No single behavior pattern defines sexual addiction. These behaviors, when they have taken control of addicts’ lives and become unmanageable, include: compulsive masturbation, compulsive heterosexual and homosexual relationships, pornography, prostitution, exhibitionism, voyeurism, indecent phone calls, child molesting, incest, rape and violence. Even the healthiest forms of human sexual expression can turn into self-defeating behaviors.While an actual diagnosis for sexual addiction should be carried out by a mental health professional, the following behavior patterns can indicate the presence of sexual addiction. Individuals, who see any of these patterns in their own life, or in the life of someone they care about, should seek professional help.
- Acting out: a pattern of out-of-control sexual behavior. Examples may include:
- Compulsive masturbation
- Indulging in pornography
- Having chronic affairs
- Dangerous sexual practices
- Anonymous sex
- Compulsive sexual episodes
2. Experiencing severe consequences due to sexual behavior and an inability to stop despite these adverse consequences. In Patrick Carnes’ book, Don’t Call It Love, 1991, some of the losses reported by sex addicts include:
- Loss of partner or spouse (40%)
- Severe marital or relationship problems (70%)
- Loss of career opportunities (27%)
- Unwanted pregnancies (40%)
- Abortions (36%)
- Suicide obsession (72%)
- Suicide attempts (17%)
- Exposure to AIDS and venereal disease (68%)
- Legal risks from nuisance offenses to rape (58%)
- Persistent pursuit of self-destructive behavior.
Even understanding that the consequences of their actions will be painful or have dire consequences does not stop addicts from acting out. They often seem to have willfulness about their actions, and an attitude that says, “I’ll deal with the consequences when they come.”
- Ongoing desire or effort to limit sexual behavior.
Addicts often try to control their behavior by creating external barriers to it. For example, some move to a new neighborhood or city, hoping that a new environment removed from old affairs will help. Some think marriage will keep them from acting out. An exhibitionist may buy a car in which it’s difficult to act out while driving. Others seeking control over their behavior try to immerse themselves in religion, only to find out that, while religious compulsion may soothe their shame, it does not end their acting out. Many go through periods of sexual anorexia during which they allow themselves no sexual expression at all. Such efforts, however, only fuel the addiction.
- Sexual obsession and fantasy as a primary coping strategy.
Through acting out sexually can temporarily relieve addicts’ anxieties, they still find themselves spending inordinate amounts of time in obsession and fantasy. By fantasizing, the addict can maintain an almost constant level of arousal. Together with obsessing, the two behaviors can create a kind of analgesic “fix.” Just as our bodies generate endorphins, natural anti-depressants, during vigorous exercise, our bodies naturally release peptides when sexually aroused. The molecular construction of these peptides parallels that of opiates like heroin or morphine, but is many times more powerful.
- Regularly increasing the amount of sexual experience because the current level of activity is no longer sufficiently satisfying.
Sexual addiction is often progressive. While addicts may be able to control themselves for a time, inevitably their addictive behaviors will return and quickly escalate to previous levels and beyond. Some addicts begin adding additional acting out behaviors. Usually addicts will have three or more behaviors which play a key role in their addiction—masturbation, affairs, and anonymous sex, for instance. In addition, 89% of addicts reported regularly “bingeing” to the point of emotional exhaustion. The emotional pain of withdrawal for sexual addicts can parallel the physical pain experienced by those withdrawing from opiate addiction.
7. Severe mood changes related to sexual activity.
Addicts experience intense mood shifts, often due to the despair and shame of having unwanted sex. Sexual addicts are caught in a crushing cycle of shame-driven and shame-creating behavior. While shame drives the sexual addicts’ actions, it also becomes the unwanted consequence of a few moments of euphoric escape into sex.
8. Inordinate amounts of time spent obtaining sex, being sexual, and recovering from sexual experiences.
Two sets of activities organize sexual addicts’ days. One involves obsessing about sex, time devoted to initiating sex, and actually being sexual. The second involves time spent dealing with the consequences of their acting out: lying, covering up, shortages of money, problems with their spouse, trouble at work, neglected children, and so on.
- Neglect of important social, occupational, or recreational activities because of sexual behavior.
As more and more of addicts’ energy becomes focused on relationships which have sexual potential, other relationships and activities—family, friends, work, talents and values—suffer and atrophy from neglect. Long-term relationships are stormy and often unsuccessful. Because of sexual over-extension and intimacy avoidance, short-term relationships become the norm. Sometimes, however, the desire to preserve an important long-term relationship with spouse or children, for instance, can act as the catalyst for addicts to admit their problem and seek help.