It might seem strange at first to think that sex can become an addiction. It’s a natural biological activity, not a chemical ingested into the system. But just as alcohol and drugs can become addictive, so can natural activities like eating and sex. These activities become problematic when they are used as a means of escaping pain or boredom, and when the behaviors continue even when they become destructive.
In his confessional book, Secret Life, Michael Ryan describes his addiction this way: “The substance I used was human beings. You marshal all your intelligence and charm and power to keep the addiction alive. Getting fired from my job did not make me stop. Losing my wife did not make me stop. Risking my life and the lives of my sexual partners did not make me stop. Everything and everyone in your life, who you are and what you believe, falls in line around it.”
As sexual more change in our society, and as pornography and the sexual activity it portrays become ever more ubiquitous, millions of people find themselves becoming compulsive in their sexual behavior. Like Ryan, they find themselves engaging in unhealthy and destructive habits, unable to stop.
The challenge with sex addiction is that, because sex is so personal and private, people are especially hesitant to acknowledge their struggles with it. Sex addiction is easy to laugh about, but hard to admit. In her book, Escape from Intimacy, Anne Wilson Shaef writes, “Sexual addiction is hidden addiction; I have found more willingness to confront almost any other addiction. Sexual addiction carries a particularly large component of shame and denial with it. Paradoxically it is also one of the addictions most integrated into our society as normal.”
When does sex become an addiction?
A common thread in the criteria for addiction mentioned above is the inability of the addict to set and maintain limits to his or her behavior, because of the overpowering neurochemical pull of the addictionEven if society accepts something as “normal,” we in the recovery community recognize that it can be addictive and destructive. But what about sex? When does someone become a sex addict? Where is the line that separates a normal, healthy sex drive from sexual addiction? The line gets drawn when that person finds him or herself unable to stop – when they repeatedly go back to the same behavior, despite negative consequences.
The medical and counseling communities have established several universal criteria for determining if a substance or behavior is an addiction. Notice how these apply to sexual behavior as well as chemical use:
- Use of the substance or behavior has become unmanageable. This means that the addict wants, and repeatedly tries to stop, but can’t. There is a history of failed attempts. The word powerless – a key word in Step One of the 12 Steps – aptly describes the feeling the addict has about his or her sexual behavior. Even when an addict experiences destructive consequences for his or her sexual behavior, it’s not enough to get them to stop. Susan Cheever sums up this aspect of addiction: “Addiction is not weakness, but it is helplessness. Addiction is not a lack of willpower; it is a powerlessness over the substance or behavior in question.”
- The addiction gets worse over time. This happens because more and more of the substance or behavior is needed over time to achieve the same effect. The chemistry of the brain adjusts to whatever an addict puts into it. Over time the brain demands more to achieve the same effect. For alcoholics, the brain adjusts to alcohol and requires more. Thinking about sex and engaging in sexual behavior requires that the brain produce the brain chemistry to achieve sexual response. New research is finding that the sexual chemistry of the brain can also become tolerant, which means more and more stimulation is necessary to have the same brain chemistry effects – the feelings of arousal, excitement and pleasure. The escalation can take two forms. The most basic is that the addict does more and more of the same kind of behavior. For other addicts, escalation means that they will need new kinds of acting out experiences to achieve the same high. So they will look for new, novel, or more risky forms of sexually acting out. Almost every addict can point to certain behaviors that they at one time said they would never do, and later find themselves doing. This is the effect of neurochemical tolerance.
- Because of the brain chemistry involved, addicts use the thoughts and behaviors that produce the neurochemical highs to either raise or lower their moods. This is what is meant by saying that addicts medicate their feelings. If an addict is depressed, lonely or bored, he or she can engage in – or even simply fantasize about – a sexual encounter, and the arousal part of the sexual response produces chemicals that raise his or her mood. If an addict is stressed, anxious or fearful, the chemicals that flood that brain after orgasm (or in fantasies of the romance and attachment aspects of a relationship) create a feeling of well-being and contentment that lowers his or her mood. Most addicts are capable of both kinds of behaviors, and therefore, can both raise and lower their moods depending on their feelings at the moment.
- Finally, addicts act out despite negative consequences. Addicts don’t pay attention to negative consequences, instead living in denial. They minimize or rationalize their acting out, despite the consequences. Until an addict decides to surrender control of the fears that prevent him or her from getting help, the addiction will continue. As the addict experiences negative consequences for his or her behavior, feelings of depression and self hatred grow. Unless they are somehow helped to find hope and guidance for change, these negative feelings create the addiction spiral: shame and hopelessness leading to acting out as a way of coping, which leads to feelings of guilt and often also to negative consequences, which lead to more shame and hopelessness, which lead to more acting out, etc.,.
Sex addiction is a chemical addiction
A common thread in the criteria for addiction mentioned above is the inability of the addict to set and maintain limits to his or her behavior, because of the overpowering neurochemical pull of the addiction. Roschbeth Ewald goes so far as to define sex addiction as becoming “addicted to the neuro-chemical changes that take place in the body during sexual behavior.”
