When Getting Off is More Than Just a Desire: The Pyschology of Sex Addiction

While it can range from “just alright” to “I think I might pass out from euphoric bliss”, most of us can agree that sex is generally a good time. Because of this, our minds are often preoccupied with sexual thoughts a lot of the time. 

In fact, it’s in our primitive instincts as human beings to seek out pleasure and mate not only for procreation but because it feels good, and our brains are wired to seek out pleasurable things. 

Over time, we have adapted our surroundings to become more...sex-friendly. Just take a gander at how much porn is on the internet. Or think about the kinks, fetishes, and fantasies that are becoming more popular and less taboo. 

How about the upswing in understanding and accepting various gender roles and sexual orientations, or the fact that sex work is slowly becoming more widely accepted?

I think it’s safe to say that we live in a time where sex is more and more accepted - and that’s great. Naturally, having more porn websites, more chances to get into the adult industry and with casual sexual experiences become moring normalized, it’s only natural we would start to think about sex more and more…

But what happens when sex is on your brain all the time, in a way that actually hinders your ability to live a life? 

What happens when your desire to have sex turns into something more than that? Sex is no longer a fun time, it’s imperative, it’s compulsive, it’s seemingly mandatory for your very survival. 

Sex addiction is when the recreational act of sex becomes more of a compulsion that eventually inhibits your ability to maintain healthy relationships. It slowly turns you into someone who can’t see the importance of things other than seeking out your next climax. 

While this might sound far-fetched to you...it’s a very real thing that happens to people - so why don’t we talk about sex addiction more often? Why is this still a condition that isn’t yet widely recognized? 

Even with all the great strides being made in the name of kink (and our loud opinions on how kink-shaming is so “last decade”), there will always be some areas of sex psychology that are underplayed, under-acknowledged and misunderstood...and one of those is sex addiction. 

So let’s clear the air on the topic of sex addiction. 

What is Sex Addiction? 

First and foremost, compulsive sexual behavior is an addiction like any other. And by that, I mean it’s something that can begin as recreational (like most sexual activity) but very quickly, your body and mind becomes dependent on the feel-good hormones released during sex or the act of having sex. Once you become dependent on sex, it becomes a kind of obsessive compulsion.  

In technical terms, sex addiction is described as a compulsive need to perform sexual acts in order to achieve the kind of “fix” that would be similar to what a person struggling with substance abuse would satisfy by getting high. Like drug or alcohol dependency, sex addiction can be dangerous, causing difficulties in relationships and friendships, hardships in life, financial struggle, inability to maintain a job, etc. 

Is Sex Addiction Real?

One quick Google search gave me some concerning headlines: “is sex addiction real” was at the top of the list and let me tell you: it is absolutely real, and it’s about time the general public starts to become aware of this very-real problem many people struggle with every day. 

Sex addiction isn’t something that your ex conjured up in order to have an excuse for cheating on you or some condition you’ve only seen once in some obscure psychology textbook in university...sex addiction is very real, and like everything else on Sofia Gray, we’re here to shed some more light on the topic so it becomes something we can talk openly about. 

Although many people struggle with compulsive sexual behavior, whether or not this is a diagnosable condition has created quite a bit of controversy...from being left out of the latest edition of “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” (the DSM-5) to being considered by some psychiatrists as more of a “phenomenon” instead of addiction - there are lots of varying opinions on whether or not sex addiction is real. 

However, all hope is not lost for those who struggle with the condition...the World Health Organization does recognize sex addiction as it’s own mental health condition. 

So, while the jury may still be out on whether you can be “clinically diagnosed” with sex addiction, there are many people who would state very clearly that this affliction is real because they are living with it. 

All Things Sex Are Available Now More Than Ever...

With cam-sites, blogs about kinks and fetishes, escort services, legalized sex work and vibrators that track your orgasms...we live in a time where sexuality isn’t just explored, it’s celebrated. 

While most of us welcome this surge in acceptance of sexual activity but are still capable of maintaining a life outside the urge for sexual pleasure, for some, this increase in availability and popularity of all things sex has uncovered a distinct set of problems with the human condition...more specifically, the inability to regulate and control sexual impulses. 

