The disease of addiction can take many, many different forms. When a person thinks of addiction, he or she tends to think of addiction to alcohol or drugs. With much of the world currently experiencing epidemic-level addiction rates—especially addiction to heroin and other dangerous opiates—the association of addiction with substance abuse is understandable. However, in addition to chemical dependency there are many other behavioral addictions as well. For instance, people can become addicted to exercise, food and eating—as tends to be the case in eating disorders—or even gambling or shopping. There are many different behaviors to which individuals can become physiologically dependent, making it exceedingly difficult to control or cease these highly addictive behaviors.
Oftentimes behavioral addictions are either classified as or compared to impulsive control disorders, which is a more technical term to describe the inability to control one’s urges and impulses. Individuals who suffer from impulse control disorders are typically unable to control behaviors such as gambling, sex or sexual fantasies, eating behavior, or a host of more obscure behavioral addictions, including the compulsion to feel humiliated, compulsively pulling out one’s hair, setting or starting fires, bouts of anger or depression, or stealing (kleptomania). Moreover, impulse control disorders also extend to substance abuse and addiction to alcohol and drugs.
In short, an impulse control disorder is the blanket expression for an individual’s inability to control certain urges. Behavioral addictions share many similarities with addiction to alcohol and/or drugs, including biological and genetic contributions, underlying neurobiological mechanisms that reinforce compulsive behaviors, comorbidity or addiction co-occurring with a separate disorder, the development of a tolerance, and so on. In what is analogous to an addiction to alcohol or drugs, those who suffer from behavioral addictions and impulse control disorders become dependent on behaviors due to the effects experienced when they exhibit a certain behavior.
What is Sex Addiction?
Individuals who are unable to control sexual urges and desires—often colloquially referred to as sex addicts—suffer from an impulse control disorder. Sex addiction, though a controversial form of dependency in many respects, refers to individuals depending upon sexual experiences and receiving a comparable sense of pleasure as those who recreationally and habitually abuse mind-altering substances. The difference between sex addiction and having a healthy sexual appetite is that a sex addict’s compulsive urges for sex result in any number of negative consequences and effects on one’s life; in other words, a sex addict’s urges will have a pronounced negative effect on many other aspects of the individual’s life.
Sometimes referred to as hypersexuality or compulsive sexual behavior (CSB)—or even a progressive intimacy disorder—sex addiction is frequently linked to love or romance addiction as well since compulsive sexual urges often to overlap with a tendency to be especially emotional regarding one’s feelings for others; oftentimes sex addicts will believe they’re in love with the individuals to whom they’re feeling sexual urges, or that the individuals with whom they want to have sex have romantic feelings in return.
Interestingly, studies suggest that while sex addicts tend to have a stronger and ever-present desire for sex, they tend to enjoy sexual experiences less than non-sex addicts, which has led some to wonder if being less satisfied by sexual experiences isn’t at least partly the reason why sex addicts feel compelled to participate in frequent sexual activities; they are trying to quench a metaphorical thirst.
Differing Perspectives of Sex Addiction
One of the aspects of sexual addiction that makes it controversial is in the diagnosis. Professionals with differing perspectives of mental health—sociologists, psychologists, psychiatrists, sexologists, etc.—with alternately believe sex addiction to merely be a subset of impulse control disorder while some believe that sex addiction is an independent and unique form of the disease of addiction.
Moreover, since hypersexuality is a symptom of very well-known and established mental and emotional disorders–borderline personality disorder, bipolar disorder, histrionic personality disorder, and so on–many have suggested that sex addiction merely indicates the presence of larger, encompassing condition with evidence pointing to high rates of comorbidity of sex addiction with other diagnoses.
However, despite differences in the opinion over the validity of sex addiction there seems to be a consensus in the diagnostic, pharmacological, genetic, and neurobiological views of the condition. In terms of diagnostic validity, those who suffer from sex addiction tend to experience many of the same hallmarks of addiction to alcohol and drugs, including signs of physical and psychological dependency such as withdrawal symptoms as well as the building of a tolerance to the effects experienced as a result of sexual activity and fantasies.
The neuroscience of sex addiction has also been well documented, especially with regard to the reward reinforcement model of dependency and addiction; in this model, the individual experiences rewarding feelings when exhibiting a certain behavior, which in turn has the effect of reinforcing that behavior and causing the individual pleasure, making him or her further pursue the rewarding, pleasurable behavior.
The underlying neurobiological mechanisms of sex addiction are essentially identical to the effects that alcohol and drug addiction have on the reward and pleasure centers of the brain. Since addictive behaviors are identified by the extent to which they produce rewarding feelings and behavioral reinforcement, sex displays many of the properties as other known addictive behaviors such as gambling, eating, and even drug addiction.
Sex Addiction: Diagnosis and Treatment
Much like addiction to alcohol, drugs, or even other behaviors like gambling and exercise, those who suffer from sex addiction are often unable to control compulsive, recurrent sexual urges and desires; such is the nature of an impulse control disorder. According to estimates, it’s thought that more than 30 million individuals are currently suffering from sex and love addiction in the United States alone. Unfortunately, there’s not a single, definitive test that can identify the presence of sex addiction in an individual, but rather an accurate diagnosis must be made by a professional who can identify and interpret exhibited signs or symptoms.
Tendencies toward paraphiliac behaviors—abnormal or unhealthy sexual fantasies—can sometimes make it easy to identify sex addiction, but more common and accessible compulsive sexual behaviors can also include excessive masturbation, spending much time looking at pornography, having contact with prostitutes, frequent one-night stands, having had an affair or multiple affairs, and an ever-present preoccupation with sexual fantasies.
Sex addiction can be treated in much the same was as addiction to alcohol or drugs. The core component of sex addiction treatment is counseling and psychotherapy, which serve as a means of identifying the root cause of the behavioral addiction while helping the individual to overcome the addiction by creating a strategy for control the compulsive sexual urges.
Sex addiction differs from addiction to alcohol or drugs insofar as some sexual activity is an expected, healthy part of an adult’s life; recovering from sex addiction means helping an individual to refrain from excessive and compulsive sexual behavior, instead participating in a healthier level of sexual activity that does not interfere with one’s life. In contrast, recovery from alcohol or drug addiction entails arming an individual with the skills and strategies to maintain lifelong abstinence from substance abuse.
Find Out How to Begin Your Recovery Journey Today
If you or someone you love is suffering from addiction to sex or to a mind-altering substance and would like to learn more about treatment options, Drug Treatment Center Finder is here to help. We have a team of experienced recovery strategists available, offering free consultations and assessments to help individuals find the treatment programs that best address their recovery needs. A life of health and fulfillment is just a phone call away; call us today.