What The Wild Things Are

Understandings of Self, Awareness, and Mental Health in an Ever-Changing World

Unseen and unnoticed: women and sex addiction

Yes, women can struggle with sex addiction too.

Often when people research, report on, or write about sexual addiction, female sex addicts are overlooked or ignored. While there are likely many reasons for this, it is in large part due to myths that we hold in our culture about women and sex addiction. Some of the most pervasive (and destructive) myths about women and sex addition are:

  1. Females don't become sexually addicted. Not only is this a myth, but it serves to keep women feeling isolated and alone in their addiction, and also keeps them from seeking treatment.
  2. Women are only "relationship addicts" or "love addicts" not sex addicts. While it may be true that sex addiction is complex and relates to relationship or love deficits or needs, this is true of all sex addicts and does not take away from the fact that the primary vehicle is sexual.
  3. The motivation for females who act-out is neediness. Again this is based on cultural stereotypes of women. For most female sex addicts, the primary motivation is power - to overcome or master trauma such as sexual or emotional abuse - or loneliness - to attempt to combat the effects of emotional neglect.
  4. A woman's sex addiction is obvious. Women often seek help in therapy for other conditions (as with a male sex addicts, there are often other clinical issues) and never talk about the sex addiction. This is partially due to shame and isolation but also due to the assumptions many therapists make because their client is a woman.
  5. The life consequences of a sex addiction are the same for men as for women. Many of the life consequences are the same for women as for men (such as loss of relationships, financial loss, etc), but women also sometimes face additional consequences, such as abortion because of unplanned pregnancy, STDs, unique societal stigma and unique shame felt by their male partner.
  6. The same diagnostic questions can be employed to see if a woman has a sex addiction as are used with a man. Often women use language differently to describe their behavior and therefore may not self-identify as sex addicted. For example, rather than asking, "Do you engage in anonymous sex?" you might ask "Are you sexual with someone you have just met?"

There is often a fine line between what may be considered acceptable or "healthy" sexual behavior and what could be considered sexually addictive or compulsive; this is especially confusing for women, because our culture has so many mixed messages for women about sex and sexuality. However, the criteria we would use to identify sex addition in a woman are similar to identifying it in a man:

  1. The inability to control a sexual behavior (such as an inability to stop in spite of promises to self or others to do so, in spite of periods of being able to stop).
  2. Continued behavior in spite of negative consequences (such as terror or shame, decreased work productivity, financial strain, loss of relationship, depression, substance or food abuse).
  3. Obsessive thoughts in planning or obtaining sex (neglecting family, relationship, or career because of time spent preoccupied with sex or sexual partners).

The signs of sexual addiction for women are usually cumulative. The woman may at first think that she's enjoying a varied sex life with a range of men, or that it's positively feeding her self esteem; the behavior may start as a teen. Over time it becomes extremely difficult to stop the patterns of sexual behaviors that get established. All addictions tend to be repetitive, worsen over the course of years, make the person feel out of control, and are used as a cover for something else the person is not dealing with in their life ... and eventually threaten to destroy what the person cares about. Sex addiction is no exception to this.

If a woman continually engages in sex with strangers, has dangerous affairs, can only feel pleasure through sadomasochistic acts and usually feel depressed or melancholic "the morning after," these are signs that she may have a sex addiction. Further, if her sexual behaviors could easily give her a sexually transmitted disease, be a source of violence in others or lead to the dissolution of marital or parenting partnerships, and she continues to persist in such activities anyway, then her addiction is likely even more serious. Sex addiction in women is real, and can cause the same level of distress as in men, if not more so. The more readily our society recognizes this issue as legitimate and important, the more women can get the help and support they need.

 

 

Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

 

Samantha Smithstein, Psy.D., is a clinical and forensic psychologist and co-founder of the Pathways Institute for Impulse Control in San Francisco.

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