Science & Sex Addiction 

Do you know that old scientific tale about the mouse in the maze who has one button for pleasure (technically a dopamine release, which is one of the hormones released for us during sex or arousal) and one button (located on the other side of the maze) for food? 

In this story, the mouse continuously presses the “pleasure” button, ignoring its natural instinct and need for food. At this rate, if the study continued, the mouse would die. 

While this is quite a grim story, it proves how addiction warps our perception of what is essential in our lives. 

Addiction really does twist our minds in this kind of way where things that are normally important (like sustenance, relationships, and our health) are not nearly as important as the pleasure we feel from indulging in our addiction. 

The same can be said for those who struggle with compulsive sexual behaviors...in their minds, very little (if anything) is more important than the euphoria of getting off, and this isn’t some selfish notion of pleasure, this is the way their minds have been tricked by their own addiction.

Here’s What You Should Know About Compulsive Sexual Behavior

Regardless of how you view sex addiction, compulsive sexual behaviors can’t be denied in those who struggle with them. Just as compulsive liars or binge eaters have trouble controlling their impulses when it comes to their vices, people who struggle with compulsive sexual behaviors find it extremely difficult (if not impossible) to control their urges. 

First and foremost, this is a mental health condition that should be treated as such. 

But what else should we know about sex addiction?

Looking Deeper Than the Surface Problem...

Just like an alcoholic’s biggest problem isn’t the hangover they are nursing the next morning, someone struggling with sex addiction doesn’t just regret that one-night-stand the next day…sex addiction can cause even deeper problems in your life. 

These problems can be in your relationships, at work, in your family life, and in your financial life, too. 

Really, any kind of addiction tends to wreak havoc and leave a path of chaos in its wake...and sex addiction is no different. In order to treat the problem, we have to understand the wide ripple effect caused by this addiction to the lives of those who struggle with it. 

What Are the Symptoms of Sex Addiction?

As with most other addictions, it can quickly become apparent when someone’s desire for sexual arousal and pleasure becomes more than just a desire. What does sex addiction look like?

Well, here are a few symptoms of sex addiction that are more common: 

  • Chronic (or obsessive) thoughts about sex
  • Compulsive sexual relationships with multiple people, even while in a “monogamous” relationship 
  • Lying about sexual history or denial that sex has a big impact on your life choices 
  • Being preoccupied with having sex, even if it interferes with work, relationships or other daily activities
  • A pattern of inability to stop sexual pleasure-seeking behavior (even if you want to), typically measured over a 6-12 month period
  • Getting into dangerous situations due to sexual behaviors (not using protection, sexually transmitted infections, etc) 
  • Experiencing significant personal or professional consequences of your sex life (losing a job, losing a relationship, etc) 
  • Chronic or compulsive masturbation or affairs

Sex Addiction is More Common Than You Think, Even if It’s Not Diagnosed

Unfortunately, sex addiction hasn’t been given the kind of scientific interest other addictions have been - this might be because of the heated debate on whether this is an addiction, a phenomenon or (as some call it) an excuse to cheat. 

Before you make up your mind on how you view sex addiction and its merits, give this insightful VeryWell Mind article a read! 

Because of the “controversy” around sex addiction, current, viable stats on just how many people struggle with an addiction to sex aren’t that easy to come by. This means, of course, that being diagnosed with sex addiction isn’t as common as actually living with this condition and here’s why...

Lack of empirical evidence” is a term I keep seeing when it comes to diagnosing sex addiction. 

For those who didn’t study psychology in school, the term “empirical evidence” means to find information that’s acquired by observation and/or experimentation that supports your theory. 

In this case, sex addiction is rarely diagnosed because there isn’t sufficient evidence that the person’s compulsive sexual behaviors are hindering their lives in a way that it could be deemed clinically diagnosable. 

Why is it so hard to diagnose sex addiction? 

Well, sexuality is a very wide spectrum, and people can fall anywhere on that spectrum. There are no “norms” when it comes to sex (how often people have it, what sex is defined as in each person’s mind, etc) - so declaring that someone falls outside the “norm” (and into the spectrum of compulsive sexual behavior) is difficult. 

