Sex Addiction: Demystifying the Disease
Yes, sex addiction is a disease as serious and dangerous as any other addiction. It causes great shame, guilt and secrecy. It ruins lives, breaks up families and ends careers. Sex addiction has the added moral stigma that makes it even more uncomfortable to talk about.
The solution, as with most things in life, is education and communication. Everyone needs to be better informed about this particular disease, what causes it, how it happens and what it’s like to suffer with a sex addiction. Only through better understanding and communication of the facts can we properly diagnose sex addiction and treat it.
What Is Sex Addiction?
Because of lingering social stigmas concerning sex in our culture, sex addiction has a dubious reputation. Some people want to use it to label behaviors that don’t fit with their own moral guidelines. Others use the label to celebrate what they think is a superior lifestyle. The moral considerations, however, are not part of the definition or treatment of sex addiction.
It is easy to see the morality connection to sex addiction, since it was first recognized in the 1970s in the midst of the sexual revolution in this country. Young people were openly defying traditional moral codes, increasing the conflict between generations. But members of Alcoholics Anonymous recognized a need and attempted to apply the 12-step program to people who felt powerless against their extreme compulsion to engage in sex acts.
Like any substance addiction, sex addiction is a distortion or malfunctioning of the pleasure centers in the brain. Someone addicted to cocaine is compelled by a force they cannot control to get high again and again and again. Instead of getting worn out on the pleasure of the experience, they crave it more each time, until they cannot stand to exist without the drug in their system.
In much the same way, a person addicted to sex cannot control their urge for sexual pleasure. They may do a number of things to attempt to satisfy their needs. Just like in substance addiction, the addiction takes over and becomes an endless pursuit of the high.
Is Sex Addiction Real?
There are no accurate statistics about the number of people suffering from sex addiction, but the estimated number is as high as 12 million people. Sex addiction is one of the least reported and diagnosed illnesses documented. There is some controversy in the medical community about the diagnosis, and many people are too ashamed to seek help.
There is some speculation that Sex Addiction is related to obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) or is controlled by brain chemicals like dopamine and serotonin. The extreme complexity of brain chemistry has not yet been mastered by scientists seeking to understand addiction and its causes.
What we do know is that all addiction stems from the pleasure centers in the brain. When those areas are not working properly, either because of medical intervention or naturally occurring disease, the result can be addiction. In the brain, addiction is an overload of feel-good chemicals, usually stimulated by an outside source. The brain itself is not able to produce that level of pleasure without outside stimulation, but over time, it develops a stronger craving for the sensation.
Brain chemicals have an unbelievably strong ability to regulate behavior. When the force the brain applies to the body makes a person act in a way that will ensure another high, no matter what the risk, that is addiction. It can happen with almost any substance or activity that alters brain chemistry, like exercise or sex.
A diagnosis of sex addiction is generally based on key addictive behaviors. Compulsive sexual behavior would be the equivalent to engaging in sexual acts frequently, maybe more often than the norm. Like compulsive eating, it presents more as a bad habit. In addiction, a subject risks extreme dangers to engage in sex to satisfy that urge for the high. People will continue to view pornography on their office computers, knowing they are risking their job. Having multiple and indiscriminate sex partners is a big health risk, but an addict will take that chance over and over again.
Ultimately, it is these destructive behaviors that demonstrate the difference between an obsession with sex and an addiction to it. Addiction to anything is a serious problem because addiction compels people to engage in dangerous and illegal behaviors. Over time, these behaviors will erode family life, career and personal health. Addiction in any form can be fatal.
How a sex addiction develops can be different in different subjects. It could start out as a curiosity and advance to a compulsion, which may be the last step before developing a clinically defined addiction. Sex addiction could also originate with a childhood trauma that leaves a person predisposed to addiction. A child of sexual abuse, for example, may grow up to discover they can use sex to gain the power in a relationship. With repetition, this power-seeking strategy becomes an addiction, which then perpetuates itself for the sheer pleasure of it.
In any case of sex addiction, the person has become powerless to change their behavior, and that’s the part that is most dangerous. Despite all the risks, they may alter their means of achieving the high, but they cannot stop thinking about sexual pleasure and are moved to act on those thoughts frequently.
