February 14, 2013
Sexual Addiction: What Is It?
For most people who don’t suffer from a sexual addiction, the thought probably goes through their head, “Now there’s an addiction I could get into!” But the emotional, health and relationship fallout from this form of addiction is real and very detrimental.
The definition of sexual addiction, or hypersexuality, involves a dysfunctional preoccupation with sexual fantasy that is often combined with the obsessive pursuit of casual or non-intimate, pornography, compulsive masturbation, and romantic intensity and objectified partner sex for a period of at least six months.
Sexual addiction has not yet achieved recognition as a legitimate mental health disorder, however. This is reportedly due to a lack of research study in the field. Public consciousness has been raised, of late, for the recognition of this condition as a legitimate neuropsychobiological disorder. This is due, in no small part, to an increase in sexual addiction through the escalation of technology-driven sexual problems as well as a rise in sexual recovery 12-step groups internationally. Also lending credibility to the addiction is the ever-evolving research study data that has been presented, along with the term “sex addiction” being used in reference to certain major entertainment and sports figures, as well as prominent politicians who have engaged in their own sexual dalliances.
Sexual addiction is considered in the same vein as addictions to gambling, binge eating or compulsive spending. These addictions are known as “process addiction” and differ from traditional substance addictions. Process addiction addicts, therefore, will typically spend a greater amount of time in the obsessive pursuit rather than in the act of their addiction itself. This is because the addiction is fueled by the neurochemical and dissociative high that is produced by fantasy and ritualistic behaviors.
These adult obsessive patterns of thought and behavior persist even though an individual will try to self-correct their problematic sexual behavior, make promises to themselves and others to change, and experience significant negative life consequences in their life, career, health and relationship stability.
People who engage in fetishistic or paraphillic sexual arousal patterns are not necessarily sex addicts. This is true even if the individual tends to keep these patterns a secret from others or feels shame associated with them. Also, unwanted homosexual and bisexual feelings are not factored into a diagnosis of a sexual addiction. What or who someone finds sexually arousing is not the key. Sexual addiction is determined by an individual’s self- and other-objectified, repetitive patterns of sexual behavior that they use when feeling emotional distress or are trying to manage their emotional triggers.
Rather than rely on sexual gratification, a healthy individual will likely reach out to friends and partners for support when they are upset. Sexual addicts typically have a lowered ability to deal with emotional stressors and are often unable to self-soothe, relying instead on the neurochemical rush they receive from their behaviors to feel better temporarily.
Another barrier to a diagnosis of sex addiction is the presence of mental health conditions that have, as a component of the disease, hypersexuality. Therefore, someone diagnosed as bi-polar may be hypersexual without being considered a sex addict.
For too many individuals, the outreach for treatment only comes when the effects of the addiction have had deleterious effects on their relationships, job, health, finances and other aspects of their lives. Sexual addicts also often find they have, due to their behaviors, an increase in legal problems.
In the digital age, where sexual arousal and gratification are just a click away, the recognition and treatment of sexual addiction is becoming much more necessary. One might start with an unhealthy obsession with online pornography and then branch out to more risky behaviors that could lead to disease, distress and inter-personal relationship issues. In relation to this process addiction, I borrow an adage from recovering alcoholics, “One is too many and a thousand is never enough.”
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