Sex and sexuality are necessary, healthy and, arguably, sacred aspects of the human experience. What happens, though, when sex is used not to enhance intimacy and connection with others but, rather, becomes out of control? What happens when a person describes a clear set of personal values around sexual behavior yet consistently crosses his or her own boundaries and compromises personal sexual values? What happens when a person continues a pattern of sexual behavior despite detrimental consequences? Can a person be addicted to sex?
Although most forms of sexual expression are healthy, the sex addiction model posits that some individuals may develop compulsive, dependent relationships with sex. Critics of the sex addiction model suggest that the addiction label pathologizes nonnormative sexual behaviors (e.g., fetish, kink), yet true proponents of the model do not claim to define morally appropriate forms or frequencies of sexual acts. The focus, rather, is on one’s relationship with sex.
Just because a sexual behavior violates an individual’s personal values, religious or spiritual beliefs, or societal norms does not make it an addiction. Instead, sex addiction has specific defining characteristics:
- Loss of control
- Continued engagement despite negative consequences
- Mental preoccupation or cravings
Thus, rather than being sex-negative, advocates of the sex addiction model work to identify those who are unable to control their sexual behavior, are experiencing distressing outcomes and are mentally preoccupied or craving sex. Once sex addiction is determined, individuals then can get the treatment and support they need to establish healthy sexuality.
A topic for debate
The notion that sex can be addictive still is debated among mental health professionals. Instead of addiction, alternative explanations for problematic sexual behaviors include impulse-control issues, obsessive-compulsive disorder, neuroticism, learned behavior, a form of sensation seeking, internalized sex-negative messages or manifestations of a mental health issue such as bipolar disorder.
The addiction model, however, purports that the primary issue is an out-of-control relationship with sex resulting from changes in chemical messengers in the brain. Specifically, naturally reinforced behaviors, such as eating and sex, are linked to the release of neurotransmitters (i.e., dopamine) related to pleasure and reinforcement. A naturally rewarding behavior such as sex can become a supernormal stimulus leading to dysregulation in the dopaminergic system. The resulting neuroadaptations affect reward, memory, attention and motivation. Thus, from an addiction model perspective, sex can hijack the natural functioning of the reward pathway in some individuals, leading to addictive behavior.
The sex addiction model contends that in addition to being positively reinforcing through the release of dopamine and other neurotransmitters, sex can be negatively reinforcing. Over time, sex can become addictive when it is used as the primary or, sometimes, sole method of regulating undesirable emotions. In other words, sexual behavior can be negatively reinforcing when it functions as an avoidance strategy and is used to escape emotional pain. In a negative feedback loop, however, the individual often feels shame as a result of his or her out-of-control sexual behavior. Paradoxically, this shame may become part of the undesirable emotions that the person then strives to regulate through sexual acts. From an attachment perspective, it is likely that these individuals never learned to coregulate emotionally and, instead, try to autoregulate emotions.
Scholars who primarily emphasize the negative reinforcement of sexual behavior often argue for terminology other than sex addiction, such as compulsive behavior or hypersexuality. However, the fact that sex provides both negative reinforcement (i.e., escape) and positive reinforcement (i.e., pleasure) seems to give credence to the addiction model.
Although controversy remains, the mental health field is steadily embracing the notion that behaviors can become addictive. For example, the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) included the diagnosis for gambling disorder in a chapter titled “Substance Use and Addictive Disorders.” In addition, internet gaming disorder and nonsuicidal self-injury (which some conceptualize as a behavioral addiction) were included in Section III as conditions in need of further study.
A diagnosis of hypersexual disorder was considered for the DSM-5 but ultimately was not included. The American Society of Addiction Medicine, however, revised its official definition of addiction to include both chemicals and naturally reinforcing behaviors. Furthermore, within the World Health Organization, the Working Group on Obsessive-Compulsive and Related Disorders for the 11th version of the International Classification of Diseases has recommended a diagnosis of compulsive sexual behavior. The organization determined the need for additional research to classify sexual behavior as addictive but clearly recognizes that out-of-control sexual behavior is a public health issue.
