Even in medical circles, sex addiction is a highly charged, controversial subject. With today's celebrities making headlines for alleged sex addictions, many people are wondering if this is a real psychological problem or simply an excuse for bad behavior.
The problem is, it's not always clear if cheating is a sign of a broken moral compass or a bad relationship versus an addiction. Dr. Drew Pinsky, guest of The Dr. Oz Show and an addiction specialist who has been teaching America about addiction and relationships for over 20 years, says, "Some people are narcissists who keep cheating because they feel entitled. Some people shouldn't be in committed relationships. Addicts keep returning to the same behavior even after promising themselves or others they will change, which becomes difficult unless they seek therapy."
Dr. Drew places sex addiction in the category of other addictive behaviors, including alcoholism, drug abuse and gambling. "Addiction is a biological disorder with a genetic basis," says Dr. Drew. "The hallmark is progressive behavior, use and preoccupation in the face of adverse consequences." The addict's risky behavior causes their work or school life, finances, health, relationships or legal status to suffer, followed by some level of denial.
Also called "hypersexual behavior," sex addiction is more common in men than women. People diagnosed may exhibit a range of different behaviors, including compulsive masturbation, excessive use of pornography, anonymous sex and sex with prostitutes.
Today, sex addiction is growing at an alarming rate. According to experts, 1 in 20 Americans are considered sex addicts. Some believe Internet sex addiction is the country's fastest growing mental-health crisis.
Sex Addiction and the Brain
"When sex addiction occurs, it takes over the brain's motivational system," says Dr. Drew. Sexual release activates pleasure centers in the brain, flooding the body with serotonin, dopamine and adrenaline. These chemicals cause feelings of pleasure and temporarily block pain, creating a natural high.
For the sex addict, the need for this high becomes compulsive; their life revolves around planning and participating in the next sexual experience without thinking at all of the consequences to themselves, their work or loved ones.
Sex addiction is frequently caused by childhood trauma. The trauma survivor experience is marked by feelings of helplessness which alter how the brain develops. "In response, people become emotionally deregulated and start looking for solutions, including sex, drugs and other highly arousing experiences that become compulsive," says Dr. Drew.
According to Dr. Drew, sex addiction is becoming more pervasive because of a lack of boundaries. "Boundary-lessness is a very common phenomenon in our family system these days; whether it's children feeling responsible for the parents' feelings or being exploited by the parents in some way can set off sex addiction."
Would you know if you were in a relationship with a sex addict? Dr. Drew offers these 5 warning signs:
5 Warning Signs of Sex Addiction
1. Difficulty Dealing With Emotions
Ultimately, sex addiction is an intimacy disorder where sex is substituted for human connection. The addicted person has difficulty regulating their feelings and uses sex to feel better. They are often disconnected and closed off, unable to show the necessary openness and vulnerability for intimacy to develop.
2. Changes in Libido
Libido can increase or decrease. The addict may demand sex all the time yet never seem satisfied, and not just early on in a relationship. On the flipside, avoidance of sex and physical contact can also occur, signaling the person is finding sex elsewhere.
3. Excessive Time Online
Viewing online pornography and spending excessive time in chat rooms focused on sexual or romantic intrigue allows the person to check out and disassociate. To review a computer's online history for pornography sites, press the control and H buttons, or hit the drop-down arrow on the address bar.
4. Mood Swings Before or After Sex
Avoidance or agitated behavior before or after sex can be another sign that the person is disconnected rather than connected to intimate experience.
5. Inability to Socialize Well
Besides isolating themselves, a classic sign of addiction, the person may also socialize in unusual settings or with unusual people. The sex addict displays trouble reading emotions and connecting with others.
Sex Addiction Treatment
Sex addiction treatment is often in-patient and includes individual and group therapy, lectures on the disease and other therapeutic models designed to help sex addicts come to terms with the issues behind their fear of intimacy.
For more information on sex addiction, visit the Society for Advancement of Sexual Health .