Sex addiction is a condition marked by obsessive thinking about sex and by a persistent compulsion to engage in sexual behavior in spite of negative consequences.
These are the essential characteristics of sex addiction:
- As compulsion, the addiction is experienced by the addict as contrary to his free choice. The addict feels driven, almost against his own will, to engage in the behavior which he knows from painful experience is likely to lead to suffering. In fact, he is compelled by forces he does not understand, to continue to act out sexually. He attributes these failings to forces outside of himself, or to being a very sexual person, or to his own weakness, or to moral failings, or perhaps even to the demonic. The urge to engage in the behavior is experienced as more powerful than the person’s ability to resist the impulse.
- As obsession, the addiction is characterized by prolonged periods of time thinking about sexual behavior, planning sexual acting-out, resisting the urge to act-out sexually, and then dealing with the aftermath of having engaged in the sexual behavior. This obsessive thinking keeps the addict from being fully present to self or others, blocks the experience of authentic feeling, and keeps the addict from confronting the truth of one’s history and present situation. The obsessive thinking is the precursor to the sexual acting-out and itself constitutes an escape or avoidance of painful realities.
- The addict experiences a loss of control in the area of her addiction which spills over into her daily behavior. The sex addict is unable to predict with any degree of certitude whether he will be able to get home from work without cruising for sex, whether he will be able to keep her promise of fidelity to her partner, whether he will be able to keep his promise to himself of spending only thirty minutes more in the sex chat rooms or be up again to four in the morning.
- The addict continues to engage in the behavior, over and over again, in spite of negative consequences. Like the heroin addict who continues to use in spite of increasing shame, physical illness, financial ruin, alienation and incarceration, the sex addict continues to act-out in spite of humiliation, shame and guilt, loss of family and other relationships, social isolation, financial loss, occupational impairment, spiritual bankruptcy, depression, sexually transmitted disease and sometimes even arrest.
- As the addict’s brain habituates to the release of endorphins and to the sensation of euphoria produced by sexual acting-out, she is driven to act-out for increasingly longer periods of time and often in increasingly risky ways in order to achieve the same effect. In chemical dependency circles this dynamic is referred to as tolerance. Eventually, the addict’s acting-out can fail him completely so that even when he no longer experiences the pleasurable, euphoric release he still is compelled to act-out.
- Like the person addicted to alcohol or other substances, the sex addict experiences symptoms of withdrawal when she abstains from sexual acting-out. For the sex addict, withdrawal can include anxiety, irritability, depressed mood, fits of rage, hyperarousal, and sleep impairment.
- The desire to continue to act-out, and the twin false beliefs that life is not worth living without engaging in his sexual behavior and that stopping is well-nigh impossible, result in delusional thinking. The addict minimizes his own behavior. In his own mind, he remains vague about how often he has cheated on his spouse, how many hours he has lost in cyberspace, how much money he has spent. The addict also is in denial about the consequences of his addiction – about how much he has lost, or injured himself, or hurt others as a result of his behavior. And like the alcoholic who does not realize that others know that he has been drinking, the active sex addict lacks the awareness that would have him cover the tracks which lead to his addiction being exposed. That consciously unintended exposition can lead to major humiliation and devastation, but it also provides opportunity for healing and a pathway to recovery.