What is Sex Addiction? And other FAQs

What is sexual addiction?

Sexual addiction is defined as any sexually-related, compulsive behavior that interferes with normal living and causes severe stress on family, friends, loved ones, and one's work environment.

Sexual addiction has also been called hypersexuality, sexual dependency and sexual compulsivity. By any name, it is a compulsive behavior that completely dominates the addict's life. Sexual addicts make sex a priority over family, friends, and work. Sex becomes the governing principle of an addict's life. They are willing to sacrifice what they cherish most in order to preserve and continue their unhealthy behavior.

No single behavior pattern defines sexual addiction. These behaviors can take control of addicts' lives and become unmanageable.  Common behaviors include, but are not limited to compulsive masturbation, compulsive heterosexual and homosexual relationships, pornography, prostitution, exhibitionism, voyeurism, indecent phone calls, and anonymous sexual encounters. Even the healthiest forms of human sexual expression can turn into self-defeating behaviors.

What behavior patterns indicate that sex addiction may be present?

While an actual diagnosis for sexual addiction should be carried out by a mental health professional, the behavior patterns below can indicate the presence of sexual addiction. Individuals who see any of these patterns in their own life, or in the life of someone they care about, should seek help from a certified professional.

  • Acting out: a pattern of out-of-control sexual behavior
    Examples may include:
    • Compulsive masturbation
    • Indulging in excessive 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 these adverse consequences.
  • Persistent pursuit of self-destructive sexual behavior.
  • Ongoing desire or effort to limit sexual behavior.
  • Sexual obsession and fantasy as a primary coping strategy.
  •  Behaviors increase in intensity or risk
  • Severe mood changes related to sexual activity.
  • Inordinate amounts of time spent obtaining sex, being sexual, and recovering from sexual experiences.

Neglect of important social, occupational, or recreational activities due to sexual behavior.

What is sexual anorexia?

Sexual anorexia is an obsessive state in which the physical, mental, and emotional task of avoiding sex dominates one's life. Like self-starvation with food or compulsive dieting or hoarding with money, deprivation of sex can make one feel powerful and defended against all hurts. As with any other altered state of consciousness, such as those brought on by chemical use, compulsive gambling or eating, or any other addiction, the preoccupation of avoiding sex can also be devastating. In this case, sex becomes a furtive enemy to be continually kept at bay, even at the price of annihilating a part of oneself.

Specialists in sexual medicine have long noted the close parallels between food disorders and sexual disorders. Many professionals have observed how food anorexia and sexual anorexia share common characteristics. In both cases, the sufferers starve themselves in the midst of plenty. Both types of anorexia feature the essential loss of self, the same distortions of thought, and the agonizing struggle for control over the self and others. Both share the same extreme self-hatred and sense of profound alienation. But while the food anorexic is obsessed with the self-denial of physical nourishment, the sexual anorexic focuses his or her anxiety on sex. As a result, the sexual anorexic will typically experience the following:

  • A dread of sexual pleasure
  • A morbid and persistent fear of sexual contact
  • Obsession and hyper vigilance around sexual matters
  • Avoidance of anything connected with sex
  • Preoccupation with others being sexual
  • Distortions of body appearance
  • Extreme loathing of body functions
  • Obsessive self-doubt about sexual adequacy
  • Rigid, judgmental attitudes about sex
  • Excessive fear and preoccupation with sexual diseases
  • Obsessive concern or worry about the sexual activity of others
  • Shame and self-loathing over sexual experiences
  • Depression about sexual adequacy and functioning
  • Self-destructive behavior to limit, stop, or avoid sex

Both men and women can suffer from sexual anorexia. Their personal histories often include sexual exploitation, some form of severely traumatic sexual rejection or both.  It is also possible that a person can be both sexually addicted and sexually anorexic, acting out sexually in meaningless relationships, and paralyzed sexually with intimate relationships. 

Sexual dependency and other addictions

Sexual addiction can be understood by comparing it to other types of addictions. Individuals addicted to alcohol or other drugs, for example, develop a relationship with their "chemical(s) of choice" – a relationship that takes precedence over any and all other aspects of their lives. Addicts find they need drugs just to feel normal.

With a sexual addiction, there is a parallel situation occurring. Sex – like food or drugs in other addictions—provides the "high" and addicts become dependent on this sexual high to feel normal. They substitute unhealthy relationships for healthy ones. They opt for temporary pleasure rather than the deeper qualities of "normal," intimate relationships.