In addition, the recent surge of public concern related to pornography use and related erectile dysfunction among relatively young men (as evidenced by high traffic on websites dedicated to helping individuals “reboot” or discontinue use of pornography) has contributed to the influx of neuroimaging studies exploring addiction to pornography. Researchers have confirmed that the same regions of the brain activated by drug stimuli also are activated by online sexual stimuli and that addictive sexual behavior may be associated with decreased gray matter and diminished connectivity in the brain.
Types of sex addiction
Scholars conceptualize two types of sex addiction. The profile for the classic type includes early attachment wounds, family-of-origin issues and trauma histories, culminating in insecure attachment strategies in adulthood. Research shows a clear link between problematic sexual behavior and insecure attachment styles, and the majority of individuals in treatment for sex addiction have experienced trauma. For individuals with classic sex addiction, their sexual behavior may have been a primary means to fulfill attachment needs or escape emotional pain. Over time, however, the behavior became compulsive and out of control as the natural longing for sex became a need and then an addiction.
Recently, a second contemporary type of sex addiction has been identified among individuals without the classic profile of trauma or attachment wounds. Instead, the contemporary type emerges as a result of chronic, excessive exposure to sexual stimuli, especially in the form of pornography or cybersex, made more readily available when the internet became ubiquitous. Sex researcher Alvin Cooper referred to cybersex as a triple-A engine, offering affordability, anonymity and accessibility to users.
Online sexual images and videos are pervasive, and current estimates suggest that the average age of first exposure to pornography is 11. This initial exposure is often accidental on the part of the child, with pornography sites known to purchase domain names of commonly misspelled children’s websites (referred to as cybersquatting). Over time, however, pornography becomes a supernormal stimulus reshaping the brain by repetitive experiences of pleasure associated with online sexual images. The brain responds to this hyperactivity in the reward pathway by decreasing natural dopamine production and receptors. Consequently, with decreased natural dopamine production, those with sex addiction may feel mildly depressed at baseline, inducing cravings for sexual behavior to alleviate the negative mood. Thus, whether classic or contemporary, sex addiction leads to changes in brain circuitry, which, in turn, perpetuates the addictive cycle.
The nature of sex addiction
Among individuals for whom sex has become addictive, the condition is all-consuming. When those with sex addiction are not engaging in sexual behaviors (acting out), they likely are thinking about them (fantasy and mental preoccupation), getting ready for them (preparation and ritualization) or recovering from the consequences (physically and emotionally).
Sensitization caused by neuroadaptations may lead individuals to seek novel or more intense sexual stimuli to achieve the desired effect (otherwise known as tolerance). For example, an individual may shift from nonviolent to violent pornography or change from streaming cybersex to partnered anonymous sex. Those with sex addiction begin to live a double life as they hide their out-of-control sexual behaviors from others, withdraw and isolate. Furthermore, many people with sex addiction lose sexual interest in their romantic partners and experience sexual dysfunction because of classic conditioning in which arousal is paired with alternative stimuli such as a computer. The addiction affects the individual physically, psychologically, spiritually, relationally and emotionally. Although sex addiction begins to control these individuals’ lives, they often are reluctant to tell anyone about their experience because of intense feelings of shame and self-loathing.
Addictive sexual behavior can manifest in a variety of ways, from compulsive masturbation, anonymous sex and prostitution to compulsive sexual relationships, voyeurism or rape. Indeed, some sexual acting-out behaviors can cross the legal line and fall into the realm of sexual offenses, but the majority of those with sex addiction do not offend; rather, they engage in legal forms of compulsive sexual behavior.
