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Sex addiction – signs, symptoms and treatment

Sarah-Jane Otoo, based at Priory Hospital Woodbourne, is an integrative psychotherapist and addictions therapist who is currently training to specialise in psycho-sexual and relationship therapy.

Current focus on sex addiction

There has been an increasing number of celebrities over the years who have publicly admitted to battling with sex addiction. There remains to be some debate on whether you can actually be addicted to sex or not, however it is evident that sex addiction can cause a devastating impact on an individual’s life.

What is sex addiction?

Sex addiction can be defined as any sexual behaviour that is done to ‘excess’ and causes a significant negative impact on an individual’s life. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-V (DSM-5) currently does not recognise sex addiction as a diagnosable condition.

Sex addiction can impact both men and women across different ages and cultures. For anyone who believes they may have a sex addiction, recognising the signs and symptoms may be difficult.

Signs and symptoms of sex addiction

Though not officially recognised in the DSM-5 as a disorder, research has shown that sex addiction may include, but is not limited to, the following behaviours:

  • Preoccupation with sexual thoughts, fantasies, behaviours, including those that significantly impact an individual’s day-to-day life
  • Compulsive need to engage in sexual activity
  • Compulsive masturbation
  • Compulsive use of pornography
  • Having multiple affairs
  • Visiting chat rooms or engaging in online sex
  • Exhibitionism or voyeurism
  • Visiting prostitutes
  • Engaging in risky or dangerous sexual behaviours
  • Sexual behaviours that cause the individual and those around them significant distress
  • Sexual behaviours that feel out of control
  • Making attempts to stop or limit sexual behaviours but have been unsuccessful

Similar to alcohol and substance addiction, an individual suffering with sex addiction may feel that their behaviour is uncontrollable. They may experience a preoccupation or obsession with sexual fantasies, thoughts or behaviours which can lead to significant impacts on their quality of life.  They may feel a compulsion to engage in sexual behaviour regardless of the negative consequences that may occur.

There is also strong research to suggest there could be a level of co-morbidity between sex addiction and other mental health difficulties such as depression, anxiety and stress. In a similar way to individuals with chemical addictions using drugs or alcohol to self-medicate, those with sex addiction engage in sexual activities in order to avoid their feelings of sadness, frustration and shame.

How does sex addiction affect individuals?

Reports show that the effects of sex addiction can severely impact an individual’s life. Individuals may experience negative bio-social-psychological consequences such as:

  • Sexually transmitted diseases
  • Unwanted pregnancies
  • Difficulties at work
  • Family breakdowns
  • Relationship problems
  • Financial issues
  • Feelings of shame, guilt, isolation, anxiety and depression

There may also be a significant impact on the partners of individuals who suffer from sex addiction. It may be difficult for partners of sex addicts to understand their need to act on such compulsions. They may have suspicions of their partner’s behaviour, and feel as though they are being lied to whenever they confront them. Partners of individuals addicted to sex may begin to blame themselves or may experience feelings of depression, anxiety, anger, resentment and confusion. It is important for partners of individuals with a sex addiction to understand that they are not to blame for their partner’s behaviour and as the addicted individual needs time to recover and heal from the behaviour, so does the partner.

Sex addiction treatment

Denial, guilt, shame and confusion may stop individuals from seeking support for their sex addiction. However, it is crucial that people seek treatment for their sex addiction so that they regain control over their lives. Seeking appropriate treatment from an appropriate mental health professional is important. Sex addiction treatment can help people to: 

  • Understand the addiction
  • Regain control over their life
  • Discover healthy coping strategies to manage their behaviour
  • Understand triggers
  • Reframe views and beliefs of sex
  • Explore the guilt and shame around sex addiction
  • Explore the consequences and risks of sex addiction

Priory Hospital Woodbourne, Birmingham, has a 28-day Addiction Treatment Programme with a dedicated team who can support people with their journey to recovery. The programme includes:

  • 1:1 therapy
  • Group therapy
  • Couples therapy
  • Outpatient psychosexual therapy
  • Support groups such as Sex Addicts Anonymous (SAA) and Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (SLAA)

Successful treatment can support individuals to begin rebuilding their lives after sex addiction.

References

Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5)

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