Sex addiction is widely misunderstood. Let's discuss a common questions and concerns.
Are you addicted to sex?
Sex addictions and sex-related habits are common now with universal access to sexual stimulation and encounters through smartphones.
You are concerned about your sexual activity. But are you really addicted?
Here is a research based quiz that you can take and score for yourself.
What are Signs of a sex addiction?
Of course, if you or others are experiencing real problems due to your sexual activities, then you have cause for concern, whether officially "addicted" or not.
Given that you have visited this site, you probably would gain a lot from extra support to overcome your habit.
What Causes Sex Addiction?
My clients always ask me: Why am I doing what I do? Why am addicted to orgasm?
Like most things, the answer involves many possible factors. They can be divided into nature and nurture, inherent and environmental.
Inherent & inherited
We can be born with certain personality traits and sensitivities that make us more susceptible to sensual excess.
There can also be long standing intergenerational patterns of incest, infidelity and abuse of sex that subtly influence us.
In childhood, our age when first exposed to sex, and the way sex was handled in our family are important factors.
A culture that encourages casual sex without consequences certainly influences us.
Having past trauma can make us much more vulnerable to sex addiction.
As the illustration shows, those with four adverse childhood experiences--like physical or verbal abuse, parental divorce or addiction, domestic violence--are much more likely to get involved with unhealthy behaviors. (You can take the quiz for this here.)
But lesser wounds, what we might think of as ordinary ones like breaking up with a crush in high school or our parents' neglecting us emotionally due to their working long hours can leave a real mark.
Anyone who started their sex-related habit during their teens--which is quite common--needs to understand how vulnerable they were due to their youth and limited power over their environment and inheritance, so as to not blame themselves.
Is sex addiction real?
Only recently has something like sex addiction gained any official recognition as a disorder. The latest International Classification of Disease handbook now lists Compulsive Sexual Behavior Disorder among problems with impulsivity.
Speaking of the latter, orgasm is what releases the strongest dose of dopamine in our brain. Orgasm is similar to the high caused by cocaine.
Why do so many psychologists continue to argue that there is no such thing as sex addiction?
There are many nuances to their arguments which I won't go into here.
But one key reason is that many psychotherapists trained years ago fail to consider how the internet has influenced sexual activity.
Our brain does not resister a big difference between having real sex with our spouse or masturbating to a porn-induced fantasy. Every click to a new sexual image or video sends another shot of dopamine. Thus, repeated manipulation of dopamine hits through porn and masturbation is really a kind of “drug abuse,” since it is exploiting natural brain chemicals.
Many experts persist in the belief that sex is something that naturally limits itself, like eating food. Your stomach signals when it is full and you stop eating. In the same way, the body supposedly regulates itself with orgasm.
There is some truth to that, of course. But we have seen that junk food is carefully designed to be an almost irresistible mix of fat, sugar and salt that bypasses the body's natural regulatory mechanism. People eat way more than they should without even being aware, and they get fat.
So it is with internet-enhanced sex. The internet and smartphones have made anonymous sexual encounters available to anyone. And a 24/7 temptation.
By the way, the dopamine reward system does not only encourage getting to that porn site and masturbating to orgasm. It also rewards every step along the way there.
The endless possibility on demand of hooking up to anyone to fulfill any momentary fantasy, whenever the mood hits--this in itself can be captivating. This online connection accelerates the stimulation of romantic and sexual encounters way beyond anything ordinary and natural.
Even if there is a disappointment, in cyberspace there are infinitely more partners available to try.
This becomes more and more necessary as we develop tolerance to simple images of naked bodies or people having ordinary sex. We may then pursue more and more unexpected, shocking and perverse porn to get that same anticipated dopamine hit.
This is why some porn users may get bored with sex with their spouse and sometimes be unable to even get aroused. Nothing in real life can equal what the brain has been trained to need—that infinite novelty of vivid, rapidly changing pictures.
(By the way, this is main difference between porn addicts and sex addicts: Porn users are hooked on novelty in pixels while sex addicts are hooked on novelty in partners.)
We may resort to fantasizing about porn images or even stare at actual porn to maintain interest during sex with our spouse.
There is the thrill of the hunt, and then finding someone and encountering them in cyberspace for cybersex or arranging a real meeting.
The online world sustains fantasies perhaps like no other environment. It is easy to imagine the partner is whatever you want, and thinks whatever you wish about you.
Reality need not intrude much, and even if there is a disappointment--it turns out to be an unappealing person in a seedy apartment--there are infinitely more partners available to try.
There is this high speed, endless variety, instant gratification aspect to sex in the digital age--like online shopping, gambling and video games--that creates a superstimulus like junk food.
Ordinary dating and marital sex can seem dreary and boring compared to it. And so sex can become addictive.
negative core beliefs
Those of us with sex-related habits often share certain deeply embedded and destructive assumptions.
These negative core beliefs are so uncomfortable and self-reinforcing that they set us up to look for relief much of the time.
Here they are:
1. “I’m a bad, unworthy person.”
This belief leads to shame and guilt and makes it hard for them to feel deserving of love. After finding some comfort in empty sex, they feel even more ashamed and this lie is reinforced.
