Sexual Addiction 101

by Bill C. Martin, M.A., LMFT

What is going on here? A teenager with few friends who spends several hours a day, seven days a week surfing porn sites and does little else but go to school and come home to the computer. A husband leaving the house to do a quick errand for his wife, but who cannot resist stopping by the park for quick sex with 3 or 4 men. The young woman who sleeps with man after man “Looking for Mr. Good Bar.”

These people are all caught up in the national epidemic called sexual addiction. It has been estimated that as high as 6% of the population is caught up in this addiction. The figure is even higher when “love addicts” are added into the mix (i.e., those addicted to love, the high of new romance).

So afraid of their secret getting out…even afraid to share with a therapist, many struggle in shame and isolation for years. Some seek help on their own fairly early in their addiction. Others wait till events wake them to the seriousness of their problem (i.e., being caught by a spouse, getting arrested, or simply scaring themselves by the risky level they have reached in their behaviors).

What are the signs? Common signs to look for are: A pattern of out-of-control behavior; severe consequences due to sexual behavior; inability to stop despite adverse consequences; preoccupation with sex to the point that important social, occupational, or recreational activities are neglected; sex as a coping strategy; persistent pursuit of self-destructive or high-risk behavior.

What is the latest?  Cybersex Addiction. Today we’re seeing more and more people sexually addicted in relation to the internet. It is estimated that as many as 16% of all men who regularly use the internet are addicted, to one degree or another, to internet sexual acting-out. This might include viewing pornography, chat rooms, live sex shows, etc., etc. One frightening aspect of this is that we are seeing younger and younger people getting addicted (i.e., even as young as 12 to 14 years of age) and senior citizens who never before in their lives had a problem with out-of-control sexual behavior.

What are the effects on those who are in relationship with the addict? Partners often feel hurt, betrayed, rejected, abandoned, somehow to blame, unattractive, ashamed, lonely, low in self-esteem, and feel treated as a sex object or the opposite (i.e., their partner is sexual everywhere else, except with the person whom they are supposed to be having sex). I believe sexual addiction is a huge contemporary factor in separation and divorce.

What causes sex addiction? Sexual addiction can simply be seen as a coping mechanism (much as alcohol is to the alcoholic, food to the overeater, etc.).  However, as with many mental health issues, the causes of this addiction are complex. I often see some common themes such as: abuse in childhood, lack of adequate nurturing as a child, intimacy problems, depression, anxiety and certain ingrained personality factors. Another significant contribution is the way men are socialized.

Is there treatment? The good news is that there is treatment and motivated individuals have had good success. I help clients learn to get their real needs met in healthy ways. New ways of coping are learned. Processing old family issues is often useful. Helping the client to deal with underlying depression, anxiety, etc., is also important. Twelve-step groups around sexual compulsivity are hugely helpful in breaking isolation, reducing shame, and building support/accountability. I work together with my clients to determine the best treatment program for their individual circumstances.

For more information about Bill C. Martin, M.A., LMFT,
Certified Sex Addiction Therapist, click here.