Individuals Men

What is sex addiction?

Sex addiction is a term that can invite scepticism – you may think of the movie star who cites it to explain his numerous infidelities. “It’s not my fault – it’s the addiction,” he protests.

While there may be some people who use the idea of sex addiction as a way of avoiding responsibility, there are many more who feel caught in a self-destructive but seemingly compulsive behaviour. It is a behaviour that can wreck relationships, drain bank accounts and even destroy careers.

For these individuals, more often men than women, an addiction to sexual acting out of some form is a sad reality. It can take the form of internet porn, the exchange of sexually explicit photos and messages on social media (sexting), paying sex workers, endless affairs or sex with strangers.

In this context “acting out” refers to sexual behaviour that has become a way of unconsciously avoiding painful feelings. In other words, the sexual behaviour has become a defence mechanism to deal with underlying pain, in the same way that an alcoholic uses alcohol or a gambling addict gambling.

What makes it sex addiction is the individual’s experience that, even though they recognise the behaviour is damaging their lives they feel unable to stop.

Sex addiction is a growing problem.

Never has it been easier to use sex to escape difficult problems or emotions. There is an almost infinite supply of free online porn of every kind, while the internet also makes it much easier to research and contact sex workers or find others to engage in sexually explicit chat or the exchange of images.

Psychosexual therapist Paula Hall, in Understanding and Treating Sex Addiction, identifies three kinds of sex addiction.

  • Trauma-induced – this includes sexual or other forms of abuse. It also includes major losses, such as the death of a close family member.
  • Attachment-induced – this happens when the child lacks a secure attachment to parents or caregivers. When attachment is problematic the child can grow up feeling insecure and find it difficult to soothe themselves when difficult feelings come up. There may be attachment problems if the parenting of the child is too harsh, too emotionally distant, abusive or neglectful. Or if the child is separated from parents for long periods.
  • Opportunity- induced – this refers to addiction that is not necessarily rooted in early trauma or attachment problems, but caused by easy access to internet porn, cyber sex, etc. The much greater accessibility of these, thanks to the internet, has led to an increase in this kind of sex addict, says Hall.

There may be an overlap between two or more of these categories.

The key issue in all this is that the individual realises that his or her use of sex is causing major problems in their life – and they can’t seem to stop. Frequently, the problems they bring to therapy may be about anxiety or depression or about how the use of sex has damaged closed relationships.

Although sex addiction has almost certainly been around for centuries it is only in recent years that it has become more recognised. “Advances in brain research and neuropsychology have helped us understand the nature of both chemical and behavioural addictions and appreciate the links with childhood experience and trauma,” says Hall.




By Patrick McCurry

I'm a psychotherapist based in Canary Wharf, London, and Eastbourne, UK.

2 replies on “What is sex addiction?”

Hi Patrick
Thanks for an interesting article. You describe sex addiction as a form of self soothing. I agree it has that quality, perhaps shared with most addictions.
Because these behaviors never really quiet the underlying pain, they often escalate until they cause damage to the self. Do you think that this self destructiveness is sometimes (often?) unconsciously intended, and not just an unfortunate byproduct of misplaced soothing? Patients with whom I’ve worked, addicted to either alcohol or sex, seem unsatisfied until they reach that dangerous place.
And with sex addiction there may be the playing out of some sadomasochistic fantasy or the attempt to rectify, through an exercise of power or submission, some early humiliation.
So self soothing, yes, and something intentionally and unconsciously self destructive? I’d be interested in your experience.

Hi Geoff, you describe some interesting ideas. I suppose all addicts have a degree of self-hatred, so in some sense they are acting that out in their addiction. I’d say that the damage to the self occurs even before the activity escalates, as the addict may become aware even earlier that they are not in control, that something else seems to be controlling them. I think the addiction does quieten the underlying pain, but only temporarily. The sex (and the rituals that accompany it) take the addict out of his usual, mundane (and depressed?) life and transport him to somewhere exciting where he can feel powerful or re-enact some old story around being dominated. But the high of the addictive experience leads to an even lower low afterwards, or the next day. Then the cycle may repeat.

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