By Dr. Georgia Fourlas, LCSW, LISAC, CSAT
Clinical Director of Rio Retreat Center Workshops at The Meadows
“Are my sexual behaviors really a problem?”
Some people addicted to sex know the answer to that question, even if they refuse to admit it. Other people aren’t so sure. Sometimes, sexual behaviors that fall within the range of what’s acceptable in our society might not be seen as problematic, even if they lead to severe internal and external consequences for the person engaging in them.
Also, inappropriate sexual behaviors sometimes only occur when engaging in another addictive or maladaptive activity. For example, some people only cheat on their spouses or partners when drunk. To them, it might seem like the problem in that scenario is the alcohol—and maybe that’s partially true. However, cheating also poses a problem that can be easily overlooked if the focus remains solely on alcohol consumption.
Both the use of societal norms as the gauge for acceptable behavior and the rationalization that alcohol is the reason for cheating are forms of denial. Denial is a symptom of most addictions, and it’s often most robust in those who are struggling with sexual compulsivity.
What Is Sexual Compulsivity?
Sexual compulsivity, also known as hypersexuality or sex addiction, is characterized by sexual fantasies, urges, or behaviors that are difficult to control and disrupt other aspects of life, including your health, job, and relationships. Sexual compulsivity might involve a variety of experiences, and when these behaviors become disruptive or harmful to you and others, it becomes a problem.
Signs of a Sex Addict
Some indicators that you might be a sex addict include:
- Recurrent and intense sexual fantasies take up a lot of your time
- You’re driven to perform certain sexual behaviors but feel guilt or remorse afterward
- You’ve been unable to reduce or control your fantasies
- You use these behaviors as an escape from other problems, including loneliness, depression, anxiety, or stress
- You continue to engage in sexual behaviors that have serious consequences
- You have difficulty establishing and maintaining healthy relationships
Causes of Sex Addiction
Although the exact causes of sex addiction are unclear, some might include:
- An imbalance of natural brain chemicals
Serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine are natural brain chemicals that help regulate your mood. High levels of these chemicals could correlate to compulsive sexual behavior.
- Changes in brain pathways
Compulsive sexual behavior can become an addiction over time that causes changes in the brain’s neural circuits, particularly the ones in the reinforcement centers of the brain. More intensive sexual content
- Conditions that affect the brain
Health issues such as epilepsy or dementia can damage parts of the brain that affect sexual behavior. Additionally, certain medications with dopamine agonists may cause compulsive sexual behaviors.
Sex Addiction Risk Factors
Sex addiction is more common in men but can occur in men and women. Certain factors, such as ease of access to sexual content and privacy, may increase sexual compulsive behavior. Advancements in technology and social media allow more access to sexual imagery and information, and the confidentiality of these compulsive activities worsens the problem over time. People with alcohol or drug problems, mental health conditions, family conflicts or addictions, and a history of physical or sexual abuse also see an increased risk for sex addiction.
What Is a Sex Addict?
Like any addiction, sexual addiction can occur on a continuum of severity. On one end of the spectrum is the person who has caused physical harm to themselves or others or gotten into legal trouble for their sexual behaviors. On the other end is the person who hides their behaviors and feels shame about them but hasn’t suffered any external consequences as a result.
While a person who has suffered more consequences might be more likely to admit they have a problem, it’s unnecessary to let things get that far before seeking help. No one thinks they will ever go that far or their addiction will get out of control. Almost everyone feels surprised when they find themselves neck-deep in dire consequences of their sexual behaviors, believing they would somehow avoid the inevitable. It’s possible and wise to stop before it gets to that point.
The Three Components of Sex Addiction
Addiction has three common characteristics: obsession, compulsion, and continuation despite adverse consequences.
This is intrusive and sometimes never-ending thoughts about the behavior. It could mean that a person constantly thinks about the behavior. Still, it simply means the obsessive thoughts come at times that are inconvenient, inappropriate, or distracting and that it’s difficult to stop them when they arrive.
The thoughts can be about sexual behavior or some aspect of it. People might obsess about a person or place or plan to act out. They also might obsess over something they use to act out or about plans to enable their acting out.
This is engaging in the behavior despite efforts not to engage. A person who makes sincere promises that they’ll discontinue the behavior then finds excuses to continue doing it even though those promises typically act on a compulsion. Another example of compulsive behavior is when someone knows they’ve made a prior commitment to be somewhere, such as at a family function. Still, they feel they must act out sexually, and they do, making them late for the function or missing it entirely.
Ultimately, compulsive behaviors will lead to adverse consequences. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that an addiction is present. Some people engage in a behavior, suffer an undesirable consequence, and then never engage in that behavior again. But, it indicates a more severe problem when someone continues the behavior after suffering consequences.
Imagine a person who compulsively views pornography. Their children find the digital files, and their spouse becomes very angry and insists that all the pornographic images be deleted from the computers in their home. Instead, the person downloads the images onto a flash drive, labels it “Architecture Plans,” and continues to watch it, hoping the label will deter the children.
Despite adverse external consequences, this continues the behavior and puts this person at risk for other undesirable outcomes. Internal consequences are just as significant as external consequences but are often less evident than external ones. Internal consequences include but are not limited to:
- Feelings of intense shame
- Intense self-hatred
Adverse external and internal consequences motivate the person to seek help.
Do I Need Help for Sex Addiction?
Adverse effects have a unique way of offering a moment of clarity. A person may be willing to admit that they need help for sex addiction after suffering a consequence. They also might be ready to get help because they want to avoid further painful consequences. Sometimes, a person might seek help to appease a loved one, their employer, or the courts.
Regardless of the reason, if the person receiving support is open to looking at the potential causes of their behavior and its consequences, they will reap the benefits of treatment. If you’ve suffered consequences for your sexual behaviors, particularly repeated consequences, the time to seek help is now.
When a person experiences consequences, it usually leads to an emotional crisis. There’s a strong desire for the pain to stop. When the pain of consequences leads a person to make the wise decision to seek help, denial can sometimes step in and offer a second opinion. After the crisis of the consequence fades, decisions to seek help are occasionally rescinded. That call for help might seem like a “rash decision” or an “overreaction.” Don’t allow yourself to fall back into denial. Get the help you need. Your future self will thank you.
Sex Addiction Treatment at The Meadows
The Men’s Sexual Compulsivity Workshop helps men broaden participants’ views about sexuality, learn how to have healthy sexual experiences, maintain positive relationships, and avoid harmful past patterns.
The Journey of a Woman’s Heart: Finding True Intimacy Workshop is for women to explore unhealthy sexual patterns and behaviors that deeply impact their ability to develop fundamental emotional connections. Methods for enhancing self-esteem from within, rather than seeking validation from outside sources, are explored.
The Meadows also offers inpatient treatment programs for sexual addiction and compulsivity. Gentle Path at The Meadows is exclusively for men, and Willow House at The Meadows is exclusively for women. All of our programs are firmly based on the work of Dr. Patrick Carnes and his 30-task model. If you or a loved one needs help with sex addiction, please call our Intake Department at (800)-244-4949 to begin the healing process and find out which program is best for you.