Is Sex Addiction or Hypersexuality Real?

It's not an official diagnosis, but can still cause distress

Is sex addiction real?

Verywell / Catherine Song

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Sex addiction is a phenomenon that people feel OK joking about. Of all the addictions, sex addiction is most commonly the target of comments such as, "If I was going to have an addiction, I'd go for sex addiction."

Is Sex Addiction Real?

Though "sex addiction" is not an official diagnosis, the experience of having disruptive compulsions to engage in sexual behavior is real—similar to how people addicted to alcohol or drugs become reliant on those addictive behaviors.

Many people dismiss sex addiction as a futile attempt to give legitimacy to what is simply irresponsible or greedy behavior. Others say that those who deny sex addiction's legitimacy are unaware of or indifferent to the emotional pain frequently reported by both those who experience sex addiction and their loved ones.

Arguments For
  • Triggers the brain's reward system similar to other addictions

  • Often co-exists with other addictions

  • Can result in significant distress and impairment in functioning

Arguments Against
  • Label may be a moral judgment

  • May be used as an excuse for irresponsible behavior

  • Some believe addiction is chemical and not behavioral

Background

Sex addiction is not a new concept. Historical records dating back to ancient Rome and second century Greece report excessive sexuality, also known as hypersexuality or hyperaesthesia, in men and nymphomania or furor uterinum (uterine fury) in women.

The modern concept of sex addiction was popularized by Patrick Carnes, PhD, author of "Out of the Shadows: Understanding Sexual Addiction" (first published in the mid-1980s, revised in 2001, and revised again in 2014).

Carnes and his colleagues have written several books on the subject, and tend to dominate popular understanding of sex addiction. However, others have also written extensively on the subject, including researchers and people who believed they had sex addiction.

Some argue that, although sex addiction shares features of both an obsessive-compulsive and an impulse control disorder, it does not fit neatly into either category. Abroad range of specialists in the field believe the behavior is best described as an addiction, although most clinicians, even those trained in sexual disorders or addiction medicine, have little to no training in treating sexual compulsivity and cybersex addiction.

Sex addiction was not included in the DSM-5, despite a number of conditions relating to limited sexuality—such as hypoactive sexual desire disorder and sexual aversion disorder—being included.

In general, having less sexual desire and activity is seen as a greater problem than having more sexual desire and activity. This reveals a bias that challenges the recognition of excessive sexual desire or expression as a problem.

In other words, regularly experiencing sexual desire, physical sexual arousal, sexual relations, and achieving orgasm is considered the norm for both sexes. However, a majority of people experience difficulties in these stages of the sexual experience.

The development of drugs such as Viagra reinforce the view that one is not living a complete and happy life without regular, non-problematic sex. In our current sexualized climate, it is not surprising that many people become preoccupied with sex, and that some develop compulsive sexual behaviors.

Is Love Addiction Real?

Like sex addiction, love addiction isn't an official diagnosis. But it's a term commonly used to refer to unhealthy or obsessive fixations a person has on a romantic interest. Love addiction can even refer to someone having unrealistic expectations of family or friends.

Support for Sex Addiction As a Real Addiction

Research indicates that the same reward system in the brain is activated in sex addiction as in a number of other addictions, including drug addictions. This supports the idea that sex addiction has a similar physiological and psychological process as other addictions.

People with sex addiction often have concurrent substance and/or behavioral addiction problems, or cross over to other addictions when they attempt to overcome their sex addiction.

Some authors argue that the existence of crossover addictions lends support to the legitimacy of sex addiction as a real addiction and that, if recognized, crossover risk can be addressed directly to prevent it from happening after treatment for other addictions.

Sex addiction causes a great deal of distress to those affected and their loved ones. Sexual desire and expression in people with sex addictions are commonly reported to be unmanageable and unpleasant. Recognizing sex addiction means these people can get the help they need to overcome their addiction, and eventually resume enjoyable sexual relationships.

At present, few readily accessible addiction services provide help for people with sex addiction. Recognition of sex addiction can allow sex addiction treatment to be included in community addiction services. If addiction services staff received specialized training in sex addiction, many more people could easily access help for sex addictions.

If you or a loved one are struggling with sex addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357) for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

The Case Against Sex Addiction

An important criticism is that the sex addiction concept does not provide enough differentiation between similar conditions that might look like sex addiction, such as hypersexuality related to mania or hypomania in bipolar disorder; personality disorders; some forms of depression; and PTSD.

Critics of the concept of sex addiction argue that it has grown out of a cultural focus which associates sex with danger, powerlessness, and victimization, and is merely a new way of making moral judgments about people who enjoy sex. As such, the concept of sex addiction can be used by people with a political and/or religious agenda.

There is also a risk that the label sex addiction might pathologize normal sexual desire and behavior, making healthy people appear to have an illness that does not exist.

The concept of sex addiction has also been criticized for being based on the idea that some sexual experiences, for example, intimate relationship sex, are better than others. The argument is that these are moral rather than clinical arguments.

At the other end of the spectrum, some people believe that a label like sex addiction can be used as an excuse for irresponsible sexual behavior, such as rape and child molestation. They argue that people who have committed sex crimes can hide behind the label of sex addiction to avoid taking responsibility for their actions.

Finally, there is the argument leveled at all behavioral addictions—that addiction is about chemical dependency, and no matter how similar the patterns of behavior, addictions occur in relation to addictive substances and not behaviors.

Where It Stands

Sex addiction, or certainly excessive sexual behavior, is widely recognized in the media and in popular culture. The growth of the internet has led to an escalation of "cybersex addiction," which includes both addictions to pornography and addiction to online sexual interactions with partners, including sex workers.

The psychiatric community has been hesitant to acknowledge excessive sexuality, in and of itself, as a disorder.

Since its founding in 1987, the Society for the Advancement of Sexual Health (SASH) has provided up-to-date research to the public and to professional members who work with sex addictions. The society publishes the journal Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity: The Journal of Treatment and Prevention, and holds an annual conference to disseminate research findings on sex addiction.

How Many People Are Addicted to Sex?

One study found that 10% of men and 7% of women in a particular study sample reported significant dysfunction due to their sexual thoughts and/or behaviors.

Since sex addiction isn't an official diagnosis, it may be more challenging for people who experience it to seek and receive appropriate care. For this reason, many researchers urge healthcare practitioners to take sex addiction seriously and pay attention to it when it presents in patients.

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