For many under-informed folks, a kneejerk reaction to the phrase “sex addiction” is for them to say something along the lines of, “Now that’s an addiction I’d like to have. Where do I sign up?” In reality, however, sexual addiction is not nearly as much fun as it sounds. Try thinking of it this way: drinking and even getting drunk on occasion can be perfectly enjoyable and lovely if you are not an alcoholic, but deadly if you are; in the same way, casual and/or intimate sex can be a whole lot of fun, as long as you’re not a sex addict. In other words, if you are a sex addict, then casual, meaningless, objectified sex with others and even image-driven sexual fantasy can quickly result in relationship loss, shared diseases, emotional instability, job and career loss, depression, isolation, and more.
Like other addicts, sex addicts compulsively engage in their addictive behavior even when the activity is no longer enjoyable, is ruining their life, and they’d very much like to stop. Typically, sex addicts experience all sorts of guilt, shame, and remorse about their behavior. They then seek to self-medicate this emotional discomfort by engaging in more of the same troublesome, addictive sexual activity or by using other forms of escape like drugs, gambling, video gaming, eating, spending, and the like. The cycle of addiction is for sex addicts, like all addicts, a vicious, demoralizing, and self-perpetuating spiral from which there is no escape without surrender and outside assistance.
Behaviors commonly engaged in by sex addicts include (but are not limited to):
- Compulsive viewing of pornography, with or without masturbation
- Compulsive masturbation, with or without pornography
- Compulsive use of “dating” websites and “adult friend finder” apps as a way to hook up for sex
- Consistently being “on the hunt,” always on the lookout for sexual intrigue
- Multiple affairs and brief, serial relationships
- Consistent involvement with strip clubs, adult bookstores, and other sex-focused environments
- Repeatedly engaging in prostitution (hiring or providing) and/or sensual massage
- A consistent pattern of anonymous/casual sexual hookups
- Repeatedly engaging in unprotected sex
- Seeking sexual experiences without regard to immediate or long-term potential consequences
- A pattern of “nuisance” sexual offenses such as voyeurism, exhibitionism, frotteurism, and the like
When sex addicts fantasize about, prepare for, and engage in these and/or other sexual activities they use fantasy and euphoric recall to induce a highly emotionally charged neurochemical intensity. Sex addicts often describe this as feeling like they’re “in a bubble” or “in a trance.” Remaining in this trance-like state of arousal and disconnection for an extended period is the sex addict’s true (albeit unconscious) goal, more so than the sex act itself. Essentially, sex addicts create and use a neurochemical sexual high to detach and dissociate from depression, anxiety, and other uncomfortable emotions and life stressors. This is very similar to gambling addicts who consistently “find themselves” in casinos or wagering online; they don’t know how they got there, and they lose track of time and the real world while they’re there. Escaping into this type of hyper-emotional-arousal offers sex addicts a controllable form of escape, similar to the effect alcoholics and drug addicts get when they drink and use. And just as most drug addicts get “high” long before they actually ingest a drug – experiencing neurochemical excitement and dissociation caused by the pleasure of looking for and finding drugs, getting the money to pay for drugs, going to the dealer to buy the drugs, and the rest of the pre-use process – sex addicts get high more on the on the idea and anticipation of their sexual conquests than the conquests themselves. And sex addicts can remain in this elevated neurochemical state for many hours, sometimes even days at a time.
For sex addicts, compulsive, eventually self-destructive sexual acting out takes place regardless of outward success, physical attractiveness, intelligence, and even existing intimate (or at least sexual) relationships. Very often sex addicts, usually in response to a specific negative consequence that their behavior has caused (threat of divorce, trouble at work, arrest) will tell themselves, “That was the last time I am ever going to…,” yet soon enough they return to the same destructive sexual activity. They simply can’t stop, even though the behavior is destroying their life and often the lives of those they love. Sometimes their sexual activity escalates to the point where it goes against their moral beliefs and ethical values, and they step over lines they never thought they’d cross. Because of this, sex addicts typically find themselves leading shame-based, intensely secretive double-lives, hiding their sexual fantasies and behaviors from family, friends, coworkers, and anyone else close to them.
Over time, sex addicts experience:
- Loss of control over sexual thoughts and behaviors
- Escalation in the frequency and intensity of sexual thoughts and behaviors
- Increasing amounts of time lost to sexual fantasies, rituals, and behaviors
- Decreased interest in other, previously enjoyable activities (hobbies, work, time with family, developing healthy relationships, etc.)
- Irritability, defensiveness, and anger when confronted about or when attempting to stop sexual thoughts and behaviors
- Directly related negative consequences (relationship, emotional, physical, financial, legal, etc.)
The simple truth is that for sex addicts, sex is less about the pleasurable act of being physically intimate with another person and more about using the hunt and search for sex as a form of emotional and psychological escape. Because of this, sex addicts often attempt to prolong the bubble/trance experience by postponing the sex act for as long as possible. After all, orgasm ends the fantasy-fueled arousal cycle, killing the neurochemical high and forcing the addict to re-engage with life on life’s terms, which is what they are trying to avoid in the first place.
Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is Senior Vice President of Clinical Development with Elements Behavioral Health. He has developed clinical programs for The Ranch outside Nashville, Tennessee, Promises Treatment Centers in Malibu, and The Sexual Recovery Institute in Los Angeles.A licensed UCLA MSW graduate and personal trainee of Dr. Patrick Carnes, has served as a media specialist for CNN, The Oprah Winfrey Network, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Today Show, among many others. He has also provided clinical multi-addiction training and behavioral health program development for the US military and treatment centers throughout the United States, Europe, and Asia.