What Is Sexual Addiction?

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Sexual addiction, or sex addiction, is defined as obsessive thoughts or urges as well as compulsive behaviors related to sex. Sex addiction may also be referred to as hypersexuality disorder or compulsive sexual behavior. It was also once known as nymphomania.

Sexual addiction is controversial among experts due to the lack of empirical evidence surrounding its legitimacy as an actual addiction. That said, compulsive sexual behaviors, urges, and thoughts can contribute to problems in someone's daily life, including their relationships, career, and physical and/or mental health.

This article will explain the symptoms, causes, diagnosis, and treatment of sexual addiction as well as coping strategies.

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Sexual Addiction

Sexual addiction is a condition marked by obsessive thoughts and urges as well as compulsive behaviors related to sex that have a negative impact on an individual's life.

Research has estimated that between 3% to 6% of the population deals with sexual addiction or other types of compulsive sexual behavior.

However, a survey of the 2,325 adults found 8.6% reported "clinically relevant levels of distress and/or impairment associated with difficulty controlling sexual feelings, urges, and behaviors."

Sex Addiction Controversy Explained

To understand the controversy surrounding sex addiction, it is first important to understand how addiction is defined.

What Is Addiction?

According to the American Society of Addiction, addiction can be defined as "a treatable, chronic medical disease involving complex interactions among brain circuits, genetics, the environment, and an individual’s life experiences. People with addiction use substances or engage in behaviors that become compulsive and often continue despite harmful consequences." 

This definition limits addiction to compulsive behaviors related to substance use as seen in alcohol use disorder, not addiction to the behaviors themselves.

This is where experts have come to disagree about the legitimacy of sex addiction since it is behavioral in nature. Inconsistent terminology and a shared definition among experts is why sexual addiction has been excluded from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5).

The DSM-5 is a diagnostic manual published by the American Psychological Association (APA) to help healthcare professionals diagnose various mental health conditions.

Symptoms

Sex addictions have a number of identifiable traits including:

  • Excessive masturbation
  • Cybersex
  • Pornography use
  • Consensual sex with multiple adult partners
  • Affairs
  • Condomless sex
  • Detachment or a lack of enjoyment from sex
  • Neglecting work, relationships, and hobbies in favor of sexual stimulation

Causes

Because research is limited when it comes to sexual addiction, concrete causes have yet to be identified. However, some potential causes may include:

  • Medication side effects: For example, medications that target dopamine have been linked to compulsive sexual behavior. This includes prescription drugs used to treat Parkinson's disease.
  • Neurological disorders: Neurological disorders, such as dementia, may cause hypersexual behavior.
  • Chemical imbalances in the brain: An imbalance or disruption of neurotransmitters, or brain chemicals, may be to blame for excessive sexual urges, thoughts, and behaviors. This includes dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine.
  • Trauma: Someone who has experienced trauma may partake in compulsive sexual behavior as a means of coping with the trauma.
  • Mental illness: Mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression may also play a role in developing compulsive sexual behavior.

Diagnosis

Sex addiction specifically has been excluded from the DSM-5, which is used to diagnose various mental health conditions. However, sex addiction is included in the ICD-11, which healthcare providers may use as a guide to diagnose potential sexual addiction.

Someone who suspects they may be struggling with compulsive sexual behavior will usually be screened by a healthcare provider first before undergoing a mental health evaluation.

During this initial screening, your healthcare provider may ask you for specifics about how the compulsive sexual behavior affects your quality of life and inquire about your thought processes as related to the impulsive sexual behavior. Questions about relationships, substance use, and financial and/or legal consequences may also be asked.

Finally, the healthcare provider could potentially ask if there had recently been a significant or stressful life event, as well as if feelings of guilt and shame, low self-esteem, or remorse are being experienced. They may also use a screening tool to asses the symptoms discussed.

Treatment

Currently, there are no FDA-approved medications targeting sex addiction. But healthcare providers may prescribe a variety of medications to help with aspects of the addiction and co-morbid mood issues, which include:

  • Mood stabilizers
  • Antidepressants
  • Naltrexone

Coping

If you believe you may be struggling with sex addiction, there are ways to cope. First, it's vital to discuss your situation with your healthcare or mental health provider. Therapy may be helpful, as well.

Additionally, there are a number of organizations made to help people with sex addiction such as Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous.

Other coping strategies include:

  • Practicing self-compassion
  • Lowering stress as much as possible
  • Being open and honest with your partner or partners

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.

Summary

Sexual addiction, also referred to as hypersexuality disorder, is a controversial diagnosis marked by obsessive thoughts or urges as well as compulsive behaviors related to sex. Causes may include medication side effects, chemical imbalances in the brain, trauma, and more. More research is needed when it comes to sex addiction, including identifying its causes, symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment.

A Word From Verywell

Regardless of varying clinical definitions, if you or a loved one is experiencing a decreased quality of life or other negative consequences due to compulsive sexual behavior, see a healthcare provider to discuss your symptoms.

Risky sexual behavior that can be part of compulsive sexual behavior can lead to an increased risk of contracting a sexually transmitted infection (STI), which can put both your and your partners' health at risk. This is one of the many reasons seeking help is important.

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5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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