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Compulsive Sexual Behavior

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Sex is a natural, healthy part of life, and so is thinking about it. But it may be a sign of compulsive sexual behavior if you think about sex or perform sex acts so frequently that it becomes overwhelming or negatively affects your life.

What is Compulsive Sexual Behavior?

Compulsive sexual behavior (also known as hypersexuality, hypersexuality disorder, or sexual addiction) is when you’re so preoccupied with sexual fantasies, urges, or behaviors that it’s difficult to control your thoughts or function productively. In other words, thoughts about and acts of sex consume you in a way that makes doing other things impossible. This causes you distress, including negatively affecting your health, career, and relationships.

Compulsive sexual behavior is a mental health disorder that anyone can have, regardless of sexual preference, although it is thought to be more common in men. Anywhere from 3%-6% of people have symptoms of compulsive sexual behavior. You’re at higher risk for hypersexuality if you abuse drugs or alcohol, have another mental health condition, have family members who struggle with addiction, and/or were physically or sexually abused. 

The cause of compulsive sexual behavior isn’t known because it’s somewhat different in every case. Mental health experts think a combination of factors results in sex addiction, including:

  • More access to pornography and sex partners because of technological developments.
  • Past trauma, resulting in using sex as a coping mechanism to deal with feelings (i.e., powerlessness, depression) you can’t control. 
  • Chemical imbalances in the brain, specifically an imbalance of dopamine.
  • Other mental health conditions like bipolar or histrionic personality disorders.
  • Childhood experiences with trauma, including sexual abuse.
  • Unhealthy childhood relationships with parents or other adults.
  • Medical conditions like a brain tumor or seizure disorder.

Characteristics of Compulsive Sexual Behavior

If the cause of compulsive sexual behavior is different for everyone, how do you know if you suffer from it? Symptoms include: 

  • Experiencing intense sexual urges that seem constant and uncontrollable, even when you try to control them.
  • Feeling driven to perform sexual behaviors (like masturbation or paying for sex) for a release of tension, then feeling guilt or shame afterward.
  • Excessively masturbating and/or watching pornography.
  • Using sex to cope with other problems like loneliness, depression, anxiety, or stress.
  • Engaging in risky sexual practices (like sex with many partners) that have negative consequences like sexually transmitted diseases, relationship damage, job loss, financial issues, or legal problems.
  • Finding it difficult to maintain healthy, stable relationships.
  • An inability to stop any of these behaviors, even though you see them as negative and harmful.

Common Behaviors of Compulsive Sexual Behavior

Knowing symptoms may not be as helpful as considering what compulsive sexual behavior looks like in real life. Warning signs that you might suffer from compulsive sexual behavior include: 

  • You regularly cannot fulfill your personal or professional obligations because you are too busy masturbating, watching pornography, or having sex. 
  • You cannot stay in a committed relationship because you’re repeatedly unfaithful to your partner. It also is possible that your partner has not caught you, but you’re constantly stressed from trying to cover up infidelity.
  • Spending a lot of time and money (possibly even going into debt) on sex-related activities like searching for people to have sex with or visiting pornographic websites.
  • Being fired from your job because you cannot make it through your workday without engaging in sexual activities. 
  • Having to increase the risk of sexual behaviors to get the same satisfaction. For example, having sex in increasingly public places to satisfy your sexual urges. 
  • Wanting to stop engaging in risky sexual behavior, but feeling like you can’t.

a black woman and black man sit on a rust colored couch. Their heads are not visible but their bodies are turned away from each other

The costs of compulsive sexual behavior are high. They include:

  • Developing other mental health issues like depression or anxiety, or even becoming suicidal because you’re so overwhelmed with your inability to control your urges.
  • Harming relationships with family and friends, then feeling shame and loneliness because you know you need to change your behavior, but you can’t.
  • Losing your job because you can’t focus on work or you engage in sexual activities during work hours.
  • Burdening yourself or your family with debt because you’re paying for pornography or sex.
  • Contracting a sexually transmitted disease and potentially infecting others, including someone you love who doesn’t know you’re unfaithful.
  • Drinking alcohol in excess or using drugs, usually to cope with the negative feelings of not being able to control your actions.
  • Being arrested for sexual offenses.

Diagnosis of Compulsive Sexual Behavior

Diagnosing compulsive sexual behavior is tricky because the causes are varied and because sex addiction is not recognized as an official psychiatric diagnosis. 

Many mental health professionals use the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), published by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) and most recently updated in 2013, to diagnose mental health problems. But the DSM-5 does not have a diagnostic category for compulsive sexual behavior, likely because of a lack of research and agreed-upon terminology. 

The lack of a specific diagnosis means sex addiction is diagnosed as a subcategory of another mental health condition like impulse control disorder or a behavioral addiction. Despite agreement among mental health experts that sex addiction is a legitimate mental health concern, the APA has yet to officially categorize sex addiction separately.

For an official diagnosis, you must be 18 or older and have consistent symptoms for six months or more. Also, you must have at least four of the following:

  • Repeatedly engaging in sexual behavior without considering physical or emotional harm to yourself or others. 
  • Spending an excessive amount of time planning for and engaging in sexual behaviors.
  • Repeatedly engaging in sexual behaviors if you are anxious, bored, frustrated, or depressed as a way of coping with your moods.
  • Repeatedly engaging in sexual behaviors in response to life events, again as a method of coping.
  • Or have repeatedly and unsuccessfully tried to control or change your sexual behaviors. 

Treating Compulsive Sexual Behavior 

Compulsive sexual behavior may not be preventable, since the exact cause of the behavior depends on you and your past life experiences. But compulsive sexual behavior can be treated and getting help as soon as you identify a concern is important. Treatment begins with understanding what caused the addiction and recognizing the danger of continuing these behaviors.

Treatment for compulsive sexual behavior usually involves therapy, medication, and self-help groups. The treatment includes learning what causes these behaviors, how to manage urges, and how to have a healthy sex life. Treatment for compulsive sexual behavior likely means treatment for the stressor (childhood sexual abuse, for example) that caused the addiction too. It also could include treatment for any unhealthy coping mechanisms (like alcohol abuse) you’ve developed while trying to deal with the addiction alone.

How ILC Can Help

Integrative Life Center provides treatment for compulsive sexual behavior. ILC’s addiction treatment program helps eliminate the isolation, embarrassment, and overwhelm you may have about getting help for your sex addiction and helps you develop healthier sexuality. Our therapy options include:

  • Yoga therapy. When paired with other types of therapy, yoga therapy can help you physically release trauma from your body and gain control of your thoughts and feelings.
  • Psychodrama therapy. These group sessions used guided drama exercises to help you learn healthy coping mechanisms and better communications methods, among other things.
  • Motivational interviewing therapy. Used specifically for addiction treatment, this type of therapy helps you confront your motivations and resolve uncertain feelings, thoughts, and insecurities. Motivational interviewing therapy makes you responsible and accountable for your actions while developing a plan to address them.
  • Dialectical behavior therapy. Uses mindfulness to help you learn how to observe your emotions in stressful situations instead of reacting to them, helping you recognize triggers and avoid undesirable actions.
  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy. Perhaps the most common type of therapy, CBT helps you and your therapist identify harmful ways you think and behave. You then work together to determine how to respond to those thoughts and actions in a healthier way.

Key Takeaways

Compulsive sexual behavior is a real concern that should be treated seriously and without shame. ILC has the tools available to help you overcome your sex addiction. Contact us today to get started on a treatment plan.


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