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What is Sexual Addiction?

Am I or someone that I know a sex addict?

"Like an alcoholic unable to stop drinking, sex addicts are unable to stop their self-destructive sexual behavior. Family breakups, financial disaster, loss of jobs, and risk to life are the painful themes of their stories."  Patrick J. Carnes, Ph.D.


Sex addicts come from all walks of life They may be ministers, physicians, homemakers, factory workers, salespersons, secretaries, clerks, accountants, therapists, dentists, politicians, or executives, to name just a few examples. Most were abused as children - sexually, physically, and/or emotionally, but not all have experienced abusive or neglectful childhoods. However, the majority grew up in families in which addiction had already flourished, including alcoholism, compulsive eating, and compulsive gambling. Most sex addicts grapple with other addictions as well, but they find sex addiction the most difficult to stop. Nevertheless, much hope exists for these addicts and their families. "Sex addicts have shown an ability to transform a life of self-destruction into a life of self-care, a life in chaos and despair into one of confidence and peace."  Patrick J. Carnes, Ph.D.


What Defines a Sex Addict? Sexual addiction is defined as any sexually-related, compulsive behavior which interferes with normal living and causes severe stress on self, family, friends, loved ones, and or one's work environment. Sexual addiction has been called sexual dependency, sexual compulsivity and Out of Control Sexual Behavior. By any name, it is a compulsive behavior that dominates the life of the person.  Sexual addicts prioritize sex over family, friends, and work. Sex becomes the organizing principle of addicts' lives. They are willing to sacrifice what they cherish most in order to preserve and continue their unhealthy behavior.


No single behavior pattern can define a sex addict; However, when these sexual behaviors have taken control of addicts' lives and their behaviors have become unmanageable this may indicate the presence of sexual addictions.

Some common behaviors include: compulsive masturbation, compulsive heterosexual and homosexual relationships, pornography, prostitution, exhibitionism, voyeurism, indecent phone calls, child molesting, incest, rape, and violence.


While an actual diagnosis for sexual addiction should be carried out by a trained mental health professional, the following behavior patterns can indicate the possible presence of sexual addiction in one's life.


Acting out: A pattern of out-of-control sexual behavior.  Examples may include:


  • Compulsive masturbation

  • Indulging in pornography

  • Having chronic affairs

  • Exhibitionism

  • Dangerous sexual practices

  • Prostitution

  • Anonymous sex

  • Compulsive sexual episodes

  • Voyeurism


Experiencing severe consequences due to sexual behavior, and an inability to stop despite the adverse consequences. Losses reported by sex addicts include:

  • Loss of partner or spouse

  • Severe marital or relationship problems

  • Loss of career opportunities

  • Unwanted pregnancies

  • Abortions

  • Suicide obsession

  • Suicide attempts

  • Exposure to AIDS and venereal diseases

  • Legal troubles ranging from nuisance offenses to rape and child pornography


Persistent pursuit of self-destructive behavior

Even understanding that the consequences of their actions will be painful or will have dire consequences does not stop addicts from acting out. They often seem to have a willfulness about their actions, and an attitude that says, "I'll deal with the consequences when they come."


Ongoing desire or effort to limit sexual behavior

Addicts often try to control their behavior by creating external barriers to it. For example, some move to a new neighborhood or city, hoping that a new environment removed from old affairs will help. Some think marriage will keep them from acting out.  An exhibitionist may buy a car in which it is difficult to act out while driving. Others, seeking control over their behavior try to immerse themselves in religion, only to find out that while religious compulsion may soothe their shame it does not end their acting out. Many go through periods of sexual anorexia during which they allow themselves no sexual expression at all. Such efforts, however, only fuel the addiction.


Sexual obsession and fantasy as a primary coping strategy

Though acting out sexually can temporarily relieve addicts' anxieties, they still find themselves spending inordinate amounts of time in obsession and fantasy. By fantasizing, the addict can maintain an almost constant level of arousal. Together with obsessing, the two behaviors can create a kind of analgesic "fix". Just as our bodies generate endorphins, natural anti-depressants, during vigorous exercise, our bodies naturally release peptides when sexually aroused. The molecular construction of these peptides parallels that of opiates like heroin or morphine, but is many times more powerful.


Regularly increasing the amount of sexual experience

Because the current level of activity is no longer sufficiently satisfying. Sexual addiction is often progressive. While addicts may be able to control themselves for a time, inevitably their addictive behaviors will return and quickly escalate to previous levels and beyond. Some addicts begin adding additional acting out behaviors. Usually addicts will have three or more behaviors that play a key role in their addiction—masturbation, affairs, and anonymous sex, for instance. In addition, 89% of addicts reported regularly "bingeing" to the point of emotional exhaustion. The emotional pain of withdrawal for sexual addicts can parallel the physical pain experienced by those withdrawing from opiate addiction.


Severe mood changes related to sexual activity 

Addicts experience intense mood shifts, often due to the despair and shame of having unwanted sex. Sexual addicts are caught in a crushing cycle of shame-driven and shame-creating behavior. While shame drives the sexual addicts' actions, it also becomes the unwanted consequence of a few moments of euphoric escape into sex.


Inordinate amounts of time spent obtaining sex, being sexual, and recovering from sexual experiences 

Two sets of activities organize sexual addicts' days. One involves obsessing about sex, time devoted to initiating sex, and actually being sexual. The second involves time spent dealing with the consequences of their acting out: lying, covering up, shortages of money, problems with their spouse, trouble at work, neglected children, and so on.


Neglect of important social, occupational, or recreational activities because of sexual behavior

As more and more of addicts' energy becomes focused on relationships that have sexual potential, other relationships and activities—family, friends, work, talents and values—suffer and atrophy from neglect. Long-term relationships are stormy and often unsuccessful. Because of sexual over-extension and intimacy avoidance, short-term relationships become the norm. Sometimes, however, the desire to preserve an important long-term relationship with their spouse or children, for instance, can act as the catalyst for addicts to admit their problem and seek help.


*Research and studies performed by - Patrick J. Carnes, Ph.D., author of Out of the Shadow.

"For the first time in a long time, I feel like there is hope.  After working with FLBT,  I have acquired the necessary tools to begin living a healthy and productive life"




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