Understanding Sex Addiction: What exactly is Sex Addiction?

The simple truth is that no one really knows for sure. Few experts agree on an exact definition and currently sex addiction is not even listed in the DSM-5 which is the manual used to determine the diagnosis of mental illness. Although the exact nature of sex addiction continues to be a bit blurry there is some agreement regarding the symptoms and behavior patterns surrounding this complex condition.

What are the symptoms of Sex Addiction?

We do know that individuals struggling with sex addiction display specific patterns of thinking and behavior that include;

  • Experiencing increased cravings for sex.
  • Developing increased frequency in sexual activity.
  • Increased pursuit of deviant or high-risk sexual behaviors.
  • Developing a tolerance to sexual activities that are in the “norm”.
  • Experiencing an increase in serial sexual-encounters.
  • Experiencing failed attempts to regulate or stop sexual activity.
  • Experiencing a compulsive preoccupation for sex.
  • Engaging in sexual activity to the point of physical injury.
  • Failing to keep deals with loved ones to curtail sexual activity.
  • Habitual use of sex as a coping skill for ie.. emotional discomfort.
  • Loss of intimate relationship partners due to sexual pursuits.
  • Loss of employment due to sexual preoccupation.
  • Increased isolation due to sexual pursuits, ie..porn, online chats.
  • Loss of social relationships due to sexual gratification pursuits.

While many individuals may experience a few of these behaviors during some season of our life sex addiction may be more specifically indicated for those individuals experiencing 3- or more of these symptoms over a period of 6 – months or more.

What causes these Sex Addiction symptoms?

It is understood that sex addiction like all addictions impacts the 3 – basic human functions including biology – psychology – mood/emotion.

If we could take an x-ray of the bio-psy-emo triangle in the soul of the individual that was struggling with sex addiction we would see some specific irregularities that might be outside the “norm”.

How is a sex addict’s brain different from the “norm”?

Biologically – Individuals who have developed a sex addiction will show a need for exaggerated measures of pleasure chemicals in the brain most specifically including dopamine. The brain’s organic response to sexual stimulation, which may include stimulation through 1 or more of the 5 – senses (touch, taste, smell, visual, auditory), is to release measures of pleasure chemicals into the brain per each stimulus event. Sex addicts have overloaded the brain with sexual stimuli producing exaggerated measures of dopamine. Using a mathematical metaphor this means that the addicts natural sexual reward chemical measure which started at 100- units of dopamine to produce the effect of intense sexual pleasure is now, after excessive sexual stimulation, at a measure of 10,000 units of dopamine in order to produce the same effect. Subsequently the addict will now require more stimulation in order to be turned on.

Clients who come in for counseling after producing these inflated reward levels will often wonder why they are having problems with sexual arousal and sexual interest in their intimate partner.

They remark that they often have difficulty achieving arousal such as the male encountering difficulty with maintaining an erection. The explanation for this dilemma is that the addict’s sexual reward chemical expectations are simply too unrealistic for any partner to meet. This means that the sexual pleasure chemical measure is higher with a dehumanized sexual product and lower with a human sexual partner. It is this chemical distortion that compels the addict to chase sexual stimuli around an endless circle in an attempt to regain that exaggerated pleasure effect. This leads to a chronic struggle with sexual preoccupation and sexually compulsive behaviors.

What is happening with a sex addict psychologically?

Psychologically – Individuals struggling with sex addiction are having difficulty with 2- specific psychological functions. The first is regulation of sexual gratification. This means that addicts may struggle with saying “no” to the desire for sex. They may feel overwhelmed by the pleasure state of consciousness that comes with sex and simply feel unable to govern this reward event in their brain.

The second psychological dysfunction surrounds developing a dependence on sex as a coping mechanism to mask or divert from psychological distress or external stressors. This is commonly known in addiction circles as self-medicating. Using sex to self-medicate over time transforms a coping skill into a full-blown dependence. This dependence then takes on a life of its own becoming a totally new and separate problem. This new problem (the addiction) now sits alongside the original problem that sex was being used to medicate. This means that even if the original problem goes away the coping skill turned addiction still remains active and problematic.

What are the emotional consequences of sex addiction?  

Emotionally – Individuals engaged in the perpetual pursuit of prolonged and exaggerated pleasure states tend to experience disruption in emotional equilibrium. This means that sex addiction causes a significant disturbance that interferes with the addict’s ability to maintain emotional balance. This distraction also disrupts the addict’s ability to manage their emotions. It should also be noted that sex addiction impacts the overall quality of the addict’s emotional experience as the expectation of higher highs over-rides simple pleasure experiences which are dismissed as dull and dreary. Subsequently sex addicts struggle with low frustration tolerance. They tend to be irritable, easily prone to boredom, presenting indifference and apathy as the addicted brain has little interest in any emotion that is not a step on the stairway to ecstasy.

How do you treat sex addiction?

Sex addiction treatment is truly a new science. Currently this condition is treated on both an inpatient and an outpatient basis. Inpatient treatment includes a sexual detox component which means that the addict chooses the benefits of a residential setting so that they will be more restricted from sexual pleasure-seeking habits. This atmosphere gives the treatment a better chance to take root. Both inpatient and outpatient sex addiction treatment tend to follow the course of 12-step addiction treatment protocols. This protocol includes going to 12-step groups and acquiring a sponsor. Sex addiction may be considered more difficult to treat because unlike other addictions sex addicts have access to their drug at all times.

The goal of treatment is to create a sexually sober lifestyle by constructing a recovery plan that can become a way of life.

To contact Larry Marshall to set up an appointment you can use the contact form below or dial our office number. We look forward to speaking with you!

Author: Larry Marshall, LPC

O: 314-817-0699

sex addiction therapist