A sex addict refers to a person who experiences problematic, disturbing, or compulsive sexual behaviors that feel out of control. People with a sex addiction are preoccupied with sexual fantasies, masturbation, pornography, or specific sexual activities. This preoccupation affects other areas of functioning, such as relationships, work, and physical health.
Is Sex Addiction Real?
Sex addiction (also known as hypersexuality or compulsive sexual behavior) is controversial within the medical community, and it isn’t included in the DSM-5. Because there is no standardized diagnosis, there isn’t a universally agreed-upon assessment.
Likewise, some critics believe that labeling specific behaviors as sex addiction pathologizes sexual activity, potentially leading to more stigmatization or shame. Other critics argue that people may misunderstand cultural or moral differences, causing them to assume that sexual behaviors indicate addiction (1).
That said, many mental health professionals treat sex addiction. In addition, many people struggling with compulsive sexual behavior identify with having addictive problems that mimic that of substance addiction.
Signs of Being a Sex Addict
When talking about sex addiction, it’s crucial to be both careful and sensitive. Dismissing someone with a label is problematic, and what one person deems to be an issue may not be an issue to someone else. The key factor in addiction is that the targeted behavior causes distress to an individual’s life and impacts their everyday functioning (2).
Continuous and Persistent Obsession with Sex
Sex addicts often have sex on their minds and experience emotional cravings for masturbation or sex. Their fantasies or urges can consume them, and it can impact relationships, work, and other responsibilities. The obsession often leads to a sense of “lost control,” where the addict feels they must compulsively satisfy their urge.
Unable to Stop Unwanted or Problematic Sexual Behaviors
One of the telltale signs of addiction is not being able to stop a particular behavior even when you want to stop. This is also true for sex addiction. In this case, people may want to stop watching porn, paying for escorts, or having affairs, but the compulsion feels so strong that they act on it most of the time.
Lying, Stealing, or Hiding Sexual Activity
The behaviors associated with sex addiction often feel tremendously shameful. Someone with a sex addiction will often try to conceal their activity to avoid judgment or anger. If they’re in a relationship with someone else, they may resort to using private apps, separate phones, or private web browsers. They may also open secret bank accounts.
High Pornography Use
Sex addiction can often correspond with excessive pornography. Porn provides is easy and free, and it provides unlimited access to sexually explicit content. This can lead to people spending several hours a day consuming porn, which often entails neglecting other responsibilities.
Unsafe Sex Practices
Impulsively or chronically engaging in unsafe sexual practices may be a sign of sex addiction. An addict may feel so preoccupied by their urge to have sex that they don’t consider the potential risks or long-term consequences. Therefore, they might forgo using protection, increasing the risk of STIs or unwanted pregnancies.
Using Sex or Masturbation to Cope With Feelings
It’s not uncommon for people to have sex to relax or cope with sadness, anger, or loneliness. But a sex addict frequently turns to sex to deal with their emotions. It becomes a way to escape. Over time, however, this can magnify feelings of depression or anxiety.
Being Unfaithful In a Monogamous Relationship
Sex addicts may cheat on their partners, even if they claim they don’t want to, and it’s often because they feel compelled to do so. Even if they don’t have sex with others, a sex addict may excessively use dating apps or online content subscription services.
Apathy About Daily Life
Addiction causes changes in how the brain releases feel-good hormones, including dopamine and serotonin. After a while, it may seem like masturbation or sex is the only way to feel good. As a result, sex addicts may feel a sense of dread or numbness moving through everyday life.
Withdrawal Symptoms When Abstaining from Sexual Behavior
Although sex addiction isn’t associated with physical withdrawal symptoms, many people experience significant emotional discomfort in the early stages of recovery. This discomfort can look like:
- Increased anxiety
- Increased depression
- Sleep problems
- Relationship issues
- High cravings for masturbation or sex
Financial Issues Due to Sexual Behavior
Some people with sex addiction experience money problems due to funding their habits, which may include:
- Paying for escorts
- Paying for premium porn or content subscription services
- Spending money on affairs (travel costs, accommodations, dates)
- Buying various toys or items to satisfy sexual urges
- Lost wages due to work problems or job loss
Problems with Recreational Drugs or Alcohol Due to Sexual Behavior
There is a high comorbidity between sex addiction and other substance use disorders. Someone with a sex addiction may feel like they must be under the influence to engage in specific behaviors. In addition, certain types of drugs, such as stimulants, can promote reckless sexual acts.
Suicidal Thoughts or Behavior
Sex addiction can lead people to feel discouraged or even hopeless about getting better. Moreover, high levels of guilt and shame often accompany compulsive sexual behavior. In serious cases, this may result in suicidal thoughts or attempts.
