Sexual addiction (sometimes called sex addiction) is a popular model to explain hypersexuality—sexual urges, behaviors, or thoughts that appear extreme in frequency or feel out of one’s control. Hypersexuality is typically associated with lowered sexual inhibitions, and alcohol and some drugs can affect a person’s social and sexual inhibitions. Certified Sex Addiction Therapists are specially trained to treat sex addiction
There are differences of opinion among sexologists, sociologists, psychologists and other specialists as to whether the phenomenon represents an actual addiction or even a psychological/psychiatric condition at all. Proponents of the sexual addiction model draw an analogy between hypersexuality and substance addiction or behavioral problems like gambling addiction, recommending 12-step and other addiction-based methods of treatment. Other explanatory models of hypersexuality include sexual compulsivity and sexual impulsivity.
Sexologists have not reached any consensus regarding whether sexual addiction exists or, if it does, how to describe the phenomenon. Some experts believe that sexual addiction is literally an addiction, directly analogous to alcohol and drug addictions. Other experts believe that sexual addiction is actually a form of obsessive compulsive disorder and refer to it as sexual compulsivity. Still other experts believe that sex addiction is itself a myth, a by-product of cultural and other influences. Some who have expressed doubts about the existence of sex addiction argue that the condition is instead a way of projecting social stigma onto patients.
Sex addiction as a term first emerged in the mid-1970s when various members of Alcoholics Anonymous sought to apply the principles of 12-Steps toward sexual recovery from serial infidelity and other unmanageable compulsive sex behaviors that were similar to the powerlessness and un-manageability they experienced with alcoholism. This resulted in the creation of new support groups that all seemed to independently surface spontaneously within this same era. Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (S.L.A.A.) was founded first in Boston in 1976, followed by Sex Addicts Anonymous (SAA) in 1977, Sexaholics Anonymous in 1979, and later, Sexual Compulsives Anonymous (SCA) and Sexual Recovery Anonymous (SRA). Together these are known as the “S” programs or S-fellowships because they all focus on sexual recovery. They tend to differ on what constitutes sexual “sobriety.”
There are various online and phone support meetings for these groups as well as meetings in many cities and towns all over the world.
There are also programs for those who regard themselves as the traumatized or otherwise affected partners of sex addicts such as COSA and CO-SLAA.
On August 15, 2011 the American Society of Addiction Medicine issued a public statement defining all addiction (including sex addiction) in terms of brain changes. “Addiction is a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry.”
The following excerpts are taken from the FAQs:
“The new ASAM definition makes a departure from equating addiction with just substance dependence, by describing how addiction is also related to behaviors that are rewarding. This the first time that ASAM has taken an official position that addiction is not solely “substance dependence.” This definition says that addiction is about functioning and brain circuitry and how the structure and function of the brains of persons with addiction differ from the structure and function of the brains of persons who do not have addiction. It talks about reward circuitry in the brain and related circuitry, but the emphasis is not on the external rewards that act on the reward system. Food, sexual behaviors and gambling behaviors can be associated with the pathological pursuit of rewards described in this new definition of addiction.”
“We all have the brain reward circuitry that makes food and sex rewarding. In fact, this is a survival mechanism. In a healthy brain, these rewards have feedback mechanisms for satiety or ‘enough.’ In someone with addiction, the circuitry becomes dysfunctional such that the message to the individual becomes ‘more’, which leads to the pathological pursuit of rewards and/or relief through the use of substances and behaviors. So, anyone who has addiction is vulnerable to food and sex addiction.
The American Psychiatric Association publishes and periodically updates the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), a widely recognized compendium of acknowledged mental disorders and their diagnostic criteria.
The version published in 1987 (DSM-III-R), referred to “distress about a pattern of repeated sexual conquests or other forms of nonparaphilic sexual addiction, involving a succession of people who exist only as things to be used.” The reference to sexual addiction was subsequently removed The current version, published in 2000 (DSM-IV-TR), no longer mention sexual addiction as a mental disorder. The DSM-IV-TR still includes a miscellaneous diagnosis calledSexual Disorders Not Otherwise Specified, which now includes: “distress about a pattern of repeated sexual relationships involving a succession of lovers who are experienced by the individual only as things to be used.” (Other examples include: compulsive fixation on an unattainable partner, compulsive masturbation, compulsive love relationships, and compulsive sexuality in a relationship.) Even this still-present diagnostic definition does not mention sexual addiction, but focuses on the patient’s distress as to their sexual behavior (contrary to the pattern of denial in addiction as mentioned below), not on the sexual behavior itself.
Hypersexuality, by itself, is a symptom of hypomania and mania in bipolar disorder and schizoaffective disorder, as defined in the DSM-IV-R.