Symptoms of Sex Addiction
There is a lot of shame experienced by people suffering with addiction. People take extreme measures to hide their activities from everyone, including their spouses. There can be visible symptoms of sex addiction, though, that you may be able to spot in others. If you are suffering from a sex addiction and are truly honest with yourself, you will be aware of at least some of these symptoms:
- Frequently engaging in sex with more than one partner
- Unsuccessfully attempting to limit sexual activities
- Often thinking about sex when you should be doing other things
- Engaging in illegal sex acts with prostitutes or minors
- Increasing amount of sexual encounters, like viewing pornography more often
- Experiencing remorse after sexual activity
In general, sex addicts are almost constantly focused on sex. They frequently think about the potential sexual application of ordinary objects. Their purpose in social situations is to gain sexual pleasure, and they may even make frequent comments or jokes about sex. And, like all addicts, they are very secretive about their activities.
What Is Female Sex Addiction?
The stereotype of a sex addict is a man with a filthy mind. This was probably perpetuated by other inaccurate myths about men and sexuality, like the ideas that men cannot control their sexual urges or have a physical need for sex.
Social myths about women and sexuality include the idea that women don’t enjoy sex — that it is just something they do to please men. Historically, female sexual activity was supposed to be solely for the purpose of procreation. Most people believe that a woman could not become a sex addict.
The truth is that about 8-12% of people who seek treatment for sex addiction are female, while the actual number of women suffering from this disease is probably much higher. Because of gender stereotypes, women face more shame than men in admitting their sex addiction. There are also other gender differences inherent in sex addiction.
While male sex addicts tend to objectify their sexual partners, using prostitutes and pornography frequently, women often take a different approach. Female sex addicts often crave the emotional attachment that sex provides for them, using sex for power, control and attention. Rather than objectifying their sex partners, women struggling with sex addiction tend toward trading sex for favors and exchanging pain.
Female sex addicts are acting out of social convention by engaging with multiple sex partners and seeking to control the sexual exchange. In some ways, they are rebelling against cultural norms for “proper” female behavior. Their male counterparts, however, are acting out the sexual stereotypes society has created for them, if taking them to the extreme.
Sex Addiction Causes in Women
On some levels, sex addiction is the same for women as it is for men. The pleasure centers in the brain respond to sex the way they would to cocaine: by flooding the brain with feel-good chemicals. The sensation is unmatched by any other sort of pleasure, so a habit of seeking sexual stimulation develops. The habit increases to continue fulfilling the desire for that extremely pleasant feeling — the high.
Like with other addictions, the causes of sex addiction are vague. It is not clear why some people, when exposed to certain stimuli, develop addictions and others do not. Recent developments in the area of addiction research, however, make it clear that there is a gender gap. Women and men do not develop addictions the same way, at the same rate and for the same reasons.
Women struggling with sex addiction are likely to have been raised in a dysfunctional family where they suffered sexual abuse or neglect. Although a traumatic up-bringing is an underlying cause in several mental illnesses, it is not difficult to draw a connection to sex addiction.
Another connection has been drawn between depression — a predominantly female affliction — and sex addiction. Doctors have been successful in treating sex addiction in women with antidepressant medication, suggesting that depression may be an underlying cause of the sex addiction.
Some of this addiction can also be blamed on social stigmas. A woman who expresses sexual desire may be negatively labeled, making her believe she has done something wrong. If a woman’s sexual behaviors are considered wrong, she may seek to hide them. The social stigma may steer her actions and actually lead her to developing a sex addiction.
Effect of Sex Addiction on Women’s Health
Like any substance addiction, sex addiction presents serious health concerns for women. The need to engage in sex acts frequently, no matter what the cause of the addiction, leads women to put their physical and emotional health at risk.
Sex addiction risks for women include:
- Social ridicule and isolation
- Loss of job
- Inability to maintain relationships
Engaging in sex with multiple partners has stereotypically been the accepted domain of men in our society. Women, especially those suffering with sex addiction, are actually behaving in ways that put their well-being at risk, including having multiple sex partners. In addition to the physical risk, for women there is a social and emotional risk as well.
The physical risk with multiple sex partners is ultimately HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. As many precautions as you take to avoid disease, as the number of different people you encounter sexually increases, your risk does, too. In the case of addiction, a force greater than yourself is compelling you to seek sexual pleasure. Someone suffering from sex addiction is not going to be as cautious about practicing safe sex.