Risk Factors of Sex Addiction
There isn’t a single variable known to cause addiction. Instead, a combination of various traits and dispositions likely contribute to someone’s likelihood of developing a problem. Research shows that people with addiction are more likely to have the following risk factors:
History of childhood trauma: A history of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse may coincide with sex addiction. Compulsive behaviors often provide a sense of relief, control, and comfort, all of which may represent different trauma responses.
Being male: Sex addiction is more prevalent in men than women. The onset of addiction typically happens around early adulthood, but most men don’t seek professional support until nearly 40.
Co-occurring mental health issues: Bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders, personality disorders, and other addictions are all risk factors for sex addiction. Symptoms from both conditions can overlap, and symptoms can also exacerbate one another.
Early exposure to sexually explicit content: Being exposed to sex or viewing pornography at an early age may affect someone’s likelihood of engaging in problematic behaviors.
Intimacy problems: Struggles with emotional connections, particularly in romantic relationships, may correlate with sex addiction. The compulsive behavior acts as an escape, and someone might seek comfort through their patterns rather than try to work through the intimacy difficulties.
Isolation and loneliness: Isolation and loneliness are common factors in all types of addiction. Some people begin isolating more due to compulsive behavior whereas others start engaging in compulsive behavior due to their isolation.
Genetic factors: Genetics may play a role in how people develop addiction. For instance, family studies suggest that as much as half of a person’s risk of becoming addicted to alcohol, nicotine, or other drugs is based on genetic makeup. This may also hold true for sex and other process addictions (3)
Can I Self-Diagnose Sex Addiction?
As mentioned, there is no formal diagnosis of sex addiction. However, if you resonate with several of the symptoms indicated above, you may have a sex addiction.
Most people, when they’re being truly honest with themselves, can acknowledge when they have a problem. And if someone has ever expressed genuine concern about your sexual behavior, that may also be a red flag.
Self-diagnosis can act as a starting point for understanding your own mental health or addictive behaviors. But it’s important to consider that addiction often coincides with themes of deceit and denial, meaning it’s easy for people to downplay the severity of their problem.
What Should I Do If I Have a Sex Addiction?
It’s well-known within addiction treatment that acknowledging the problem is often the first step toward change. If you think you might have a sex addiction, you’re not alone, but seeking support and help can make a significant difference in your quality of life.
Set your recovery boundaries: People with sex addiction need to consider exactly which behaviors they want to reduce or eliminate. Establishing this baseline helps determine progress, and it can act as a barometer for assessing the risk of relapse.
Seek individual therapy with a certified sex addiction therapist: A certified sex addiction therapist (CSAT) is the highest professional designation for treating sex addiction. CSATs have specialized knowledge of the causes, traumas, and emotional experiences associated with compulsive sexual behavior. Working with this kind of therapist can be invaluable as you start your recovery process.
Attend a support group: Support groups offer a sense of camaraderie and peer connection for people experiencing addiction problems. Sex Addicts Anonymous (SAA) exclusively focuses on helping people recover from their sex addiction by working the twelve steps. Many other organizations also offer similarly supportive spaces.
Treat underlying mental health issues: Addiction often coincides with other mental health problems, such as anxiety, PTSD, and depression. Compulsive sex acts as a way to soothe or cope with uncomfortable symptoms. Comprehensive recovery should entail treatment that focuses on improving all areas of wellness.
Consider lifestyle changes: Treating sex addiction may require overhauling some or all of your life. You may need to reevaluate everything from your current relationship to your job to how you spend time on your phone. This starts by rigorously assessing your triggers and creating plans for how you will manage those triggers when they arise. Focus on spending your free time with other hobbies, relationships, or opportunities.
Practice more mindfulness: Mindfulness can help when cravings or discomfort feel high. Take deep breaths if you feel overwhelmed. Ground yourself in your five senses. Consider adopting a more formal meditative practice into your daily life.
Be patient with your progress: It’s important to hold yourself accountable, and it’s also important to give yourself grace in your journey toward self-improvement. Relapse can be a part of recovery, but slips don’t inherently mean you have failed. Try to learn from each mistake to do better again moving forward.
If you believe you might be a sex addict, it’s vital to be proactive in taking care of yourself. Addiction can worsen progressively over time. In some cases, it can lead to permanent consequences, including failed relationships, sexually transmitted diseases, financial despair, and even suicide.
Recovery can be challenging, but living with an addiction is supremely difficult. If you are struggling, consider reaching out for support today.