Sex Addiction

What Is "Sex Addiction"?

For some people, persistent sexual desires, thoughts, and behavior can become problematic. Such individuals may become preoccupied with sexual fantasies and urges; a subset of this group will act on these impulses while feeling that they have no control over their actions—repeatedly sending explicit texts and images, for example, or attempting to fondle others without consent. This pattern of behavior is often popularly referred to as “sex addiction” or hypersexuality. "Compulsive sexual behavior disorder” was recently added to the World Health Organization’s International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11), but many psychologists and other mental health professionals believe that concepts like sex addiction and hypersexuality are best regarded as cultural shorthand for perceived problems in regulating thoughts and behaviors related to sex. There is wide debate in the field over whether the problem stems from a lack of impulse control, a greater-than-average sex drive, some combination of the two, or a moral code that proscribes sexual activity. With no clear definition of sex addiction, or agreement on its validity as a diagnosis, it’s impossible to say how many people are affected, but some literature reviews have estimated the condition's prevalence as somewhere between 3 and 6 percent of adults.

The problematic behavior often seen as reflecting "sexual addiction" may mask an underlying state of depression or anxiety, in which case the sexual activity could be an attempt to remedy that distress. Unfortunately, compulsive sexual behavior tends to create its own array of negative consequences, from declining physical health and financial problems to the disruption of existing relationships and careers. The behavioral pattern is typically, though not always, accompanied by feelings of deep shame, with the belief that sexual thoughts or behavior of any kind are shameful or a moral violation as a contributing factor.

The ICD-11’s recent change is controversial among those who study sexuality and sexual behavior because it matters greatly how a condition is labeled, since labels imply certain methods of treatment. Most scientifically trained experts believe that the best treatment for problematic sexual behavior is psychotherapy that explores an individual’s deeper feelings and his or her ability to regulate feelings, beliefs about self, past sexual experiences, and more. Many scientific organizations condemn the use of addiction models for treating apparent cases of "sex addiction”—which may explain why the ICD-11 chose to categorize the condition not as an addictive disorder but as an impulse control disorder.

The Truth About Sex Addiction

Recent studies have shown that many men who identify as “sex addicts” actually engage in less sexual activity than average, but feel more shame about their sexuality or have more negative attitudes about sex. This may indicate that much of what is termed “sex addiction” stems from cultural or religious attitudes about sexuality and the role that sex should play in our daily lives. Most experts agree that more research on “sex addiction” is needed in order to develop treatment models that are empirically-based and devoted to helping clients understand, access, and feel in control of their sexuality—without causing harm to others in the process.

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