2. “No one would love me as I am, or if they knew what I am doing.”
This motivates them to hide their habit and can create a double life with lots of guilt over their deception. Often very moral people can persist with habits that deeply violate their own conscience. Even a pastor can be hiding a persistent sex habit.
Ironically because the sex addict never shares this with anyone, there is no way for this belief to be exposed as false. This is one reason why secrecy about the habit is so destructive.
3. “No one else will ever meet my needs.”
The porn user may often distrust that they can count on anyone to care for them. There is often good reason for this, based on past experience. Therefore, they can become self-sufficient and independent to a fault.
But this isolating approach to life leaves them deeply lonely and closed to love, not to mention vulnerable to the false promises of porn to meet their love needs without threat of rejection.
4. “Sex is my most important need.”
Sexual climax releases not only dopamine but also oxytocin, the “cuddle hormone” that creates a bonding sensation. Sexual arousal quickens the heart beat and is enlivening like little else. In these ways and more, orgasm feels a lot like love and the two are easily confused.
Especially with society trumpeting at every turn that sex is the greatest thing in the world, it is easy to understand how people can think it is their most important need.
And a real need must be indulged, no matter what. So whatever it takes to meet this need can be justified.
These irrational beliefs support the sex addict’s irrational behavior. Strugglers don’t necessarily notice these assumptions; often they operate outside the person’s awareness.
You may notice these ideas and thoughts that come up with any unpleasant feelings you may have. It will take practice to catch them, like trying to catch a fly, but you can learn to notice them.
And you will begin to have experiences in recovery which causes you to reexamine these beliefs.
Sex Addiction cycle
When we give in to a bad habit, we are on automatic pilot and in a kind of trance. It can seem like it “just happened,” or as is often said about a physical sexual encounter, “one thing just led to another.” But on closer inspection, succumbing to a bad habit has a certain repetitive pattern.
When we understand how temptation and indulging the habit work, we can make it less mysterious. When we get more insight into the process, we can better figure out how the pattern plays out for us and how to interrupt it before we act upon our urges.
To start, the stage is set for the addiction cycle by having unwanted feelings: anxiety, anger, sadness, shame, loneliness, emptiness, etc. Or just boredom.
We may not fully recognize that these feelings are even there, let alone know where they came from. Sometimes we act on our habit to head them off before they even fully arrive. For example, some people are constantly running from sadness because they find it threatening to admit they feel it.
Next, after some unwanted feelings come up, we encounter triggers that make us think of our habit. These triggers are sights, sounds, smells or touches that lead to memories of good times and comfort through our habit.
With sex, these could be the sight of an attractive woman or a certain strip club neighborhood, the sound of a certain song we listen to while cruising, the smell of sweat, the sensation of friction of clothing on the body that is arousing. Another common definition of triggers is “people, places, and things” that remind you of the habit.
After the unwanted feelings and then the triggers, a person may enter into the Addiction Cycle. You can draw a circle among three elements.
Next comes the preparatory rituals. These are the things we set up to enjoy the habit.
There is the arrangements for being alone, such as staying up late. There is getting any necessary items. Perhaps there is some pretense of “checking email” and then “just out of curiosity” checking a favorite site for anyone new.
The only way we can stop our habit is to get out of the cycle before acting out.
These rituals can unconscious, and elements can seem unimportant until you see they are all part of the picture of getting to a certain goal: Indulging the beloved habit. These rituals can be simple and brief, or elaborate and take quite a long time.
Surprisingly, anticipation and preparation is a huge part of the pleasure.
Think of the preparatory rituals you might go through with a harmless indulgence like enjoying a favorite meal. Maybe you shop for the ingredients and look for a recipe online. Or you look for a good restaurant. In either case, anticipation is half the pleasure.
3. Acting out
This leads to the third stage, the Acting Out. Sometimes this can be quick. Sometimes it can be a long drawn out process of looking for the perfect partner to hook up with. In any event, there is a moment of comfort and pleasure.
After sexual release, the mood is neutral. Any regret is pushed down, any inner conflict is resolved for now; there is relief and we can move on.
Gradually, though, uncomfortable feelings come. Maybe it is guilt and shame over our inability to stop the habit. Or disgust over the betrayal of our partner or our values. The hollow sense that what we just did was empty of meaning or real satisfaction.
At the very least, the stress or unwanted feelings we wanted to escape come back. And so we are re-triggered towards entering the cycle again.
Disrupting the cycle
The only way we can stop such a habit is to get out of the cycle before acting out. That means we can:
1. Avoid triggers. That’s why we have accountability filters, and why we distance ourselves from certain friends and a host of other tactics.
2. Notice the negative feelings at the outset and doing something constructive to move out of them. This is obviously the healthiest choice and can be learned.
Or we can notice we are triggered and reach out for contact with someone helpful or do something else until the urge goes away. Again, a great and healthy choice.
3. Notice we are preoccupied and fantasizing, and nip that in the bud. As before, this is easier if we talk to someone.
4. Finally, and this is late, we can admit we are getting into our rituals and decide to stop. We can put on the brakes especially if we connect to someone and get pulled out of our routine.