Sex offenders generally have distinct profiles from sex-addicted nonoffenders. Specifically, sex offenders are more impulsive; engage in more intrusive behaviors; respond to offenses with hatred, anger and entitlement; and have low remorse. This profile differs from the progressive trajectory of sex addiction that tends to include more frequent, yet less intrusive, acting out; triggers shame, despair and powerlessness; and is met with high remorse. When sexual acting-out behaviors cross the line of legal offense, those who are sexually addicted are legally responsible for the consequences of their actions despite having an addiction (much like someone with alcohol addiction who injures another person while driving under the influence).
Although individuals with addiction are not responsible for “giving themselves” sex addiction, they are responsible for their recovery through seeking help and working a treatment program. Increasing public awareness about sex addiction can help promote early access to professional treatment, with the hope being that this step will aid in avoiding decades of negative consequences both for individuals with sex addiction and for others who may be affected.
Given that sex addiction can include myriad sexual behaviors, it is important for clinicians to assess and screen appropriately. Most sex addiction emerges in late adolescence and young adulthood, so school counselors and community clinicians working with young clients can provide early intervention by regularly screening for sex addiction. Counselors are encouraged to broach the subject of sex in counseling and explore clients’ relationships with their sexual activities, such as masturbating, sexting, hooking up, using pornography, engaging in cybersex, using sexual apps and engaging in compulsive sexual relationships.
Despite the fact that sex addiction emerges early, most individuals do not seek professional treatment until later in life as a result of experiencing often extreme negative consequences (i.e., “hitting rock bottom”). Accordingly, all clinicians should be screening for a loss of control over sexual behaviors, continued engagement in sexual behaviors despite negative consequences, and mental preoccupation or cravings. Along with informal screening and exploration, many formal assessments for sexual compulsivity and addiction exist, including the Sexual Addiction Screening Test, the Sexual Compulsivity Scale and the Sexual Dependency Inventory. The use of these instruments can help clinicians better understand their clients and coconstruct appropriate treatment goals.
Once counselors identify the presence of sex addiction, they have many tools and treatment programs to assist in helping clients reach long-term recovery. Unlike recovery from chemical addictions, the goal of sex addiction treatment is not abstinence from all sexual acts, but rather the development of healthy sexuality. It is the compulsive, detrimental sexual behavior that counselors and clients work to eradicate.
To help clarify recovery from sex addiction, many clinicians and 12-step recovery programs (such as Sex Addicts Anonymous) use the three-circles activity. With a sponsor or counselor, those with sex addiction draw three concentric circles. In the innermost circle, the client lists all unhealthy sexual behaviors that have led to negative consequences and over which the individual has lost control. These are the behaviors from which the client is choosing to abstain.
In the middle circle, the client lists behaviors that may lead to sexual acting out. Identifying middle-circle behaviors is important from a neurological perspective. The amygdala is responsible for emotional memory; thus, it remembers stimuli associated with the experience of pleasure. After years of sex addiction, individuals likely have associated specific locations, sounds, sights, smells and actions with sexual pleasure. The middle circle, therefore, includes any stimuli, such as excessive fantasizing, cruising or sexually objectifying others, that may trigger the amygdala and lead to sexual craving.
Finally, the client uses the outermost circle to identify healthy behaviors that will support the individual’s recovery. These behaviors might include participating in 12-step groups, engaging in counseling, fostering spiritual practices, exercising, eating healthy, keeping home and work spaces nonchaotic, spending time doing recreational activities and increasing healthy social support.
Many counseling approaches and interventions, including cognitive-behavioral approaches, psychodynamic approaches, acceptance and commitment therapy, motivational interviewing, art therapy, group counseling, couple and family counseling, and even psychopharmacology, are appropriate for work with sex addiction. It is important to note that recovery from sex addiction often spans years rather than months. Clients, family members and partners may erroneously believe that recovery occurs within a matter of weeks and can become disheartened when initial attempts to change behavior are unsuccessful. Providing psychoeducation about the neurobiology of sex addiction can offer a more accurate perspective and create realistic expectations. Clients can find hope in the fact that, in time, the brain can heal and resolve dysregulation in the reward circuitry. This healing process takes time, however, and the completion of specific tasks such as those outlined in Patrick Carnes’ 30 tasks of recovery.
