Elena Riedo, Psy.D.,CSAT,PSOTP
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Used with the expressed written permission of Patrick Carnes, Ph.D (2015)
“Like an alcoholic unable to stop drinking, sexual addicts are unable to stop their self-destructive sexual behavior. Family breakups, financial disaster, loss of jobs, and risk to life are the painful themes of their stories.
Sex addicts come from all walks of life – they may be ministers, physicians, homemakers, factory workers, salespersons, secretaries, clerks, accountants, therapists, dentists, politicians, or executives, to name just a few examples. Most were abused as children – sexually, physically, and/or emotionally. The majority grew up in families in which addiction already flourished, including alcoholism, compulsive eating, and compulsive gambling. Most grapple with other addictions as well, but they find sex addiction the most difficult to stop.
Much hope nevertheless exists for these addicts and their families. Sex addicts have shown an ability to transform a life of self-destruction into a life of self-care, a life in chaos and despair into one of confidence and peace.” – Patrick J. Carnes, Ph.D. – Author of Out of the Shadows
Sexual addiction is defined as any sexually-related, compulsive behavior which interferes with normal living and causes severe stress on family, friends, loved ones, and one’s work environment.
Sexual addiction has been called sexual dependency and sexual compulsivity. By any name, it is a compulsive behavior that completely dominates the addict’s life. Sexual addicts make sex a priority more important than family, friends, and work. Sex becomes the organizing principle of addict’s lives. They are willing to sacrifice what they cherish most in order to preserve and continue their unhealthy behavior.
Dr. Patrick Carnes estimates three to six percent of the population are facing sexual addiction. It remains unclear whether one gender has a higher incidence of sexual addiction than the other. Research by Dr. Carnes shows that approximately 20 – 25% of all patients who seek help for sexual dependency are women. (This same male-female ratio is found among those recovering from alcohol addiction, drug addiction, and pathological gambling.)
What Defines a Sex Addict?
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.
Sexual Dependency vs. Other Addictions
Sexual addiction can be understood by comparing it to other types of addictions. Individuals addicted to alcohol or other drugs, for example, develop a relationship with their “chemical(s) of choice” – a relationship that takes precedence over any and all other aspects of their lives. Addicts find they need drugs merely to feel normal.
In sexual addiction, a parallel situation exists. Sex – like food or drugs in other addictions—provides the “high” and addicts become dependent on this sexual high to feel normal. They substitute unhealthy relationships for healthy ones. They opt for temporary pleasure rather than the deeper qualities of “normal” intimate relationships.
Sexual addiction follows the same progressive nature of other addictions. Sexual addicts struggle to control their behaviors, and experience despair over their constant failure to do so. Their loss of self-esteem grows, fueling the need to escape even further into their addictive behaviors. A sense of powerlessness pervades the lives of addicts.
Why Don’t Sex Addicts Just Stop Their Destructive Behavior?
Sexual addicts feel tremendous guilt and shame about their out-of-control behavior, and they live in constant fear of discovery. Yet addicts will often act out sexually in an attempt to block out the very pain of their addiction. This is part of what drives the addictive cycle. Like other forms of addiction, sex addicts are out of control and unable to stop their behaviors despite their self-destructive nature and potentially devastating consequences.
Key to understanding loss of control in addicts is the concept of the “hijacked brain.” Addicts essentially have rewired their brains so that they do behaviors (drinking, drug use, eating, gambling, and sex) even when they are intending to do something quite different. The triggers to these maladaptive responses are usually stress, emotional pain, or specific childhood scenarios of sexual abuse or sexual trauma. Breakthrough science in examining brain function is helping us to understand the biology of this disease.