Not only that, but hypersexuality (which is essentially compulsive sexual behaviors) can actually be symptoms of other types of mental health crises. 

For example, some people who struggle with bipolar disorder man develope hypersexualized behavior in the middle of a manic episode. 

The fact that hypersexuality can be linked to other mental health conditions only makes it more difficult to pinpoint if this is a “real addiction” or if it’s merely a symptom of another problem. 

The Idea of “Sex Addiction” Isn’t New...It Dates Back Centuries

Looking all the way back to ancient Rome or second-century Greece, you will find reports of excessive sexuality (also described as hypersexuality). 

Dr. Patrick Carnes, the author of “Out of the Shadows; Understanding Sexual Addiction” is a director of sexual disorders at a clinic in Arizona...and he is one of the people we have to thank for “bringing the idea of sex addiction” into the modern age. Carnes (and his fellow colleagues at the clinic) have written several books on this subject and tried to shed some light on the struggles of sex addiction. 

Beautiful portrait of young handsome man lips

Of course, he isn’t the only one to have written recent findings on sex addiction, there were also others (some who struggle with the affliction themselves) who have opened up about their addiction. 

Different Kinds of Sex Addiction 

There are a few different ways sex addiction may present: things like voyeurism, excessive cheating, obsessive fantasies, using sex for emotional fulfillment, porn addiction, excessive masturbation...all of these fall under a kind of “sex addiction umbrella” because they are all part of the same kind of problem. 

This is similar to how cocaine and methamphetamine addiction fall under the larger umbrella of substance addiction - while they both have different addictive qualities and effects on a person’s life, they are both forms of substance addiction. 

While there are various different types of sex addiction, let me break down 5 of the more common types of sex addiction. 

Biological Sex Addiction 

Biological sex addiction begins when someone’s excessive masturbation, sexual activity or porn-watching habits essentially “hijack” their body’s sexual response mechanism by attaching their urges to these specific images and fantasies. 

In this kind of sex addiction, the person may find it incredibly difficult to have “relational” sex, because their mind has linked sex with fantasies or images that aren’t “real life”. People who struggle with this kind of addiction may prefer masturbation rather than to have sex with other people. 

Psychological Sex Addiction 

When we have sex, a lot happens in our bodies, including our brains sending off what can only be described as a fireworks show of sex-induced happy hormones. Literally, it looks like fireworks - just check out this MRI of a woman reaching climax and you’ll see what areas of our brain light up. 

When we are aroused and reach orgasm, chemicals are released, muscles contract...it’s like this kind of feel-good chemical cocktail. Many people who struggle with this kind of sex addiction rely so heavily on that rush of feel-good hormones that come from climax in order to feel good about anything at all. 

In many cases of sexual addiction, the person struggling with this affliction also has another mental health concern such as depression, anxiety, substance abuse, compulsive shopping, etc. This type of sex addiction is extremely psychological...think of having sex as a kind of medicine that they become addicted to taking. 

Trauma-Based Sex Addiction 

Similarly to how the daughter of an alcoholic may struggle with alcohol addiction herself in later years, trauma can play a huge role in how we deal with things that can be considered addictive. 

While it’s not fair or ideal to say people who have struggled with sex-based trauma are more at risk of developing a sex addiction, there is some data that shows this is a possibility. In fact, some studies show a large majority of people who struggle with this addiction have reported some kind of history of abuse.

In this particular study, 72% of people in this study reported a history of physical abuse, 81% of people reported a history of sexual abuse, and 97% of the people in the study reported some form of emotional abuse in their past. 

Individuals who have experienced sexual trauma in the past may become addicted to sex or may steer clear of sex altogether. Whatever the trauma, our body’s reaction to it can be extreme.

Spiritual Sex Addiction

You know when you have sex so good that you swear you start to have visions, see God or get a glimpse of the pearly-gates of heaven? Well, many people associate sex with spirituality. 

(Side note: if you’re not having this kind of sex, browse around the Sofia Gray blog a bit more, because you deserve the best!) 

A person who struggles with this kind of addiction to sex will try to gain some kind of spiritual release or high from their sexual encounters. This means that sex will become more and more compulsive to them because it’s seen as insightful or some form of spiritual self-care.