Because of the social stigma connected to women and sex, women who suffer from sex addiction also suffer a great deal of shame. Addiction usually brings about shame, and people work hard to hide their addictive habits. But risky and promiscuous sexual activity includes an additional layer of shame for women. This extreme emotional distress can turn into depression and become life-threatening.
Other factors can contribute to depression in women suffering with sex addiction. Their uncontrollable pursuit of sexual gratification can take many forms, but in all ways it eventually interferes with the important aspects of their lives.
The secrecy of addiction makes it difficult to maintain relationships. Families can come apart when a member is more focused on pursuing a specific type of pleasure than her responsibilities to the family. Looking at sexually explicit material on the computer can jeopardize her reputation at work and her job. Losing a job adds financial strains where stress was already pretty high.
Stress can hurt a woman in many ways. Women tend to feel stress differently than men. They take it on more often with their nurturing and multi-tasking ways. While suffering from sex addiction, a woman carries more of a social stigma than a man, and the threat of losing her job and her relationships takes away any sense of independence she might have had. A lack of independence erodes a woman’s sense of self-esteem, increasing the feeling of hopelessness and depression.
Treatment for Women With Sex Addiction
An effective treatment plan starts with the right diagnosis. Due to stereotypes, women suffering from sex addiction are often misdiagnosed. In fact, only recently have treatment experts recognized how sex addiction is different for women, leading to gender differences in both diagnosis and treatment.
Often, women’s uncharacteristic sexual behavior is attributed to attention-seeking or rebellious attitudes. Some women even describe themselves as not being good at relationships, identifying their promiscuous behavior as a subconscious compulsion to destroy relationships.
In fact, a woman suffering from sex addiction may be acting out of some repressed emotion, but the addiction has taken over her ability to reason through the situation on her own. Treatment is needed to understand the cause of the addiction and change the behaviors associated with it. Changing behaviors is not easy. In fact, there is a whole branch of medicine devoted to just that.
Because of the delicate nature of sex addiction, it is often best to seek treatment in a single-gender program. Most women find it difficult to talk about their sexual desires and behaviors, and doing so in front of men would be impossible. Some women may blame men for their feelings about sex, and that cannot be properly explored while there are men in the room.
The female ego tends to be especially vulnerable around the topic of sexual behavior. Proper treatment for women with sex addiction needs to address this issue carefully. Addiction and self-esteem are intricately intertwined. Understanding that depression or anxiety are often underlying challenges for women with sex addiction, a treatment program should include a lot of work in these areas.
Women don’t need help feeling shame. They tend to be easily shamed, especially in our society. No amount of shame is going to help a sex addict change her behaviors. If she has used sex to regain her sense of power, a woman is certainly not going to want to give up that power. She has to learn how to develop her power in ways that are healthier for herself and her relationships. In many cases, women need to be taught a new relationship with themselves to overcome this addiction.
Women have the added burden of overcoming the social stigmas around sexual behavior. Once she has developed a new relationship with herself, a woman suffering from sex addiction has to figure out how to co-exist in the world with men. The messages from society she has internalized probably need to be altered in order for her to live a comfortable life.
It is nearly impossible to avoid relationships with men. They are co-workers, fathers and spouses. Women who have suffered with sex addiction have to learn new strategies for developing these co-ed relationships. They also have to build up their sense of self-esteem so they are not so deeply affected by the shame society may want to put on them for living normal, sexually active, healthy lives.
If you think you may be suffering from sex addiction, it is best to seek treatment right away. The pain and secrecy you are living with can be relieved with some help and support from others who understand your plight. Before the addiction becomes destructive, reach out to a qualified treatment facility like Voyage.
Voyage is a women’s treatment facility for all types of addiction and other mental health challenges. At Voyage we are women helping women, because we understand what you are going through. Our ability to focus on the female perspective of addiction gives us a unique perspective on where you are and how to guide your journey to recovery and happiness.
At Voyage we use a holistic approach to healing, recognizing that your whole life comes together to make you what you are. By working to treat your addiction, co-occurring disorders and other mental illnesses, we give you the greatest opportunity to develop and maintain a healthy life.
We also understand that compassion is an important component in healing. At Voyage, we treat you with compassion while helping you re-discover your compassion for yourself. We offer individualized treatment programs that are centered on you and your specific needs.
Contact Voyage today and learn about our inventive treatment programs that incorporate nutrition, fitness and mental well-being.