Put another way, sex addiction is chemical addiction; it’s just that sex addicts carry the chemicals with them in their brains. Sex addicts are people who early in life, usually as a result of childhood trauma (abuse or deprivation) found sexual behaviors to be a way to cope, and they became dependent on these neuro-chemical interactions as time went on. Make no mistake, sex has a powerful – some would say “overpowering” – effect on the brain.
Helen Fisher, the anthropologist and expert on the neuro-biology of romance says this in her book, Why We Love: “Directly or indirectly, virtually all ‘drugs of abuse’ affect a single pathway in the brain, the mesolimbic reward system, activated by dopamine. Romantic love stimulates parts of the same pathway with the same chemical. In fact, when neuroscientists Andreas Bartels and Semir Zeki compared the brain scans of their love-stricken subjects with those men and women who had injected cocaine or opioids, they found that many of the same brain regions became active.
Nora Volkov, director of the National Institute of Drug Abuse, puts it this way: “The body has a natural reward system, a system of dopamine pathways set up to help us survive…The drugs or the addictive behavior provide the brain with a more efficient delivery system and the addict experiences a dopamine spike – an unnatural level of pleasure which, when it subsides, leaves pleasure levels lower than normal.” So when the addict stops doing the addictive behaviors, life feels ever more joyless, and the need for more of the behavior feels ever more pressing.
Dispelling the myths about sex addiction
Myth #1: If I’m already in recovery from another addiction, I don’t need to worry about sex. The either /or approach to addiction is misguided and dangerous. The reality is that addictions usually come in clusters. If addictions are coping strategies we develop to deal with suffering, it only makes sense that we would want or need to develop multiple strategies, and not just one. Many studies reveal the prevalence of cross addictions, and sex addiction is often part of that mix. For example, one 1989 study found that more than half of cocaine users had sexual compulsion problems. Pat Carnes says “Clinicians have long noted that sex addiction was woven into an intricate web of addictions, compulsions, and avoidance strategies…The ‘monodrug user’ is a vanishing species in American culture.”
The interactions between addictions are complex, and the varieties of “addiction interaction disorder” (AID) are practically limitless. Susan Cheever, in her book Desire, points out why this is so: “Addicts are not addicted to substances; addicts are addicted to the feelings they get from their substances, and if they are denied a substance and they can get that feeling from another substance, they will.”
Every month I teach at a workshop for men, with Dr. Mark Laaser at Faithful and True Ministies. Men from around the country come to Minneapolis for three days to learn about and develop a recovery plan for sex addiction. Most of the men acknowledge that sex is but one of the addictions they are dealing with. Many of them have done years of 12 Step recovery work for other addictions. But sobriety from alcohol or drugs didn’t stop their sex addiction.
Myth #2: Sex addiction is a “guy thing.” The truth is that sex addiction is an equal opportunity disorder that affects women as well as men. Since the field of sex addiction has been tracking these statistics, the gender breakdown has been that 20 percent of people who seek treatment for sex addiction are female. But in recent years this is changing, and the gender gap is narrowing. Hitwise, a company that tracks web usage with huge databases monitoring web traffic reports that in 2007, 27 percent of visitors to adult web sites were female. The sites tracked for this research included not only visual pornography, but also erotic stories and chat, which generally have higher female usage.
Gender stereotypes may be helpful for pop psychology books and standup comics, but not for recovery. Especially in younger generations – who didn’t grow up with the same kinds of biases and cultural mindset as older generations – we find the typical gender stereotypes about sex increasingly inapplicable. We find females are as likely to be both the sexual aggressor, and as drawn to visual pornography as are males. We also find males as likely to be drawn to chat rooms and romance addiction as females.
In the last few years, I have observed this trend of the gender gap shrinking. When I speak to church or community groups, or respond to email traffic from my website, I am finding more women asking questions and seeking help for themselves. Sex addictions is not just a guy thing.
Myth #3: Most sex addicts are – or will become – sex offenders. One of the barriers that keeps people from talking about sex addiction is the mistaken association between sex addiction and offending behaviors, such as sexual assault or molestation. It’s important to note that while a significant percentage of sex offenders are also sex addicts, only a tiny fraction of sex addicts are offenders. Experts such as Pat Carnes estimate that 30 percent of sex offenders in prisons today can be diagnosed as sex addicts, and 70 percent of offenders in prison for child-related sex crimes can be diagnosed as sex addicts. But the vast majority of people who are addicted to sex never cross the line of sexual offending. Most experts estimate that only 2 to 5 percent of sex addicts are sex offenders.
If you, or someone you love, is sexually addicted, there is hope. As with other addictions, recognizing that the problem is beyond your ability to fix without support and a program of recovery is the essential first step. There are many resources available for men and women who are ready to face their sex addiction.
Mark Brouwer is the director of Recovery Remixed. He leads workshops with Mark Laaser of Faithful and True Ministries, and is co-author with Laaser of Sexual Addiction and Internet Pornography.
This article first appeared in the February 2009 issue of The Phoenix Spirit. Some links on this page are affiliate links and we may earn a commission through them, at no cost to you.
Last Updated on August 10, 2021