Mood-Disorder Related Sex Addiction 

In a journal article called  The Prevalence of Depression in Male Sex Addicts…, it was discovered that about 28% of males who identify as having a sex addiction also suffer from depression. 

This makes total sense if you understand a bit about the brain and how mood disorders affect our natural brain composition. Let me break it down for you: people with depression (or other mood disorders) have chemical imbalances in their brains. This imbalance is what causes depression or anxiety - they are missing some of the hormones that balance everything out. 

Well, during sex, feel-good hormones are released. If you’re someone who is lacking in those feel-good hormones due to a mental health condition, sex starts to become very appealing because it gives you what you need. 

Many may try to solve by having sex (since sex releases a surge of feel-good hormones). Doing this often enough may re-wire the brain into believing that these feel-good hormones can only come from having sex, which is where addiction to sex comes into play. 

Creating Conversation, Ending Stigmas and Getting Help

The whole point of Sofia Gray is to talk about all things sex, kinks and fetishes with an open mind, shedding some light on the topics most people feel comfortable leaving in the dark corners of their bedrooms. 

Getting off by having someone pee on you, finding arousal in humiliation, adding danger into your sex life with knife play...sex addiction...these are things that we need to talk about not only to make people who experience them feel not-so-alone but to end the stigmas that come from those things. 

Why It’s Important to Talk Openly About Sex Addiction

As with many other problems, acknowledging and talking about sex addiction can only make things easier. 

Not only can it create a more open space within your relationships to talk about compulsive sex obsessions, but the more we talk about it, the more research is done on the topic and the more we can learn about how this affliction affects us.

While sex addiction may be more well-known as a man’s condition, women also struggle with this affliction, as well. In a study of university participants, about 3% of males had sexual compulsions, compared to the 1.2% of females who had sexual compulsions. 

The numbers don’t lie, but they may be skewed due to stigma and judgments about the female gender and frequent sex. 

Studies (done by the same university) show that 88% of people who seek out sex addiction treatment are male - but this may not be an accurate representation of who this condition affects, as women may be less likely to seek treatment for sex addiction due to the stigma surrounding females and sex. 

Stigma isn’t just the reason why many females don’t talk about their sex addictions, it’s also why sexualized behavior, in general, is less-frequently talked about. For many years many people (specifically women and people in the LGBTQ+ community) have been censored for being “too sexual” or showing “too much” of their sexuality.

There are absolutely atrocious cases in the past few hundred years where people (including infamous code-breaker Alan Turing) were chemically castrated or locked away in asylums for having too high libidos. 

If the name Alan Turing sounds familiar to you, there was a movie released (called the Imitation Game) that showed what it was like for people working to crack enemy codes during the war. This movie was a big deal for many reasons, as secrets about how the war was won were brought to light...but that’s not all that was brought into clear view when the credits rolled.

This movie shone a light on the rather horrific events that happened to Alan (essentially for being a gay man who wanted to have sex with other consenting gay men) after the war. 

Regardless of how far we have come in acknowledging and being proud of our sexualities, there is really no denying the very scary thought that there once was a time (not so long ago, in fact) where society deemed frequent sex not only vile but “evil” or “unpure”. 

Sex Addiction Therapy 

What help is available for people who are struggling with sex addiction? And why is it important to seek out treatment for sex addiction?

The impact of any addiction has vast and most of the time devastating consequences for many people. With sex addiction, the damage can be to the person’s physical, mental and emotional health as well as to any close relationships they may be trying to maintain. 

What is sex addiction therapy? 

Well, therapy can be many different things, but when it comes to sex addiction, you and your health care provider will likely devise an all-encompassing treatment program for you to follow which may include things like individual and couples counseling, cognitive behavioral therapy, group therapy and maybe even medicine therapy. 

The kind of treatment plan that works for one person may need to be tailored to help another person with the same kind of sex addiction, which is why it’s important to speak with your therapist or health care provider if you’re interested in information on sex addiction treatment. 

Developing a healthy attitude towards sex, understanding your impulses and urges, learning how to cope with addiction and implementing the skills you learn through targeted therapies and counseling sessions can help you manage your addiction in a way that is less harmful to yourself and others in your life.