Some authors continue to express that sexual addiction should be re-introduced into the DSM system; however, sexual addiction rejected for inclusion in the DSM-5, expected out in 2013. Darrel Regier, vice-chair of the DSM-5 task force, said that “[A]lthough ‘hypersexuality’ is a proposed new addition…[the phenomenon] was not at the point where we were ready to call it an addiction.”
The World Health Organization produces the International Classification of Diseases (ICD), which is not limited to mental disorders. The most recent version of that document, ICD-10, includes “Excessive sexual drive” as a diagnosis (code F52.7), subdividing it into satyriasis (for males) and nymphomania (for females)
Symptoms and proposed diagnostic criteria
Irons and Schneider have noted that “Addictive sexual disorders that do not fit into standard DSM-IV categories can best be diagnosed using an adaptation of the DSM-IV criteria for substance dependence.” Similarly, Lowinson and colleagues use the addiction model and define sexual addiction as a condition in which some form of sexual behaviour is employed in a pattern that is characterized at least by two key features: recurrent failure to control the behaviour and continuation of the behaviour despite harmful consequences. Patrick Carnes, another proponent of the addiction model of sexual addiction, argued that most professionals in the field agree with the World Health Organization’s definition of addiction Carnes has suggested four types of addiction in his writings: Chemical, Process, Feelings, and Compulsive Attachments. Carnes has categorized sex addiction as a process addiction.
Patrick Carnes, a proponent of the idea of sexual addiction, proposed using:
1. Recurrent failure (pattern) to resist impulses to engage in acts of sex.
2. Frequently engaging in those behaviors to a greater extent or over a longer period of time than intended.
3. Persistent desire or unsuccessful efforts to stop, reduce, or control those behaviors.
4. Inordinate amount of time spent in obtaining sex, being sexual, or recovering from sexual experience.
5. Preoccupation with the behavior or preparatory activities.
6. Frequently engaging in sexual behavior when expected to fulfill occupational, academic, domestic, or social obligations.
7. Continuation of the behavior despite knowledge of having a persistent or recurrent social, academic, financial, psychological, or physical problem that is caused or exacerbated by the behavior.
8. Need to increase the intensity, frequency, number, or risk of behaviors to achieve the desired effect, or diminished effect with continued behaviors at the same level of intensity, frequency, number, or risk.
9. Giving up or limiting social, occupational, or recreational activities because of the behavior.
10. Resorting to distress, anxiety, restlessness, or violence if unable to engage in the behavior at times relating to SRD (Sexual Rage Disorder).
Aviel Goodman, M.D., proposed a maladaptive pattern of behavior, leading to clinically significant impairment or distress, as manifested by three (or more) of the following, occurring at any time in the same 12-month period
1. tolerance, as defined by either of the following:
1. a need for markedly increased amount or intensity of the behavior to achieve the desired effect
2. markedly diminished effect with continued involvement in the behavior at the same level or intensity
2. withdrawal, as manifested by either of the following:
1. characteristic psycho-physiological withdrawal syndrome of physiologically described changes and/or psychologically described changes upon discontinuation of the behavior
2. the same (or a closely related) behavior is engaged in to relieve or avoid withdrawal symptoms
3. the behavior is often engaged in over a longer period, in greater quantity, or at a higher intensity than was intended
4. there is a persistent desire or unsuccessful efforts to cut down or control the behavior
5. a great deal of time spent in activities necessary to prepare for the behavior, to engage in the behavior, or to recover from its effects
6. important social, occupational, or recreational activities are given up or reduced because of the behavior
7. the behavior continues despite knowledge of having a persistent or recurrent physical or psychological problem that is likely to have been caused or exacerbated by the behavior
Schneider identified three indicators of sexual addiction: compulsivity, continuation despite consequences, and obsession.
1. Compulsivity: This is the loss of the ability to choose freely whether to stop or continue a behavior.
2. Continuation despite consequences: When addicts take their addiction too far, it can cause negative effects in their lives. They may start withdrawing from family life to pursue sexual activity. This withdrawal may cause them to neglect their children or cause their partners to leave them. Addicts risk money, marriage, family and career in order to satisfy their sexual desires. Despite all of these consequences, they continue indulging in excessive sexual activity.
3. Obsession: This is when people cannot help themselves from thinking a particular thought. Sex addicts spend whole days consumed by sexual thoughts. They develop elaborate fantasies, find new ways of obtaining sex and mentally revisit past experiences. Because their minds are so preoccupied by these thoughts, other areas of their lives that they could be thinking about are neglected.
Sexual addiction is hypothesized to be (but is not always) associated with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), narcissistic personality disorder, and manic-depression. There are those who suffer from more than one condition simultaneously (co-occurring disorder), but traits of addiction are often confused with those of these disorders, often due to most clinicians not being adequately trained in diagnosis and characteristics of addictions, and many clinicians tending to avoid use of the diagnosis at all.
