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Unseen and Unnoticed: Women and Sexual Compulsivity

Yes, women can struggle with sexual compulsivity too.

Often when people research, report on, or write about sexual compulsivity, women are often overlooked or ignored. While there are likely many reasons for this, it is in large part due to myths that we hold about women and sex. Here are some of the most pervasive and destructive myths:

  1. Women can't have sexual compulsivity. Not only is this a myth, but it serves to keep women feeling isolated and alone with their condition, and it can prevent them from seeking treatment.
  2. Women only crave relationships and love, not sex. While it may be true that sexual compulsivity is complex and relates to relationship or love deficits or needs, this is true of all compulsive sexual behavior 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 females with sexual compulsivity, 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 sexual compulsivity is obvious. Women often seek help in therapy for other conditions (as with men, there are often other clinical issues) and never talk about sexual compulsivity. This is partially due to shame and isolation but also to the assumptions many therapists make because their client is a woman.
  5. The life consequences of sexual compulsivity 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 sexual compulsivity as are used with a man. Often women use language differently to describe their behavior. 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 compulsive. This is especially confusing for women, because our culture sends women so many mixed messages about sex and sexuality. However, the criteria we would use to identify sexual compulsivity in women are similar to identifying it in men:

  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 compulsivity 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 established. Compulsions tend to be repetitive, worsen over a 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. Sexual compulsivity 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 feels depressed or melancholic "the morning after," these are signs that she may have sexual compulsivity. 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 compulsivity is likely even more serious. Sexual compulsivity 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.