The year 2011 could be considered the year of sex addiction.
In the beginning of the year, an athlete known for his calm demeanor, lovely wife and extreme wealth revealed that he’d had sex with a staggering number of women during his marriage. This tipped off a flurry of news stories, full of speculation about why someone with this background would toss all of his accomplishments away in such a manner. In the end of 2011, a movie came out that depicted sex addiction in a very visceral and direct manner. Once more, news reports put the topic front and center.
Given this extensive coverage, it’s hard to imagine anyone living today who has not at least heard about sex addiction. They may have strong opinions about whether or not the athlete truly qualifies as a sex addict, and they may have seen the movie and believe they know everything they need to know in order to spot addiction in someone they love.
Also, sex addicts rarely promote their behavior in public venues, and most go to great lengths to hide the disease from the ones they love. Given these two facts, it’s entirely possible that there are many people who struggle with sex addiction every day who are not getting the help they need. As a result of their untreated condition, they face real and serious consequences.
It can be difficult to clearly define sexual addiction, as each person can be slightly different. After all, every person has a unique sex drive and that drive can vary a bit from day to day. In addition, unlike heroin addiction or alcohol addiction, sex addiction doesn’t cause any outward signs that are easy to spot. There are no empty bottles or discarded needles that can function as the addiction’s smoking gun. In fact, it’s not uncommon for people to hold down jobs, participate in a marriage and raise children, all while dealing with an addiction. Since our society is so focused on sex while encouraging people not to talk directly about their own sex habits, an addiction can be quite easy to hide or explain away. That doesn’t mean, however, that there aren’t warning signs of sex addiction that people can watch for. There are some behaviors that tend to point to a sex addiction.
It’s important to mention that people with a sex addiction tend to engage in these activities on a compulsive basis. People who look at pornography from time to time do not automatically have a sex addiction. People who spend their entire paychecks on pornography every month and then find themselves unable to leave the house because they can’t stop looking at the images may have a sex addiction. Here, it truly is a matter of scale. Addicts simply can’t regulate their sexual activity.
When interviewed, these people often mention feeling driven to engage in sex. As soon as they have completed the act with one person, they are thinking about finding another partner. Some sex addicts have sex five or six times per day, if not more. They may not feel any pleasure from the activity, either, and they may experience profound shame when they think back on their behaviors. They may do things they never thought they would do, just to feed their addiction, and they may report feeling like they’re in a trance or outside of their own bodies while the acts are happening.
Researchers have long studied the causes of this sort of compulsive behavior. Some people find that addiction like this is caused by the brain’s response to pleasure. When people have sex, their bodies release dopamine, and this chemical tends to make the person feel happy, warm and powerful. Some people find this dopamine response simply fascinating, and they will do anything to achieve that feeling again. Over time, their bodies adjust to these high levels of dopamine, and it takes more of the chemical to bring on the positive feeling. The addict may need to have more sex, or different types of sex, in order to feel a dopamine response. The addiction begins to escalate. It’s important to remember that this dopamine pathway is also activated in other forms of addiction, including heroin addiction. It’s a strong and powerful chemical, and it can make people do things they wouldn’t normally do.
People with brain problems such as multiple sclerosis or epilepsy might also be at higher risk, according to the Mayo Clinic. More studies are being performed in this area. If the chemical cause can be found, medications might be developed that could treat the disease.
People with a sex addiction might also have other mental health problems. According to a study published in the journal Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity, of those studied who were being treated for sex addiction, two-thirds had a dissociative disorder, a condition that encourages the person to hallucinate or enter an alternate reality. It’s possible that these mental illnesses developed first, and predisposed the people to sex addiction as a sort of side effect. Once again, this is a field that researchers are looking at quite closely.
People who have a sex addiction face a wide variety of consequences. On a social level, as the person begins to think about everyone as a potential hookup, the addict begins to have trouble relating. He or she might seem cold or cut off from true emotion, and the addict may feel intense loneliness. The addict might also feel anxiety and stress as he or she worries that others will find out about the behavior. In some cases, this loneliness, stress and fear can lead some sex addicts to contemplate suicide. This is one of the severe consequences of the addiction.
Some sex addicts engage in illegal activities in order to increase the risk or the thrill of the sex act. This augmentation supports their increased need for a dopamine boost, and even though the addict might know that the behaviors are wrong, the addict might engage in them anyway due to the influence of the addiction. Engaging in prostitution, exhibitionism or sexual violence could land the addict in jail.
In addition, many sex addicts face financial consequences for their addiction, as they spend large amounts of money on pornography, phone sex or prostitution. If the addict faces divorce due to the sex addiction, the financial consequences could be even more severe.
Spouses of people who have a sex addiction may face many of these consequences as well. The addict might obtain a sexually transmitted disease, and then give that disease to the spouse. Since people who are married rarely engage in STD blood tests, the infection could go on undetected for months or even years. In addition, couples with shared bank accounts could share the expenses related to the addiction. The spouse might also struggle with loneliness or anger as a result of the addiction.
People who are struggling with a sex addiction can get better, with the help of intensive therapies and behavior modifications. Many sex addicts don’t know that this help exists, and if they do, they may tell themselves that they don’t need to obtain that help. Most addicts tell themselves that they can stop anytime they want to. This is the nature of the disease. Often, it takes a sort of wakeup call from family members and friends in order to break through the denial and encourage the addict to get help.
Families can accomplish this goal with the help of an interventionist.
This professional can explain the nature of the addiction, help determine the best course of treatment for the addict, and help the family perform a structured intervention. The addict is confronted with the behavior, and the family outlines why treatment is necessary. The conversation may be awkward, but it truly can be immensely helpful. In fact, it could be just the thing the addict needs in order to beat this terrible addiction.