by Lindsey Steffen, LMHC, Wellspring Therapist
Sexual addiction has been one of the many taboo topics in our culture for years. An increasing awareness of the breadth and gravity of the issue and a normalization by the mental health community of it as an addiction like any other is slowly creating safe spaces for people to bravely seek professional help. According to the Ranch addiction recovery program, “Conservative sex addiction statistics indicate compulsive sexual behavior affects an estimated 3-6% of U.S. adults, which equates to 7.4-14.7 million adults… Some sites list higher rates of sexual addiction, with estimates ranging from 6-8%, or 14.7-19.6 million adults.
” People frequently ask me as a therapist what is sexual addiction and how does this differ from a high sex drive and normal sexual behavior? The DSM has not yet included a formal diagnosis for the disorder, but it developed a criteria supported as reliable and valid by research to identify hypersexuality. A key component is someone continuing to seek out sexual acts in a compulsive manner despite that fact that negative consequences are affecting the individual and often other people as well. There is a sense of a loss of control and a distressing inability to regulate problematic sexual urges and acting out behaviors. This is really the classifier for any addiction, being unable to control obsessive thoughts and behaviors around whatever the stimulus may be, whether a chemical substance or a behavioral addiction, for example sex, shopping, gambling, or food.
In my clinical experience, all addictions are simply a symptom. The behavior itself whether sexual acting out, drug use, gambling, excessive shopping, or anorexia is simply used to alter a mood state. Instead of dealing with feelings of anxiety, depression, boredom, irritability or whatever emotion a person is trying to escape, they try to stay in denial of the emotion and find a way to feel relief even for a few moments. I find that sexual addiction specifically is used to meet the need for intimacy that has been unfulfilled in a person’s life. People who long for connection but don’t trust people perhaps due to early childhood trauma and break of trust with early caregivers desperately desire connection but are too fearful of being hurt. They can’t tolerate being vulnerable emotionally so they mask the emotional need with physical gratification. Pornography, strip clubs or paying for sexual acts cuts out the vulnerability and risk of rejection.
Woman are affected by sexual addiction just as men are although statistically we find a lower population of female sex addicts. For every 3 men struggling, there is 1 woman also fighting this battle.2 In clinical settings, we find that females are more prone to other self-medicating behaviors such as eating disorders or co-dependency. However, both men and women often find themselves fighting for sexual integrity due to the same root causes. Both genders face similar consequences that may include STDs, being a victim of violence, legal ramifications, losing a job, ruining family and friend relationships, and brain rewiring as shown in research that links sex addiction to depressive symptoms. There are not enough studies in neuroscience to speak to a genetic link for sexual addiction, but I and colleagues find that both past sexual abuse, early expose to porn or some form of abuse or neglect almost always emerges while taking the client history. Survivors of sexual abuse have brains that were wired often in key developmental years around thought patterns like sex equals love or sex is all you are good for, and people try to dysfunctionally and unsuccessfully meet important human needs for emotional connection and validation through sex.
The good news is that help is out there! Therapists can assist clients in facing and healing from traumas that drive the addictive behaviors. Clients can begin to learn coping skills, stress management, perhaps attend 12 step meetings and find accountability so they can learn a new way of living that actually allows them to achieve the relief and peace of mind they are so desperately chasing through sexual addiction. If you are struggling with sexual addiction, know that you are not alone and sobriety is absolutely achievable for you no matter what your story.