Specialists in obsessive-compulsive disorder and addictions use the same terms to refer to different symptoms. In addictions, obsession is progressive and pervasive, and develops along with denial; the person usually does not see themselves as preoccupied, and simultaneously makes excuses, justifies and blames. Compulsion is present only while the addict is physically dependent on the activity for physiological stasis. Constant repetition of the activity creates a chemically dependent state. If the addict acts out when not in this state, it is seen as being spurred by the obsession only. Some addicts do have OCD as well as addiction, and the symptoms will interact
According to proponents of sexual addiction as a disorder, addicts often display narcissistic traits; these are said to often clear as sobriety is achieved, although others exhibit the full personality disorder even after successful addiction treatment.
Proponents of the concept have described sufferers as repeatedly and compulsively attempting to escape emotional or physical discomfort by using ritualized, sexualized behaviors such as masturbation, pornography, including obsessive thoughts. Some individuals try to connect with others through highly impersonal intimate behaviors: empty affairs, frequent visits to prostitutes, voyeurism, exhibitionism, frotteurism, cybersex, and the like
Earle has argued that neurochemical changes, similar to an adrenaline rush in the brain, temporarily reduce the discomfort an individual experiences with urges and cravings for sexualized behaviors that can be achieved through obsessive, highly ritualized patterns of sexual behavior.
Psychological distress theories
Patrick Carnes argues that when children are growing up, they develop “core beliefs” through the way that their family functions and treats them. A child brought up in a family that takes proper care of them has good chances of growing up well, having faith in other people, and having self worth. On the other hand, a child who grows up in a family that neglects them will develop unhealthy and negative core beliefs. They grow up to believe that people in the world do not care about them. Later in life, the person has trouble keeping stable relationships and feels isolated. Generally, addicts do not perceive themselves as worthwhile human beings They cope with these feelings of isolation and weakness by engaging in excessive sex
According to Patrick Carnes the cycle begins with the “Core Beliefs” that sex addicts hold:
1. “I am basically a bad, unworthy person.”
2. “No one would love me as I am.”
3. “My needs are never going to be met if I have to depend on others.”
4. “Sex is my most important need.”
These beliefs drive the addiction on its progressive and destructive course:
Pain agent — First a pain agent is triggered / emotional discomfort (e.g. shame, anger, unresolved conflict). A sex addict is not able to take care of the pain agent in a healthy way.
Dissociation — Prior to acting out sexually, the sex addict goes through a period of mental preoccupation or obsession. Sex addict begins to dissociate (moves away from his or her feelings). A separation begins to take place between his or her mind and his or her emotional self.
Altered state of consciousness / a trance state / bubble of euphoric fantasized experience — Sex addict is emotionally disconnected and is pre-occupied with acting out behaviours. The reality becomes blocked out/distorted.
Preoccupation or “sexual pressure” — This involves obsessing about being sexual or romantic. Fantasy is an obsession that serves in some way to avoid life. The addict’s thoughts focus on reaching a mood-altering high without actually acting-out sexually. They think about sex to produce a trance-like state of arousal to eliminate the pain of reality. Thinking about sex and planning out how to reach orgasm can continue for minutes or hours before they move to the next stage of the cycle.
Ritualization or “acting out.” — These obsessions are intensified by ritualization or acting out. Ritualization helps distance reality from sexual obsession. Rituals induce trance and further separate the addict from reality. Once the addict begins the ritual, the chances of stopping that cycle diminish greatly. They give into the pull of the compelling sex act.
Sexual compulsivity — The next phase of the cycle is sexual compulsivity or “sex act”. The tensions the addict feels are reduced by acting on their sexual feelings. They feel better for the moment, thanks to the release that occurs. Compulsivity simply means that addicts regularly get to the point where sex becomes inevitable, no matter what the circumstances or the consequences. The compulsive act, which normally ends in orgasm, is perhaps the starkest reminder of the degradation involved in the addiction as the person realizes they are a slave to the addiction.
Despair — Almost immediately reality sets in, and the addict begins to feel ashamed. This point of the cycle is a painful place where the Addict has been many, many times. The last time the Addict was at this low point, they probably promised to never do it again. Yet once again, they act out and that leads to despair. They may feel they have betrayed spiritual beliefs, possibly a partner, and his or her own sense of integrity. At a superficial level, the addict hopes that this is the last battle.
According to Carnes, for many addicts, this dark emotion brings on depression and feelings of hopelessness. One easy way to cure feelings of despair is to start obsessing all over again. The cycle then perpetuates itself.
Dr. Carnes mentions that:
Al Cooper (one of the original researchers in internet sex) described internet sex as the ‘crack cocaine’ of sexual addiction because it is an accelerant for adults of all stages of the lifespan. He felt that people would never have the problem if it had not been for the internet
Due to their effect of reducing libido, SSRIs have been used in research studies and off-label to treat symptoms of overly frequent sexual urges, but their effects are not always robust
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