Additionally, sex addiction may not be the only concern addressed in treatment. Given the common mechanisms underlying addiction, it is not surprising that coaddictions to gambling, food, gaming, the internet or substances often exist among those with sex addiction. Furthermore, research supports the prevalence of comorbid mental health problems, including bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, among those with sex addiction. Finally, a trauma-informed perspective may be necessary to help clients resolve trauma to improve emotion regulation.
Clinicians should take an integrated approach to address all addictive and mental health concerns in treatment. Integrated care may be more complex than addressing one concern at a time, but diverse treatment teams, supplemental or adjunct resources, and holistic recovery plans can best help clients reach long-term health and wholeness.
Advocating for clients
One of the most necessary forms of advocacy for this population is increased awareness related to sex addiction. During the Masters Tournament in 2010, roughly six months after the story broke concerning Tiger Woods’ sexual behavior and treatment for sex addiction, someone flew a plane over the Augusta National Golf Club with a banner reading, “Sex addict? Yeah. Right. Sure. Me too.”
It is inappropriate for anyone outside of Woods’ personal and professional circle to try to determine a clinical diagnosis for his case, but the plane and banner reflect a popular public sentiment: Sex addiction is not real. Advocates can work to increase public knowledge relating to sex addiction and dispense critical research about the condition.
Additionally, mental health professionals can take several practical steps to advocate for clients who are sexually addicted. Currently, many counseling centers do not include information about sex addiction on their websites or relevant items on their intake forms. This lack of acknowledgment may inadvertently communicate to clients that sex addiction is not an appropriate topic for counseling. Thus, one of the simplest forms of advocacy is to include the experience of compulsive sexual behavior on websites, advertisements and client intake forms.
Another important advocacy effort is to acknowledge that individuals of all genders can have sex addiction. Specifically, when community groups, media spokespeople or well-meaning educators leave women out of the conversation about addiction to sex or pornography, they add a layer of stigma for these individuals. Although prevalence rates may differ among genders (about 1 in 7 of those with sex addiction are women), it does not discount the salience of sex addiction among female populations.
Finally, the most recent standards of the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs require educators to teach students about theory and etiology of addictive behaviors. Therefore, counselor training programs can advocate for future clients by infusing relevant, up-to-date information regarding sex (and other behavioral) addictions in the counseling curriculum.
Much work is needed to decrease the stigma and shame associated with sex addiction. Although stigma exists with any addiction, it seems particularly poignant with regard to compulsive sexual behavior. In the cycle of sex addiction, shame serves as both a precursor and a consequence of sexual acting out. Raising public awareness regarding the nature of sex addiction can help combat this shame.
Rather than conceptualizing compulsive sexuality as a moral failing, the addiction model provides a framework to empower clients to manage their condition while offering effective tools for recovery. Controversy may always exist regarding the conceptualization of sex addiction, but it is imperative to continue the conversation, increase empirical evidence and engage in advocacy efforts to serve and support this population.
Knowledge Share articles are developed from sessions presented at American Counseling Association conferences.
Amanda L. Giordano is an assistant professor at the University of Georgia. A licensed professional counselor, she specializes in addictions counseling and multiculturalism. Giordano serves on the executive board for the Association for Spiritual, Ethical and Religious Values in Counseling and the editorial review boards for the Journal of Addictions & Offender Counseling and Counseling and Values. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Craig S. Cashwell, a professor in the Department of Counseling and Educational Development at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, is an American Counseling Association fellow. Additionally, he maintains a part-time private practice focusing on couple counseling and addictions counseling. He serves as editor-in-chief of Counseling and Values.
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