Understanding Sex Addiction

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What is sex addiction? What are the symptoms of sex addiction? What are some common causes? What kind of treatment or therapy is available?

These are questions that are not as easy to answer as it would be if the topic was on another behavioral problem such as eating disorders. The term ‘sex addiction’ has been thoroughly skewered by pop culture and media as a joke and this kind of mocking has divided even the medical community on whether this problem is worth tackling. And as times progressed, many argued that medically recognizing hypersexual disorder in places such as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) could pathologize what could be normal sexual behavior by those of religious, moralistic, or sex-negative attitudes. 

But regardless of popular or moralistic stance, there are clearly people suffering from a type of sexual behavioral problems and the better we can understand what they are suffering from, the better we are suited to help them. So for today, let’s put aside all preconceived ideas of sexual addiction and wipe the slate clean. 

What is sex addiction?

Sex addiction is more often referred to as hypersexual disorder by researchers and therapists. It is characterized by intense, repetitive sexual fantasies, urges, and behaviors that lead to clinically significant impairment. It is estimated that 5-6% of the general population may be affected by the disorder. Like other behavioral disorders such as eating disorders or obsessive compulsive disorder, hypersexual disorder can define a person’s lifestyle and life choices. While traditional studies showed that hypersexual disorder tends to present more in men than women, newer studies are finding the difference between genders to be smaller. Hypersexual disorder can affect both men and women. 

Studies examining people with HD against control groups found that both groups overlapped in many sociodemographic variables. Education levels, employment status, criminal history, family background—both groups matched more or less for each variable with no significant statistical difference. Where they did differ was in emotional and sexual history. Many people with HD reported adverse childhood experiences ranging from emotional to sexual abuse. And when it came to sexual history, people with HD reported masturbating at a younger age than their control counterpart. People with HD often had their first sexual encounter earlier and have had more sexual partners than the control group. They also tend to have higher levels of interest in paraphilias like exhibitionism, voyeurism, masochism, or sadism than the control group. 

What are the symptoms of sex addiction?

Hypersexual disorder can present itself in a range of symptoms but essentially, they report compulsive behavior (such as excessive masturbation) and impulse-control difficulties (engaging in sexual activity in inappropriate times). Some of the more common symptoms associated with hypersexual disorder are excessive masturbation, excessive pornography consumption, or excessive sex with a number of partners. As of right now, hypersexual disorder is an umbrella term for a number of sexually addictive behaviors. Addictive, somatic, and psychiatric disorders all fall under ‘sex addiction.’ An excessive number of visits to strip clubs or an excessive amount of time spent fantasizing explicit sexual scenarios all fall under hypersexual disorder. What makes all of these behaviors a ‘disorder’ is the level they impede the person from living a healthy, functioning life. 

It is a particularly challenging time for people with hypersexual disorder thanks to the internet. There is an unprecedented ease in acquiring sexual content coupled with the convenience of anonymity that helps hypersexuality flourish. Many people with hypersexual disorder will use the internet to consume pornography or to find sexual partners. There are now apps we have at a touch of a button on our phone that can help hypersexual people find multiple sex partners within minutes. 

Online porn addiction has risen in such numbers that multiple studies have been carried out on this behavior disorder. The disorder is hard to study and analyze because the landscape of the internet is constantly changing, providing newer, faster, and more intense access to pornography. While pornography itself isn’t inherently bad, easy and early access to it may be. Studies show that men who were exposed to internet pornography at young ages were more likely to fall into online porn addiction. Those with porn addictions often have intimacy issues, erectile issues, and are more likely to engage in riskier sexual acts. These are also symptoms of hypersexual disorder. 

The ripple effects of such rampant porn addiction can already be seen. In Japan, 1 in 10 men in their thirties are still virgins. Birth rates have been trending lower and lower each year for the small nation. With the high cost of living and the demands of the modern world, men and women are finding it harder and harder to not only justify marriage but even relationships. There are so many issues at play here, socially, economically, and politically for such a un-sexy storm to take over Japan. But one of the pocket issues that has risen from this situation is the rise in online porn addiction. There are stories of men preferring online ‘companions’ (real or animated) over actual women. 35 year old Akihiko Kondo gained international notoriety when he married a singing hologram girl Hatsune Miku. With so many technological advances within sexual services, many people suffering from hypersexual disorder might not feel any incentive to seek help. The digital world is ensconcing them with everything they could possibly want, leaving them totally yet willingly isolated and alone. 