Sexual addiction follows the same progressive nature of other addictions. Sexual addicts struggle to control their behaviors, and experience despair over their constant failure to do so. Their loss of self-esteem grows, fueling the need to escape even further into their addictive behaviors. A sense of powerlessness pervades the life of an addict.

How many people are affected by sexual addiction?

Estimates range from three to six percent of the population.

What are multiple addictions?

It is not uncommon for people to be addicted to one or more processes or substances. In fact, research has shown that the more trauma an individual has experienced in the past, the higher the probability of multiple addictions. When someone has more than one addiction, the addictive behaviors can interact in different ways. Figuring out these dimensions of addiction interaction and which one(s) apply to you can help your therapist determine the appropriate treatment.

Common addictions that interact with sexual addiction include:

Chemical dependency 42%
Eating disorder 38%
Compulsive working 28%
Compulsive spending 26%
Compulsive gambling 5%

Sexual addiction and abuse

Research has shown that a very high correlation exists between childhood abuse and sexual addiction in adulthood.

A poll of female and male sex addicts revealed that:

  • 97% suffered from emotional abuse
  • 83% suffered from sexual abuse
  • 71% suffered from physical abuse

There is a growing body of evidence that suggests early child abuse, especially sexual, is a primary factor in the onset of sex addiction. Apparent biological shifts occur in the brain, which heighten the brain's arousal mechanisms and limit one's ability to filter behaviors.

Are more sex addicts male or female?

It remains unclear whether one gender has a higher incidence of sexual addiction over the other. Research by Dr. Carnes shows that approximately 20-25% of all patients who seek help for sexual dependency are women. (This same male-female ratio is found among those recovering from alcohol addiction, drug addiction and pathological gambling.) The great irony is that sex addiction in women appears to be increasing. In recent, very large studies of online behavior, 40% of those struggling with sexually compulsive behavior are women.

Why don't sexual addicts "just stop" their destructive behavior?

The key to understanding the loss of control present in addicts is to understand the concept of the "hijacked brain." Addicts essentially have rewired their brains so that they perform certain behaviors (drinking, drug use, eating, gambling, sex, etc.) even when they are intending to do something quite different. Triggers to these maladaptive responses are usually stress, emotional pain, or specific childhood scenarios of sexual abuse or sexual trauma. Breakthrough scientific discoveries about brain function are helping us to understand the biology of this disease.

How is sexual addiction diagnosed?

To help professionals determine whether a sexual addiction is present, Dr. Carnes has developed the Sexual Addiction Screening Test (SAST), an assessment tool specially designed for this purpose.

What is the role of cybersex?

Today, over 70% of sex addicts report having problematic online sexual behavior. Two-thirds of those engaged have such despair over their internet activities that they experience suicidal thoughts. Sexual acting out online has been shown to manifest in similar off-line behavior. People who already were sex addicts find the internet accelerates their problem. Those who develop an addiction in the online space quickly start to act out in new ways off-line. One of the pioneering researchers of this problem, the late Dr. Al Cooper, described online sexual behavior as the "crack-cocaine" of sexual compulsivity.

Where can I find help with a sexual addiction or sexual anorexia?

  1. Take our online Sexual Addiction Screening Test, the SAST.
  2. Contact a Certified Sex Addiction Therapist (CSAT®) for help. Find a therapist in your area using our Therapist Locator or by calling 800-708-1796 in the U.S. or 480-488-0150 outside the U.S.
  3. Start a twelve-step program
  4. Visit GentlePath.com to find books, DVDs, audios and other resources for recovery. 

Getting Help: The First Step

The first step in seeking help is to admit that a problem exists. Though marital, professional, and societal consequences may followadmission of the problems must come, no matter the cost. Unfortunately, fear of these consequences keeps many sexual addicts from seeking help, and the consequences can be dire.

Many resources are available to provide information, support, and assistance for sexual addicts trying to regain control of their lives. These include inpatient and outpatient treatment, professional associations, self-help groups, and aftercare support groups.

Click here for a list of support groups in our network.

Are sexual addicts ever cured?

