Sex addiction is not just sex or sexual behavior that someone might find offensive or excessive. It is an illness, a brain disorder, characterized by specific symptoms—primarily, sexual preoccupation and compulsivity, and the inability to stop detrimental behaviors despite severe risks and consequences. Symptoms are based on an addict’s misguided efforts to self-soothe the discomfort of extreme emotions he or she experiences. Sex addicts are attempting to escape reality by mood-altering using sex.
Some warning signs that sexual problem behavior may have crossed over into addiction are:
- Struggling to control sexual thoughts and behaviors
- Losing or impairing relationships because of the inability to stop sexual activities outside a primary relationship
- Lying about unaccounted for time that involved sexual activities
- Feeling guilty or shameful after engaging in sexual thoughts, fantasies, or behaviors
- Routinely pursuing sexual activities online
- Resorting to sex to escape, relieve anxiety, or cope with problems
- Losing time from work pursuing sexual activities
- Engaging in criminal sexual behaviors such as soliciting prostitutes, sexual harassment, or child pornography
- Participating in sexual behaviors that violate one’s own values
- Blaming others for one’s sexual behaviors
- Putting self at risk for STDs
Sex addiction falls within a spectrum of severe intimacy disorders, which include relationship addictions—codependency, romance addiction, love addiction/love avoidance, and trauma bonding. Sex and relationship addictions are characterized by dependence on sexual or emotional intensity as the “drug” of choice. Sex addicts stimulate sexual arousal and emotional intensity to become euphoric or “numb-out,” much like substance addicts use cocaine or alcohol. Excessive use of mood-altering behaviors, rather than mood-altering substances, are a sex addict’s path of escape from life stress and overwhelming emotions of loneliness, anger, fear, and shame.
The primary factor that contributes to the making of a sex addict is attachment loss because of childhood trauma. Attachment loss is a profound sense of insecurity and loneliness, usually caused by physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, or by the literal loss of a caregiver—experiences that deeply affect a child’s ability to relate to people. At some point the addict as a child felt vulnerable and unprotected.
The potency and accessibility of online pornography is an intensely addictive outlet for anyone who struggles with a sense of disconnection. The Internet offers instant access to mood-altering experiences in a setting of privacy, convenience, and affordability. Sites and services are so plentiful, and the apparent need for this addictive escape so unbridled, that iPorn has been called the “crack cocaine of sex addiction.”
The Internet is open 24/7 to indulge an addict’s every fantasy, and this immediacy is hazardous because it plays into impulsivity. Online there is only a small window of think-time between impulse and action. The intensity of the images and the hypnotic quality of the experience impair judgment. For a sex addict, having Internet access is comparable to an alcoholic hanging out in a bar twenty-four hours a day, or a drug abuser living in a pharmacy.
Criteria for problematic Internet sexual behavior have been established by experts and are as follows:
- Preoccupation with sex on the Internet, such as having obsessive thoughts about the previous online activity or anticipation of the next online session
- Going online more frequently or increasing amounts of time online in order to achieve satisfaction
- Increasing the intensity or risk of online sexual experiences
- Repeated, unsuccessful efforts to control, cut back, or stop using the Internet for sexual purposes
- Feelings of restlessness, moodiness, depression, or irritability when attempting to cut down use
- Staying online longer than originally intended
- Jeopardizing or risking loss of significant relationships, job, educational or career opportunities because of Internet use
- Committing illegal acts online or incurring financial consequences for online sexual behavior
- Lying to family members, a therapist, or others to conceal the extent of Internet involvement
- Using Internet sex to escape from problems, or feelings such as hopelessness, guilt, anger, anxiety, and loneliness.