Symptoms of hypersexual disorder are not just sexual. Many people with this disorder have trouble with personal relationships. They have intimacy and attachment issues. Maybe surprisingly, a lot of people with hypersexual disorder also have erectile disorder. Many researchers theorize that the consuming need for sex overwhelms the body and mind, putting pressure on the individual, leading to erectile disorder. Many people with hypersexual disorder have a hard time maintaining long term, monogamous relationships. When the mind is so focused on achieving such singular physical experiences, it is hard for that person to think about other things such as their partner’s feelings or needs. For the men in Japan shutting themselves in in a bubble of porn, it’s a vicious cycle. They have intimacy issues, they have over sexualized needs and thoughts, so they seek out porn for relief. The more porn they consume, the less they interact with the rest of the world, the more depressed and isolated they feel. 

What are some common causes?

There is no one singular cause for hypersexual disorder. At least not one found yet. So far, it seems to be an amalgamation of causes. From early childhood trauma to early sexual experiences to higher levels of testosterone, researchers have pointed the finger at a range of causes. And this is true for most behavioral disorders. We cannot point to one singular cause for eating disorders or gambling addictions. 

So while we cannot pinpoint one cause for hypersexual disorder, we can take notice and analyze some of the similarities many people with hypersexual disorder share. For one, the circles of hypersexuality and obsessive compulsive disorder overlap significantly. A hallmark of hypersexual disorder is impulse control difficulties. Studies have shown that those who suffer from impulse control driven behavioral disorders such as OCD, Tourette’s, and kleptomania have a higher likelihood for hypersexual disorder as well. There is research evidence to support a genetic relationship between some forms of OCD and Tourette’s syndrome, leading researchers to believe that there may be similar genetic or neurobiological factors that may predispose individuals to hypersexual disorder. 

Many people with hypersexual disorder also suffer from depression. Studies have shown the likelihood of people with hypersexual disorder suffering from depression to be 2.5 times higher than the general population. 

And as mentioned earlier, many sufferers of hypersexual disorder were also the victims of childhood trauma, suffering either emotional, physical, and/or sexual abuse. These experiences can warp the victim’s understanding of sexuality. They learn unhealthy coping techniques that they carry into adulthood. They associate certain feelings of acceptance, approval, or love with unhealthy or risky sexual acts. 

What kind of treatment or therapy is available?

Just like there is no one cause of hypersexual disorder, there is no one cure. While more studies are needed to better understand this disorder, nearly all researchers and doctors agree therapy and medication can immensely help those suffering from hypersexual disorder. A trained therapist can help you better understand how this disorder is impacting your life and help you find a way to manage it. And for some, just like with other behavioral disorders like OCD, medication can make a huge impact on recovery. It can give someone a better glimpse into what normalcy feels like. Finding support groups and reliable friends or family to help talk through the difficulties of recovery can also make the impossible seem a little more possible. 

And most importantly, it is crucial to remember that like recovery from eating disorders or gambling addictions or depression, it takes time. The mind is complicated with layers upon layers of learned behavior, external influences, and delicate chemical balances. Be patient and kind to yourself. 

Sex addiction is complicated but that only gives us more reason to properly study the disorder so that we may help those in need. It’s a difficult disorder for many to view objectively since sex is still such a taboo subject. How much we get of it, how we do it, who he do it with are all still hot button issues. But we must find a way to push past all the biases and preconceived notions of sex and sex addiction so that we may help those who are struggling with a disorder that impairs their every day life. 

With a little understanding and a lot more research, hopefully we will soon be able to build a better picture of what hypersexual disorder is and how to treat it. If you or a loved one suffers from this disorder, there is support. Sex Addicts Annonymous (SAA) has meetings across the country. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has a helpline that runs 365 days of the year at 1-800-622-HELP. And of course, finding a licensed therapist for personal counseling can be one of the most effective avenues to help manage and understand this disorder. 

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