someone into treatment, treatment itself can only begin when the patient acknowledges the issue and wholeheartedly takes their first step towards a better, healthier understanding of sex.

Sex addiction, like food addiction, cannot be solved through sobriety or even abstinence. There is a natural inclination in most people to seek out a partner and procreate, just as we all go hungry eventually.

The key lies in understanding what led to this twisted relationship with sex, and finding a way to fix it, overcome the issue, and live a psychologically healthy life surrounded by supportive individuals and strong, effective coping mechanisms for stress and struggle.

Some people find their best route towards a life like this lies in group meetings, 12-step programs, or God. Others take a clinical approach, utilizing medicine and talk therapy. Others yet channel their frustrations into productive and creative endeavors. There is no clear-cut way, no tried-and-true method that fits any set of circumstances and necessities. But by working with professionals, you can find the methods that suit you best and overcome your addiction in time.


Sex Addiction: Addiction Isn’t Limited to Just Drugs

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Addiction comes in many shapes and forms. For some people, it’s drugs. For others, it’s gambling. Some people even consider obsessive behavior, like the obsession with falling in and out of love, to be a kind of addiction. Sometimes addiction also comes in the form of some of the things we all love – sex and food, for example. For some, it’s hard to imagine the line between loving sex and food and being addicted to it – but if you have ever seen someone struggling with the issue of food or sex addiction, you’ll know that there is absolutely no mistaking it.

To understand what sex addiction is, and how it is every bit as real as any other behavioral or substance addiction, we have to go back to the roots and examine addiction itself.


How Addiction Works

Addiction works similarly across the board, with differences here and there in terms of circumstances, triggers, and reasons. For example: while there is a myriad of risk factors that contribute to why someone might get addicted, their actual reasons may only include peer pressure, and genetics.

Drugs are commonly more addictive than habits because they’re designed to be addictive. Their effects on the brain create a powerful craving and make you more susceptible to addiction than anything else through the unnatural and high release of dopamine.

But behavior can be just as addictive under the right circumstances, given the right emotional and psychological condition, and the right genetic makeup. Gambling, video games, sex, food, thrills – there are a million enjoyable things in life, all of which give you a “natural high”, which can potentially become addictive under the right circumstances.

Addiction is affected by the addictiveness of the drug or activity (some habits, like food, are naturally enjoyable, while others like gambling and certain video games are purposefully designed to create addiction and “customer retention”), the genetic makeup of a person (people with family histories of addiction are more prone to it), their mental state (self-medicating after a trauma or during a depression is a gateway to a larger problem), environmental factors (high-stress work environment, getting fired, an abusive household), and peer pressure.

The mechanism for addiction takes place in the pleasure centers of the brain: pathways of nerves that activate and respond to behavior by rewarding or punishing you, in order to make you learn or adapt to certain situations. For example: your brain rewards you for high-calorie foods but punishes you with pain for doing something risky. Your natural instinct will make you crave the food and be reluctant about repeating the risky activity.

With addiction, that part of the brain is overstimulated by a massive release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that triggers joy, as well as a series of other reactions in the brain triggering the characteristics of the high. Alcohol and sedatives like barbiturates/benzodiazepine affect the GABA neurotransmitter, making you sluggish, sleepy, and lowering your inhibition. On the other hand, opioids slow your breathing and kill off pain.

For some people, activities can produce a similarly powerful effect, as well as a subsequent craving, and with time, an addiction.


What is Behavioral Addiction

Behavioral addictions do not involve the use of substances and revolve around an unnatural obsession with a specific activity, to the point that it becomes ruinous for you. An addiction is most reliably characterized by how much of your life it touches and threatens, and how far you’re willing to go to hide it, and deny its existence, while being unable or seemingly unwilling to give it up.

The final straw is when you do try to stop and find out that you can’t.

This happens often enough with activities like casino gambling and video gaming, but it can also occur with natural behavior, like sexual intercourse.

These addictions are not easier to break than substance abuse just because they lack a chemical component that ties them to the pleasure center of the brain. In some cases, people are simply extremely susceptible to an abnormal release of dopamine to certain activities, or their addiction might be driven by an outside factor, such as a comorbidity with depression, or a hormone imbalance causing hypersexuality and sex addiction.

A behavioral addiction can only reliably be diagnosed by a professional, like any other disease or condition, but it is safe to say that if your hobby or habit has grown from being a constructive part of your life to becoming a major source of stress and obsession, then you’re on the verge of a big problem. If you or your loved ones are exhibiting an inability to stop their destructive behavior, even after multiple warnings and consequences, professional help may be warranted.


What a Sex Addiction Looks Like

Sex addiction can be exceptionally brutal, because of how quickly it destroys relationships and ruins relations with people in general. Sex addicts will be heavily tempted to sacrifice everything they’ve worked for to get off, including cheating on multiple partners, jeopardizing important business with inappropriate behavior and sexual conduct, and engaging in incredibly risky sex despite the potential consequences.

Sex addiction and hypersexuality are two different things. There is nothing wrong with having a specific kink or sharing in a healthy sexual relationship. Two people with matching libidos who agree to an open relationship may be highly sexually active, but as long as they can operate within boundaries set by both parties and respect the concepts of consent and limitations, they are in control of their desires and ultimately have the ability to draw the line when they feel that their behavior is having severe consequences on the relationships they care about.

Someone suffering from sex addiction is unable to control their behavior, or their urges. Their libido is no longer high, it is driven by an obsession with getting off at all costs, no matter what the consequences might be. And, unlike many who feel the ability to be confident in their sexual choices, no matter how unorthodox, sex addicts often feel shame because of an inability to control how they feel or what they want.


Addiction Treatment for Behavioral Addiction

Addictive behavior is not inherently bad. Gambling can cause addiction, which is why it is regulated – but it isn’t illegal, and for a good reason. Video games can be addictive, but they have their share of benefits, and can be excellent devices of stress relief. And sex is arguably an important part of a successful relationship, and a natural thing to desire, to the point where a low libido can be a problem for many.

But sex addiction is more than desire – it’s an unmitigated problem. Thankfully, addiction treatment works for behavioral addictions as well, giving people the tools they need to tackle their obsessions and overcome them.