Is sexual addiction a true diagnosis? If so, how is it treated? With celebrities, sports heroes, and politicians repeatedly getting caught in sexual indiscretions, marital infidelity, and repeated affairs, the public is becoming more and more aware of high-profile personalities publically declaring their diagnosis of sex addiction. These individuals do not actually say they are sex addicts, but they announce that they will be attending several months of sexual addiction rehab after a particularly embarrassing and public episode.
The concept of “sex addiction” remains a very controversial designation- some believe that it is simply a label used to justify the bad behavior of those that repeatedly engage in promiscuous behavior and infidelity. Although there is not technically a diagnosis for it in the DSM-V (the diagnostic manual most often used by mental health clinicians) it is often referred to as hypersexual disorder, and in some cases, it is very real- it can destroy a person’s life much like alcohol or drugs.
For those that truly suffer from sex addiction, they are compelled by the same heightened emotional arousal from sex as an alcoholic or drug addict is from their substance of choice. According to the research, a form a dependency starts to develop on the dopamine that is emitted from engaging in sexual behaviors, and they can start to think of little else. For these individuals, it is a never-ending chase of that emotional high, whether it is through pornography, prostitution, or illicit one-night affairs. As a result, the stakes tend to be quite high- sex addicts often get sexually transmitted diseases and lose friendships, relationships, and even employment.
Currently, as many as 9 million people in the United States are thought to suffer from sex addiction, and according to the Society for the Advancement of Sexual Health, there has been an tremendous increase in incidences over the last few decades. Many experts feel that this exponential growth has been due, in part, to the advent of online pornography. While many, many people-in fact the majority- who look at online pornography will never develop a problem, for some people it becomes like a drug. They simply cannot stop. And for others, it becomes a “gateway drug”, spurring them to try harder stuff, like cheating, infidelity, and prostitution.
How Is It Treated?
First, sexual addiction should not be used as an excuse for hurtful behavior, infidelity, or simply being caught cheating. Simply because an individual chooses not to honor his or her wedding vows, this does not give him or her the right to self-diagnose themselves with “sexual addiction”. An affair does not make one an addict- it is only an addiction if repeated, obsessional thoughts and actions are ruining an individual’s work life, love life, and friendships.
Sexual Addiction is sometimes treated in groups, with treatment programs modeled on Alcoholics Anonymous, a 12 Step model. Rather than pushing sexual abstinence, however, the idea is to achieve what is called “sexual sobriety.” This means that for most people, they do not completely abstain from sex but rather strive to no longer engage in unwanted sexual behavior, whether it is watching pornography or engaging in one-night stands.
For many individuals, however, sexual acting out is simply masking feelings of depression and anxiety. Also, many individuals have difficulty trusting and forming meaningful attachments with others, and sex is the only way that they know how to connect to others. For many, working through these painful issues is needed in therapy.
Jennifer De Francisco, MPA, MSW, LCSW is a licensed clinical social worker in Newport Beach, Orange County. If you are interested in couples counseling or treating sex addiction, please contact her at (949) 251-8797.