Sex addiction, love addiction and relationship addiction are complex issues requiring specialised treatment. In America, the National Council on Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity has defined sexual addiction as “engaging in persistent and escalating patterns of sexual behaviour acted out despite increasing negative consequences to self and others.” This means that a sex addict will compulsively enact sexual behaviours that carry health risks, financial problems, the danger of arrest and the risk of the break-up of intimate relationships with loved ones.
The American Psychiatric Association’s ‘Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychiatric Disorders’ (DSM-IV-TR; 2000) places sex addiction within the category of ‘Sexual Disorders Not Otherwise Specified’. Here, sex addiction is defined in terms of “distress about a pattern of repeated sexual relationships involving a succession of lovers who are experienced by the individual only as things to be used”.
According to DSM-IV, sex addiction will also involve “compulsive searching for multiple partners, compulsive fixation on an unattainable partner, compulsive masturbation, compulsive love relationships and compulsive sexuality in a relationship.” Sex addiction seems to be a growing problem, with more and more sufferers requiring treatment for it. Its rise may well be linked to the sexualisation of society and the easy availability of cyber pornography, sex chat-rooms, sex phone lines, escort services, sex cams and adult dating sites.
Research by Dr Patrick Carnes, who pioneered the treatment of sex addiction, has suggested that the majority of sufferers grew up in rigid, hierarchical, families, where there was a religious tone, limited emotional expression, discomfort around sex as a topic, a high likelihood of sexual abuse, and the experience of feeling unloved by caregivers. The same sort of obsessive-compulsive processes that characterise other addictions are also evident in sex addiction.
Sex addiction provides momentary relief from uncomfortable feelings and reality; as with other addictions, it is a way of mediating difficult feelings. Sex addiction is, like all addictions, highly ritualised and runs a predictable course. Sufferers will experience the development of a tolerance and find themselves pursuing more and more intense sexual highs. There is likely to be a progression in terms of sexual behaviours engaged in and accompanying consequences. As with all addictions, attempts at control or abstinence will ultimately fail and the sex addict will find themselves behaving in ways that pose serious risks to self or loved ones. Following the sexual acting out, the sex addict will tend to experience feelings of guilt, shame and remorse.
These may be accompanied by promises to not act out again – these will not be kept for any length of time. Psychologically, sex addicts are likely to spend a lot of time in their heads and become very emotionally numb. Because the pursuit of sex addiction involves a lot of lying and concealment, it inhibits any real intimacy. Indeed, sex addiction can also be thought of as an intimacy disorder. Sex addicts, whether in relationships or not, tend to feel isolated, lonely and fragmented.
They are also likely to feel an inordinate amount of shame, because the compulsivity of sex addiction often drives sufferers to cross their ethical and moral boundaries. Complicating matters, a sex drive is something we all possess. Recovery from sex addiction is, then, not about being abstinent from sex. It is about integrating healthy sexual behaviours into one’s life and finding the capacity to hold truly intimate relationships.
Recovery from sex addiction is possible, but will take time and hard work. At Start2Stop, we have a lot of experience in working with sex addiction and follow the very effective Carnes model for treating it.
Are You a Sex Addict?
If you’re unsure answer the following questions and see if you relate to them…