How can Sex be Addictive?

Many people have difficulty understanding how a normal human activity that brings most people great pleasure and intimacy can be unhealthy. How can sexual activity be addictive when it involves no addictive substances like drugs or alcohol? What are the signs and symptoms of sexual addiction?

It’s true that even some experts don’t agree that sex is addictive. Instead, they think unhealthy or compulsive sexual activity is simply a lack of discipline or self-control. However, research has proven that sex can become addictive because it changes the brain much the way the brain is altered by use of drugs or alcohol. Like addictive substances or other enjoyable activities such as gambling or eating, sexual activity floods the brain with dopamine, a neurotransmitter which plays a big role in feelings of pleasure. This creates problems for some people who develop tolerance and need more and more sexual activity to get the same pleasurable feelings.

People who become addicted to sex often lose the ability to enjoy intimate, loving relationships in real life. They tend to forget that real life is nothing like the pornography that is readily available on the Internet or in magazines. Many men who become addicted to sex view women as submissive, becoming hypercritical of their partner’s sexual performance or physical appearance.

As a result, partners and spouses become anxious and fearful that they can’t measure up to the powerful images, often feeling cheap and “used.” This is a primary reason why sex addiction often leads to broken relationships. Especially younger people who view violent pornography may believe violence and humiliation are normal, and are more likely to engage in violent sexual activity, including rape.

It’s also important to note that women can also become addicted to sex, although the problem is more common in men.

This also explains why pornography is especially unhealthy for adolescents and young adults who have little real-life sexual experience of an intimate nature. Young people who view pornography excessively begin to view what they see as normal, often failing to understand that healthy sexual relationships involve mutual respect and consideration, or that most intimate relationships include intensive cuddling and kissing. Young people who become addicted to pornography are more likely to have sex with more partners at an early age, and young men are more likely to visit prostitutes for sexual gratification, also, they often masturbate excessively.

Of course, pornography is nothing new. However, it has never been so readily available or easy to access around the clock as it is in todays highly connected 24-hour world.

Nobody knows for sure why some people become addicted to sex while others don’t. However, many sex addicts were abused as children, or they come from uncaring families with cold, distant and/or narcissistic parents. Many are addicted to drugs or alcohol, or come from families where substance abuse and addiction was a problem. Some people turn to sex as a way to avoid stress or anxiety, especially people who are insecure, or those with a low tolerance for frustration. Like alcohol or drug addictions, sex addiction is often linked to underlying issues such as depression or anxiety. In some cases, sexual addiction becomes a problem for recovering addicts who use sex as a replacement for drugs or alcohol, which is then called cross-addiction. Some people with personality disorders are also more prone to becoming addicted to sex/pornography, as they have huge control issues and submissive sex-partners, if in real life or online, provide the “emotional supply” for these unhealthy needs.

If you are concerned that you or a person you care about may be addicted to sex, there are certain symptoms to watch for. People who are addicted to sex may:

  • Neglect work, school and activities with family or friends.
  • Engage in unconventional sexual activity such as fetishism, voyeurism, exhibitionism and of course, multiple online sex-contacts.
  • Masturbate compulsively or excessively.
  • Visit prostitutes.
  • Engage in phone sex or visit sexually oriented Internet chat rooms.
  • Have one night stands, multiple sexual partners or anonymous sex.
  • Visit strip clubs or adult bookstores.
  • Continue to engage in compulsive sexual activity in spite of negative consequences such as being exposed, or problems with relationships, employment, legal or financial difficulties or escalation of other addictions.
  • Run into financial difficulties because of excessive spending for buying sex.

Sex addicts often hesitate to seek treatment, often because they suffer from tremendous feelings of guilt, embarrassment and shame, or because they fear being caught. However, treatment, often in the form of individual counseling, psychotherapy, psycho-education and/or family therapy, certainly help people escape the clutches of sex addiction. Many people benefit from inpatient rehabilitation. Nutritional supplements and sometimes medication may be prescribed to relieve symptoms of anxiety or depression.

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