Signs and Symptoms of Sex Addiction

What Defines Compulsive Sexual Behaviors

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Sex addiction is defined as the compulsive engagement in sex despite the negative consequences. Moreover, it is a behavior that will leave you emotionally distressed rather than fulfilled.

A sex addiction is a concept that some people find difficult to grasp given that an addiction typically refers to a brain disorder that results in compulsive and detrimental behaviors. To this end, a sexual addiction shares many of the hallmarks of a clinical addiction without a clear understanding as to the cause.

Where is clearly as an addiction is that the person will be unable to control his or her sexual urges. Even if the consequences are clear (or even likely), people with a sex addiction will be unable to stop the compulsive behavior unless there is some sort of intervening event.

As opposed to a healthy sex drive, a sex addict will spend a disproportionate amount of time seeking or engaging in sex while keeping the activity secret from others. As a result, personal and professional relationships may begin to suffer. There may even be an increased risk of sexually transmitted infection, including HIV if a person is unable to rein in his or her sexual impulses.

People with a sex addiction often will use sex as a form of escape from other emotional and psychological problems, including stress, anxiety, depression, and social isolation.

Types of Sex Addiction

Sexual addiction is part of an umbrella concept known as hypersexual disorder, which includes such behavioral disorders as:

  • Hypersexuality (previously known an nymphomania or satyriasis)
  • Erotomania (a delusional disorder in which person believes others are infatuated with him or her)
  • Paraphilia-related disorder (a somewhat outdated diagnosis characterized by an intense sexual response to atypical objects, situations, or fantasies)
  • Sexual disinhibition (the absence of sexual inhibition in a way deemed inappropriate)

These behaviors are closely aligned with a concept known as risk compensation in which people will adjust their sexual behavior based on their perception of risk. As a result, people will often put themselves in harm's way by "bargaining" that the risk (of infection, of getting caught, of missing an appointment, etc.) is lower than it actually is.

Signs and Symptoms

Not everyone in the medical community is convinced that compulsive sexual behaviors can be classified as an addiction. Because of this, sex addiction is not listed as a clinical diagnosis in the  Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) published by the American Psychiatric Association (APA).

As a result, the diagnostic criteria for a sex addiction is often vague and subjective. With that being said, there are certain defining features common to sex addicts.

Among them:

  • Sex will dominate the person's life to the exclusion of other activities.
  • The person will masturbate habitually when on his or her own.
  • There will be multiple partners and/or extramarital affairs.
  • The person engages in other forms of sex when alone, including phone sex, pornography, or computer sex. 
  • Sexual activities will often be inappropriate and/or risky and may include exhibitionism, public sex, sex with prostitutes, or the regular attendance at sex clubs.
  • The constant urge to find sex is typically interspersed with feelings of regret, anxiety, depression, or shame.

In fact, a sexual addiction is most often characterized by a vicious circle of hypersexuality and low self-esteem. Although sex can bring short-term relief, the harm to the person's psychological well-being will often mount and worsen over time.

You do not have to engage in extreme or "strange" sex to be a sex addict. As an addict, you will simply be unable to stop yourself despite the harm you know it may cause.


There are a number of theories as to why a sexual addiction occurs. They include psychological and emotional problems that arise from past sexual trauma.

For example, women who are raped will sometimes engage in hypersexual behaviors as a form of self-punishment. In other cases, sex may be a coping mechanism to deal with deep-seeded childhood abuse or trauma.

In some forms of mental illness (such as depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and bipolar disorder), hypersexuality may be a symptom, either as means of compensation (as with depression) or a feature of a manic episode (with bipolar disorder).

Rarely, neurological disorders (such as epilepsy, head injury, or dementia), have been known to cause hypersexual behaviors. Certain drugs, such Apokyn (apomorphine) and dopamine replacement therapy (DRT), may also do the same. 

Getting Help 

Sexual addiction requires treatment from medical professional experienced in the field, such as a psychologist, psychiatrist, or sex therapist. Treatment can vary based on the underlying cause but will typically be conducted on an outpatient basis with counseling and behavioral therapies.

If the sex addiction is associated with a mood, anxiety, or personality disorder, medications may be prescribed as part of the treatment plan. There are currently no recommendations on the appropriate use of drugs to treat a sex addiction outside of the realm of these clinically classified disorders.

The first point of contact can be your family doctor or the local psychiatric association, both of which can refer you to the appropriate specialist. Marital therapy may also be helpful.

There are also a growing number of sex addiction support groups, some of which deal with co-additions (such as sex and substance abuse) and others of which are built on a 12-step recovery model.

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