Sexual addiction is rapidly becoming recognized as a major social problem with similarities well known to alcohol and drug addiction or compulsive gambling. The sexually addicted individual becomes addicted to the neuro-chemical changes that take place in the body during sexual behavior, much as a drug addict becomes hooked on the effects of ‘shooting’ heroin.
This is not to say that the expression of one as a sexual being, an intensely pleasurable life-enhancing experience for the majority of the population, is an inherently addictive reality. Contrary to enjoying sex as a self-affirming source of physical pleasure, the sex addict has learned to rely on sex for comfort from pain, for nurturing or relief from stress; this is comparable to the alcoholic's purposeful use of alcohol.
The beginnings of sexual addiction are usually rooted in adolescence or childhood. For instance, the child often grows up in a chaotic, hostile or neglectful home; or the family may have been very normal otherwise, but the child grows up emotionally starved for love because affection is rarely expressed. The child may turn repeatedly to masturbation to escape the parents' violent arguments, for instance, or to make up for an unconscious lack of attention or affection.
Masturbation should be a normal and natural part of childhood, but for the lonely, abused or rejected child it can become a regular sedative to hide the inner pain. Gradually sex becomes a replacement for other things, a convenient act to turn to in times of any kind of need, from escaping boredom to feeling anxious, to being able to go to sleep at night.
Alternately, the child may be introduced to sex in inappropriate ways. Instead of the normal sexual experimentation that often takes place out of curiosity between similar aged children during growing up, some children are subjected to pedophilia (an adult engaging in sexual activity with a child). Or the person introducing the child to sexual experiences may be another child who is five or more years older (i.e. an older cousin, babysitter, etc.), where the sexual experience doesn't feel mutual. In these experiences there often is a combination of natural curiosity, newfound pleasurable feelings and the feelings of fear or shame. The fear and shame may be increased by threats made by the older person to gain the child's cooperation and to prevent the child from telling anyone about it.
A pattern may be established of seeking out similar experiences throughout the person's life where there is a combination of sexual pleasure and fear or shame. When the child grows up he may be turned on by sex in high-risk situations that unconsciously generate fear, or in secretive circumstances that feed on shame.
The sexual behavior is shameful. The addict feels shame about what he or she is doing, or more accurately about what he or she has done, usually immediately after engaging in sex acts that violate some of the person's standards. Or the shame may be denied by calling it normal for ‘a real man’ - or by focusing on others, "She wanted it.” Thus a married man may feel remorse after having sex with his best friend's wife, rationalize that his friend wasn't sexually satisfying her and avoid going to bed with his own wife afterward, all in a vain attempt to deny there is a problem or that he has done anything wrong.
The sexual behavior is secret. The sex addict more and more comes to live a double life – perhaps well known, respected and admired in more visible life, but secretly engaging regularly in sexual acts that might be shocking to those who know and love them. So (for example) a sexually addicted minister could be revered on Sunday morning for preaching on the sinfulness of adultery and fornication, and then engage in those behaviors himself at a modeling studio or adult bookstore on Monday afternoon. Or a man might tell his relationship partner that he is going to visit a friend but goes to a park to cruise for anonymous sex instead.
The sexual behavior is abusive. It violates someone else's choice or exceeds their understanding. For example, a man who manipulates or coerces his date into being sexual with him, or the woman in a partially unbuttoned blouse who bends down toward an unsuspecting male co-worker and "accidentally" exposes her breast, or the man who seeks out crowded shopping malls so he can meander among the throng to ‘cop a feel’. Much worse are adult men and women who manipulate the trust of children, and abuse their power over them by tricking them into performing sexual acts with them. The sex may also be abusive to the sex addict, such as masturbating to the point of physical injury or cutting or pinching oneself for sexual arousal.
Sexual addiction can take many different forms. The addict may be addicted primarily to one behavior, such as sex with a prostitute, but generally uses a variety of sexual behaviors. For example, consider the salesman who might watch the dancers at a topless bar over a business lunch, have sex with a prostitute from an escort service in his hotel room one night while on a business trip, return home and have sex with his wife while fantasizing about the sexual massage he got last month. The list of the forms of sexual addiction would be exhaustive and increases with addicts' need to find new ways of finding sexual thrills.
Another feature of sexual addiction is that it is progressive. That is, the habitual behaviours progressively become more frequent, varied and extreme - with more frequent and extreme consequences. At times when the addiction seems under control, the addict is merely engaging in one of the common traits of the process in which he switches from sexual release to the control of it. The control phase inevitably breaks down over time (whether it is in an hour, week, month, or year) and the addict is back in the behavior again despite his promise to himself or others never to do it again. When the ecstasy of the release is spent, the addict will often feel remorse at his failure and with great resolve will switch back to another period of abstaining from the behavior until his resolve weakens once again. Without help, this is the way the sexually addicted person lives his or her life.
The Internet has become the newest, most rapidly growing form of sexual acting out for many sex addicts. A lot of sex addicts have added computer sex to their repertoire, as it fills a need for ‘more, easier and better’. For the cyber-sex addict, increasing amounts of time are spent surfing, downloading, masturbating, reading information posted on sexual bulletin boards, exchanging sexual information live with others in sexual chat rooms or via computer cameras, or directing their own live sex shows on interactive sites. The Internet just happens to provide many of the things sex addicts seek, but all in one place: isolation, secrecy, fantasy material, endless variety, around-the-clock availability, instant accessibility, a rapid means of returning, and low or no cost.
As one of the characteristics of sexual addiction is that it is progressive, sex addicts on the Internet often experience a rapid progression of their addiction. The new sexual thrills lead to spending huge amounts of time, moving more quickly into more extreme behaviors, taking greater risks, and getting caught more frequently. The sped-up progression of the sex addicts’ problem via the internet can ironically turn into a blessing, since it can move the addict into the consequences phase more quickly causing him or her to get help faster.
While at some time in their lives some people who are not sex addicts may engage in one or more of the behaviors listed below, it only becomes sexual addiction when there is an irresistible need to repeat the behaviors and habits are developed around them. This has the probable consequence of causing other problems in their lives.
A distinction has been made between sex addiction and what is referred to as 'sex and love addiction'. The latter has to do with an addictive pattern of establishing love relationships with specific people, where the person and the relationship, as well as sex with the person, are all part of the appeal to the addict. While these same elements are normal in a healthy relationship, sex and love addicts can never find fulfillment and permanence in any of the relationships they begin. They keep seeking satisfaction in another relationship but find it empty, demanding or anxiety-producing instead.
Sex and love addicts may have several relationships with different people taking place at the same time, or they may pass serially from one to the next,- leaving each when the initial "high" wears off. Or they may have a major relationship (such as a marriage) complete with home, children and other signs of permanence, but keep returning periodically to secret relationships with new people.
Sex addiction, by contrast, is usually a preoccupation with sexual arousal and sexual release which often has little to do with who the person is and requires no relationship. On the contrary, to the sex addict what counts is the charge he or she gets from the image, whether it's a stranger spotted in a car or on a street corner, stimulating body parts, an erotic picture, or the addicts own fantasy.
A man or woman suffering from sexual addiction has the option of seeking professional help by consulting a psychotherapist or committing himself or herself to a specialized treatment center.
Seeking counseling sessions with a psychotherapist has the advantage of being more discrete and will have less impact on their economic capabilities. However, for a person who is committing serious offenses because of his or her sexual addiction it is advisable that they commit themselves to a specialized center since this will remove them from the environment where they can indulge in such harmful behavior.
If you believe you, your partner, or someone you know may be suffering from sexual addiction, please consult a professional health care provider as soon as possible.