Like other types of addicts, some sexual addicts may never be "cured." Sexual addicts achieve a state of recovery, but maintaining that recovery can be a lifelong, day-by-day process. The Twelve Step treatment approach teaches addicts to take their recovery "one day at a time," concentrating on the present, not the future.

Is there any help available for the partners of sex addicts?

Partners of sexual addicts, like partners of alcoholics, can also benefit from counseling and support groups. Discovering your loved one is a sex addict can be a very traumatic experience for family members.  Inpatient and outpatient programs, counseling, and support groups are all available to help them regain control of their lives and support the recovery of their partner.  There are also Books and Resources for partners of sex addicts 
Partners and family members can find support by visiting our support page or contacting:

S-Anon Family Groups

P.O. Box 5117
Sherman Oaks, CA 91413
818-990-6910

Codependents of Sex Addicts (CoSA)

P.O. Box 14537
Minneapolis, MN 55414
612-537-6904


What do the letters behind the therapist's name mean?

Health Professional Acronyms

Here is a helpful list of some of the most common abbreviations and acronyms. If you do not see the acronym you are looking for in one category, check out the others. This is not an exhaustive list, so the acronym you are looking for may not be here. Many professionals will list both a license and a national certification. For example, a professional counselor may place both LPC (for Licensed Professional Counselor) and NCC (for Nationally Certified Counselor) after his/her name and degree.

Some helping professions, such as art therapy, are not licensed separately in many states. In such cases, practitioners will be licensed in a related professional field, and certified by a national association in their chosen profession. In the example above, a Registered Art Therapist (ATR) may be licensed as a psychologist (Licensed Psychologist), clinical social worker (LCSW), or professional counselor (LPC).

Other professionals may have dual credentials, such as being licensed both as a professional counselor (LPC) and a marriage and family therapist (LMFT). A clinical social worker (LCSW) may also be certified as an employee assistance professional (CEAP). This makes for extra designations on their business cards, letterheads, and phone listings.

Each helping profession has its own set of educational requirements. Some professions, such as psychiatry and clinical psychology, require their practitioners to earn doctorates (such as an MD, PhD, or PsyD). Others, including professional counseling and social work, require only a master's degree (such as an MA, MS, or MSW). In the fields that allow a master's degree for licensure, some practitioners earn a doctorate in order to obtain advanced training and to teach in graduate programs in their fields.

Professional Degrees

Acronym Degree
DMin Doctor of Ministry
DO Doctor of Osteopathy
DSN Doctor of Science in Nursing
DSW Doctor of Social Work
EdD Doctor of Education
JD Doctor of Jurisprudence
MD Medical Doctor
PharmD Doctor of Pharmacy
PhD Doctor of Philosophy
PsyD Doctor of Psychology
EdS Specialist in Education
MA Master of Arts
MAR Master of Arts in Religion
MC Master of Counseling
MDiv Master of Divinity
MEd Master of Education
MHSc Master of Health Science
MN Master of Nursing
MNNP Master of Nursing, Nurse Practitioner
MPH Master of Public Health
MRC Master of Rehabilitation Counseling
MRE Master of Religious Education
MS Master of Science
MSN Master of Science in Nursing
MSS Master of Social Services
MSW Master of Social Work
MTh Master of Theology

Licenses

Issued by states to allow professionals in the specified field to practice in that jurisdiction. Each state sets its own requirements for education and training for each profession it recognizes, although this is usually similar to national certification standards (see next section). Typically, each state's Department of Health has a division of health-related boards to oversee the licensure process. Some states register or certify certain professions rather than issuing licenses. In such cases, the appropriate acronym will be in the next section.

Acronym Credential

* Licensed Physician
* Licensed Psychiatrist
* Licensed Psychologist
LAMFT Licensed Associate Marriage and Family Therapist
LAPC Licensed Associate Professional Counselor
LCDC Licensed Chemical Dependency Counselor
LCPC Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor
LCMHC Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor
LCPT Licensed Clinical Pastoral Therapist
LCSW Licensed Clinical Social Worker
LD Licensed Dietitian
LMFT Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
LMHC Licensed Mental Health Counselor
LOT Licensed Occupational Therapist
LPT Licensed Pastoral Therapist
LPT Licensed Physical Therapist
LPCC Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor
LPC Licensed Professional Counselor
LPN Licensed Practical Nurse
LSW Licensed Social Worker
RN Registered Nurse
RNP Registered Nurse Practitioner
Certified Treatment Partners