When Sex Becomes An Addiction

Think of a sex addict and you’ll probably picture someone who masturbates or has sex a lot.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

Think of a sex addict and you’ll probably picture someone who masturbates or has sex a lot. But what does “a lot” mean, exactly? At what point does just being really horny become a problem? 

What makes a sex addict? 

According to Varian Monteiro, a counselling consultant at The Relational Counselling, a person is considered a sex addict when they find it difficult to control their behaviour. “The strongest indicator of an existing addiction is when there is loss of control, be it real or perceived, and an inability to stop the behaviour,” he says.  “An addiction is classified as a compulsion to engage in a behaviour despite adverse present or future consequences. Sex is simply the tool these addicts use to get their relief or pleasure. It’s what we call ‘acting out’.” 

They are also considered sex addicts when their compulsions disrupt their life.  “Sex addicts can spend an inordinate amount of time preoccupying themselves with preparatory activities or behaviours leading up to ‘acting out’,” he explains. “Family and work commitments take a backseat as ‘acting out’ becomes a priority.” 

At worst, addicts may also find that the behaviour not only harms themselves, but those around them, physically and/or emotionally. 

Not all fun and games 

Since there are different types of sexual behaviours, it probably isn’t surprising that there are also different types of sex addiction. Varian says that while the more common ones include an addiction to masturbation or pornography, there are also addictions to transactional sex (where they have sex for money or favours), exhibitionistic sex (where they expose themselves in public) and voyeuristic sex (where they observe others having sex), among several other types.

But no matter the type of addiction, many sex addicts are actually distressed by their preoccupation with sex.

“In fact, sex addicts often feel worse off after ‘acting out’. This sometimes propels them to engage in the behaviour or activity again,” says Varian.

This vicious cycle may lead to, “some very real negative consequences including incarceration, STDs, loss of job or family and the breakdown of relationships,” he explains. “And the emotional toll on addicts includes feelings of despair, isolation, shame and guilt. They may also feel ostracised.”

But is it even real?

But while sex addiction sounds pretty alarming, many doctors, sex therapists and sex educators do not consider it a real disorder. 

“To me, ‘sex addiction’ is a cultural myth,” said psychotherapist Joe Kort in a 2018 CNN article on sex addiction. “30 years ago, we didn’t have a better way to describe people who worried that their sexual behavior was out of control, so it made sense to call it addiction. But it’s not an actual diagnosis.”

“Sex addiction has become the label du jour to explain why people without an understanding of their own desires now struggle and feel out of control in a world that’s increasingly sexually permissive,” said psychologist David Ley in the same article.

To these experts, people with intense sexual behaviours believe that they’re struggling with an addiction because they’ve been “shamed” into believing it by other people— usually a partner or a friend.

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All in the head

Clinical sexologist Martha Tara Lee also doesn’t believe that sex addiction is a real thing. To her, the compulsion to act out a sexual behaviour repeatedly is really a psychological issue, not a physical one. 

“I am of the opinion that there is no such thing as sex addiction. But I, like my colleagues, would agree that the lack of sexuality education can lead to sexual behavior that can be problematic or distressing,” she says. 

“A more accurate term for ‘sex addiction’ could be ‘sexually compulsive behavior’, and it’s often linked to other psychological issues including obsessive compulsive disorder.” 

This characterisation is shared by the World Health Organisation, which added “compulsive sexual behaviour disorder” (and not “sex addiction”) to the newest edition of the International Classification of Diseases last year. 

Dr Martha Tara Lee says such behaviour stems from poor impulse control or mental health issues such as stress, anxiety or depression. In fact, one study of people under treatment for sex addiction (Personality Disorder Comorbidity in Treatment- Seeking Men with Hypersexual Disorder) found that 92 percent of them were dealing with some sort of mental health disorder. 

“It’s exceedingly common for them to experience things like depression and anxiety,” adds Varian. “Sex and its pleasurable effects can be used to avoid unwanted feelings such as anxiety, so it’s no surprise that whenever [people with sexually compulsive behaviour] feel discomfort, they turn to sex.” 

Is it a guy thing?

Perhaps it’s no surprise that sex addiction happens a lot more in men. After all, the Hollywood celebrities who have been open about their addiction to sex are largely men—as are many of those who claim to be addicts on online forums. In fact, a 2016 Tonic article said that they make up 90 percent of self-identifying addicts. But why is this the case? 

“I find this hard to explain myself. Maybe it’s the way that society has framed the promiscuity of women versus the promiscuity of men, or that there are a higher number of [sexual] services or products catered towards male customers versus female customers,” says Varian. 

“It could be that women rely more on their support networks instead of seeking professional help, or that there is more shame and stigma attached to female sex addicts, [so the relation between women and sex addiction is underreported].”  

He adds that some studies have found men to be more impulsive and in need of instant gratification, which could also explain why they may be more likely to give in to their sexual urges.

Sex addicts often feel worse off after ‘acting out’. This sometimes propels them to engage in the behaviour or activity again.

Is it treatable?

Thankfully, compulsive sexual behaviour, like many other mental health disorders, can be treated. 

“However, the journey of recovery can be long. The average length of treatment is about two years,” says Varian. “Treatment normally consists of weekly sessions with a therapist and participation in an anonymous self-help group.” 

Dr Martha Tara Lee agrees that it can be treated, but advises consulting a trained sexologist. “I don’t recommend going to therapists who advocate sexual abstinence only— stopping the behaviour without addressing the underlying issue doesn’t resolve anything,” she explains. “The choice of therapist is very important as different therapists use different therapy models.” 

Other types of treatments include cognitive behavioral therapy, which works by helping addicts shift the focus of their behaviours and thoughts; and psychodynamic therapy, which works to uncover early childhood influencers or current habits that contribute to the current sex addiction. 

Think you or someone you know might be addicted to sex? If you’re not ready to see a therapist yet, you can take a self-diagnosis test available at Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (sg-slaa.com).

Celebs who have opened up about their struggle with sex

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Colin Farrell

After a sex tape with the actor in it was leaked, he opened up about his struggles with sex and said: “Of course sex addiction is real. There are chemicals that flow through the brain in a moment’s sexual dalliance that are similar to those that appear when you take a substance. Anything that takes you away from your emotional and psychological self and gives you a hit, you can become addicted to.”

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Kanye West

The rapper has been quite open about his sexual compulsions. “People ask me a lot about my drive. I think it comes from, like, having a sexual addiction at a really young age,” he told Details. Rumour has it Kim Kardashian was warned about his obsession with sex by his ex before she married him.

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Lindsay Lohan

When asked if her stints in rehab were anything to do with sex addiction, she said: “It was a lot of stuff. I enjoy having sex. Being an actress is lonely. I hate sleeping alone.”

Scott Disick 

The TV personality also known as Kourtney Kardashian’s ex once proclaimed, “I’m a sex addict” in an episode of Keeping Up With the Kardashians.

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