Do you control your sex life, or does it control you? Sex addiction is a controversial condition – one which has become a hot topic for conversation after celebrities like Michael Douglas, Tiger Woods and Russel Brand have opened up about suffering from it. But what exactly is sex addiction? Is it a real disorder, or just an excuse drawn upon by cheaters and celebrities when they get into trouble? Read on to learn more about the psychology of sex addiction and what can be done to treat it.
Sex addicts struggle with overpowering compulsions to think about and act out their sexual urges. Research suggests that between 3 and 6 percent of people around the world struggle with this condition. Some red-flag behaviours include:
- Having extra-marital affairs and/or multiple sex partners
- Excessive masturbation or porn-viewing
- Frequently having risky sex
- Using prostitutes
- Sexually harassing others
Having said that, just because you watch porn, forget to be safe in bed or think about sex several times a day, that doesn’t make you a sex addict.
Believe it or not, sex addiction isn’t really about sex – it’s about control.
What do we mean? It’s normal and expected to have a healthy sexual appetite. In fact, someone who doesn’t enjoy sex might be struggling with an underlying psychological or medical condition! Sexual behaviours only become problematic when we lose our control over them, when we become completely dependent on them to cope with our emotions or when other aspects of our lives start to suffer because of our addiction to sex.
For example, sex addicts might spend so much time watching porn or masturbating that they fail to get a full eight hours of sleep. They would then find it difficult to stay alert the next day at work – and their work performance might also suffer because they spend much of their day thinking about sex. The relationships of sex addicts also suffer: your partner might experience you as distant or there might be conflict because of repeated incidents of cheating. You could also find that you’re struggling financially after spending huge amounts of money on porn or prostitutes.
Sex addicts often feel overwhelming guilt and shame about their behaviour. Nonetheless, they depend on sex as a coping mechanism to block-out and distract them from the difficulties of life. They need sexual pleasure in the same way that an alcoholic needs a drink after a difficult day. Many sex addicts want to cut-down and they realize that their behaviour is causing serious problems in their life; but no matter how hard they try, they can’t seem to curb the addiction.
Is It Real?
Sex addiction is a controversial condition. Some organizations, such as the World Health Organization and the American Society of Addiction Medicine, say that excessive sexual behaviour should be treated just like any other addiction. Others, such as the American Psychiatric Association, say that there isn’t enough evidence to recognize it. Of course, this might just mean that not enough research has been done!
What does the science say about it? Although conclusive research is limited, one study used brain imaging technology and found striking similarities between the brains of sex addicts and people using illegal drugs, such as heroin. What does this tell us? Compulsive sexual engagement leads to real, observable changes in the brain; and the brain of a sex-addict behaves in a very similar way to the brains of drug users.
This sort of research shows us just how real and overpowering the urges of sex addicts can be. As a result, many doctors around the world are taking this disorder seriously, often using medical loopholes to diagnose and treat their patients despite the disorder’s lack of official recognition. Here in Australia many medical doctors reportedly see sex addiction as a serious condition; and it seems that our psychologists are getting more and more requests to assist clients in managing this condition.
How Can The Three Seas Help?
There are a wide range of treatment options for people who need support in regaining control over their sex lives. However, unlike approaches to drug or alcohol use, sex-addiction interventions don’t aim for complete abstinence. Rather, we would help you to foster a more balanced and healthy relationship to sex. Let’s take a look at some of the more common approaches for achieving this:
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is a popular form of individual therapy. It’s usually done face-to-face, over a period of several weeks. CBT targets problematic thought patterns which often lead people to engage in unwanted sexual behaviours. When you engage in these behaviours, you are also likely to feel ashamed or remorseful about them, which leads you to engage in even more sexual acts as a way of making yourself feel better. CBT aims to break this vicious cycle, by giving you the tools to change the way that you think, feel and act.
Another option is Psychodynamic Therapy, which focuses on the unconscious forces that often underlie addictive behaviour. For example, experiences of sexual or emotional abuse that happened earlier on can lead us to develop a fragile self-esteem and difficulties with regulating our emotions. All of these can make it more likely for us to engage in sex-addicted behaviours and psychodynamic therapy provides a space for understanding and working through those things that happened in our past, thereby helping us to take control of our current behaviour.
Couples therapy and family therapy are both useful when a one’s sex addiction has had a detrimental impact on one’s relationships. For example, these approaches are great for addressing emotional wounds and trust-ruptures that have been caused by sexual infidelity. Couples and family counselling seek to understand the underlying factors in the relationship that are causing or enabling a person’s sex-addicted behaviour; and they also work towards strengthening the communication pathways necessary for having relationships characterised by trust and safety.
Group Therapy for sex addiction is usually based on the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step program. This treats sex addiction in the same way that it would for other problems such as drug or alcohol use. From this perspective, the group provides a supportive space in which to discuss and manage your addiction. New participants are usually paired with a ‘sponsor’ – a more experienced group member who endeavours to guide and support the newcomer through their process of recovery.
When it comes to pharmacotherapy (i.e. medication), evidence suggests that a type of antidepressant (SSRIs, or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) can reduce the number of powerful sexual urges that addicts experience. Many people who struggle with sex addiction may also have depression; and in these situations, medication can help address both problems at the same time.
Because sex addiction is such a controversial topic, the people who struggle with it often feel embarrassed and ashamed about speaking out and looking for help. It certainly doesn’t help that the psychiatric world is filled with debate and uncertainty as to how exactly sex addiction should be categorised and diagnosed. But despite all the politics and debate, one thing is for sure: there are those among us who desperately need help in controlling their sexual behaviours. Fortunately, support is available. If you feel that you or someone you know is struggling with sex addiction, speak to us about getting the support that you need and deserve!