Sex addiction is a buzzword in today’s society, and it’s been used by many a famous actor or sports figure to explain their poor choices. Everyone from Tiger Woods to Russell Brand to David Duchovny is reported to have sought treatment for sex addiction. Although it sounds like a cop-out, the truth is that sex addiction is a real and serious problem, and 3 to 6 percent of Americans are estimated to suffer from it. Like other addicts, sex addicts put their health, finances, emotions, and relationships on the line all because they must have those few minutes of release.
Sex addicts think about sex virtually all the time. They spend hours looking at pornography on the Internet, they masturbate multiple times a day (often to the point that it becomes painful), and they are consumed by their need for sexual release. Almost everyone enjoys sex and loves sexual pleasure, but sex addicts are different: They need sexual stimulation in order to feel alive and happy. Like an alcoholic who needs a drink or an addict who needs a hit, sex addicts do not want to live without their drug of choice. Even if a sex addict truly and deeply loves his spouse, he might be unable to control his physical and mental need for sexual stimulation.
Nor are men the only sufferers. According to one statistic, 30 percent of the people who seek treatment for sex addiction are women. Sex addiction, also known as love addiction, can drive a woman to put herself in dangerous situations, such as meeting strangers on the Internet for sex and even selling her body.
Many women in the sex industry admit to a history of sex abuse as well as sex addiction. Because they were sexually abused as children, they came to believe that their only worth was sexual. Although childhood sexual abuse is an unforgivable and heinous crime against humanity, it can sometimes feel good to the victim, particularly if she is never given attention or love outside of these criminal interactions. This sets her up for a lifetime of problems, as she uncontrollably connects pain with pleasure and sex with love (even when love is clearly not present, such as when her partner is a stranger, abusive, dangerous, or all three).
The same is true for men who were abused as children. In addition, many child-abuse victims grow up to be sex addicts because they never learned how to place proper value or importance on sex or their own bodies. They learned to “vacate” their bodies during the abuse as a form of coping, but that same self-preservation might still be in place decades later, meaning it can be hard for a child-abuse victim to be present in his or her body during sex. Instead of it being an intimate and meaningful exchange, sex might feel robotic and mechanical, no different from any other physical function, such as eating or drinking.
So what’s the difference between a sex addict and someone who slips up and cheats?
A sex addict is unable to control his behavior and might receive virtually no pleasure from his sexual acts. He is often numb and vacant, much like an alcoholic on his fifth drink. He can’t stop his behavior even if he gets caught, loses his family, and spends every last dime on pornography and strip clubs. On the other hand, most people who cheat (but aren’t sex addicts) don’t go that far, and often one affair is more than they can handle at one time (while a sex addict might have two, three, or more affairs going on simultaneously).
While sex addiction is not an excuse for cheating, it does help to illuminate why some people have such destructive sexual behaviors. But as pervasive and powerful as sex addiction can be, recovery is possible. If you believe that you or your partner is suffering from this painful addiction, I urge couples to both seek help to lessen the suffering and improve the chances of recovery. Sex is meant to be a beautiful, enriching part of your life, not an exercise in self-destruction. Check out the resources below for help on your journey to wellness.
To find a therapist, visit: http://www.aasect.org.
- Out of the Shadows: Understanding Sexual Addiction by Patrick Carnes, PhD
- Transcending Post-infidelity Stress Disorder (PISD): The Six Stages of Healing by Dennis C. Ortman, PhD
- After the Affair: Healing the Pain and Rebuilding Trust When a Partner Has Been Unfaithful by Janis Abrahms Spring
- Your Sexually Addicted Spouse: How Partners Can Cope and Heal by Barbara Steffens