Sex addiction is a compulsive urge to engage in sexual activity, thoughts, or fantasies in ways that are detrimental to an individual, his or her family, friends, and/or work. It blocks the development of true intimacy in a relationship. Sex addiction is also called sexual dependency or sexual compulsivity. Just because someone likes to masturbate or to have sex frequently doesn’t necessarily mean that he or she is a sex addict or has a problem.
For the individual who is caught by sexual compulsion, sex has become something other than an intimate expression of loving connectedness. The pleasure that is inherently present in orgasm or connection with another has been altered and is being used as a balm, an escape, a distraction, rather than being enjoyed for what it does offer.
Sexual addiction does not always result in infidelity to a relationship, nor is all sexual infidelity driven by sex addiction. Generally, it is the male of the couple who has an issue with sexual addiction. However, more and more often women are also having these difficulties.
The natural urge for sex, the way sex is used for marketing purposes, and the explosion of porn on the Internet have created a “perfect storm” of conditions leading to sex addiction. To understand sexual addiction, it can help to understand the impulses and motivations that drive sexual behavior.
The Sexual Impulse
As a human, you have an animal body guided by instinct. You also have a reasoning part of your brain that allows you to work with your instinctive responses. In its basic and natural form — if there has not been physical or emotional damage along the way — human sexual contact feels good, touching feels good, having an orgasm feels good. This is normal and wonderful. The natural desire for sex and sexual pleasure is not an enemy.
Basically, we all want to love and be loved. We quite naturally require human connection at a biological level. The natural sexual impulse can guide you to finding the pleasure of sexual contact, closeness, connectedness, and intimacy with your partner. When your natural biochemical responses produce hormonal impulses, you experience sexual desire. However, when those sexual urges get misdirected and become addictive or compulsive, instead of leading to pleasure and connection, the sex drive can lead to suffering.
Biology and Sex
Our needs for sex, touch, attachment, bonding, and commitment are chemically influenced in different ways at different stages of our lives. The hormone testosterone, sometimes called “the warrior hormone,” is found in both men and women. Men, however, tend to have twenty to forty times more testosterone than women. Testosterone creates an urge for sexual contact, but may also foster the desire to dominate and to be alone. Thus, it’s no surprise that men are more inclined to one-night stands — or that they like to roll over and go to sleep afterward.
In men, testosterone levels peak in the morning and are lower at night. They cycle up and down every fifteen to twenty minutes. It is widely known that at puberty young men are hit with a flood of testosterone. Testosterone also spikes for young women at puberty, but women produce more of the hormone estrogen. Estrogen causes a woman to want to be held, and causes her to feel receptive to sexual advances.
Touch and the chemicals released with touch also play a vital role in our survival, happiness, and our experience of connectedness. Studies have shown that babies do not thrive and can die when there is a lack of touch. As we grow older, without touch we become more subject to senility and can die sooner. Touching and being touched by someone alters our chemical composition, strengthening the biochemical bond with that individual. Even a thought of the person can cause a hormonal surge. A chemical reaction occurs that actually causes a craving for more touch from that individual. In this way, touching and being touched are literally addictive.
Bringing Awareness To Your Unconscious & Automatic Responses
The physical structures in your brain also influence how you respond to the world. The prefrontal cortex, which sits right behind your forehead, is associated with personality, intelligence, ethics and morality, and with regulating control over emotional and sexual urges. In other words, you have the power to override the primitive call-of-the-wild automatic responses we all have that compel us to get away from pain and danger and to move toward pleasure. Studies have shown that we can engage the thinking function of the prefrontal cortex by something as simple as using our thinking function to label an angry face as “angry.”
By putting just a little bit of awareness around your automatic survival response, you can begin to have a choice about your response. This is one of the vital components of overcoming sexual addiction. By understanding your biological influences, you can start to work with your urges and impulses as they arise. You can begin to see how your biology naturally creates a desire for sexual connectedness or a desire to masturbate or a desire to dominate or a desire to be receptive to sex or a desire to touch and be touched. You can begin to find ways to work with these energies so they do not overwhelm your relationship. You can find ways to work with your biochemistry so your desires for attachment, connection, bonding, and commitment can be met.
Knowing When It's Time to Get Help
There can be a tendency to resist the “sex addict” label. Unfortunately, shying away from the phrase “sex addiction” can keep you from the very information that can be helpful. If you know what sex addiction means, if you know the signs of sex addiction, then if you are suffering from it (or your partner is), you can recognize that you’re not alone and you can find help and relief for the pain that this type of compulsive behavior causes.
Whether you use the label bad habit, addiction, compulsion, or dependency, or any other words, if your behavior is creating suffering, then you have a problem. It is important to at least admit to yourself that you have a problem and then you can begin to focus on healing. That may mean finding a qualified counselor or joining a support group. If you have attempted to stop your compulsive sexual behavior on your own in the past but have not been able to, it's time to seek support.
Paldrom Collins is a former Tibetan Buddhist nun and co-author of A Couple’s Guide to Sexual Addiction: A Step-by-Step Plan to Rebuild Trust & Restore Intimacy. Working with her husband and sex addiction expert George Collins at Compulsion Solutions, Paldrom counsels individuals and couples across the country.