Sexual Addiction

“Sex addiction isn’t about pedophiles and the men in the news. I wish there was more common knowledge about pornography and sex addiction.”

– Workshop Participant

Definition of Sexual Addiction

Patrick Carnes, Ph.D., the leader of the sexual addiction field, defines addiction as a pathological relationship with a mood-altering chemical or behavior. Simply stated, sexual addiction is the lack of control of some sexual behavior or relationship. Perhaps the most helpful definition is a practical one: sexual or relational behavior that has a negative effect on one’s life.

Like with alcohol or drugs, sex addiction fits the classic, four-component model of what comprises an addiction:

  1. Compulsivity – the loss of control over a behavior. An addict continues in the behavior or relationship despite repeated attempts to stop.
  2. Continuation despite negative consequences.
  3. Preoccupation or obsession.
  4. Tolerance – more of the same behavior or an escalation of progressive behaviors is required to get the same “high.

The type of acting out (viewing pornography, using prostitutes, having affairs, whatever) isn’t as important as the pattern and reasons driving it.

“Sexual addiction” actually isn’t about sex at all. It’s an intimacy disorder – using sexual activity or a relationship in a desperate search for connection, affirmation or love. Sex addiction is a coping mechanism – a way to medicate painful feelings, experiences and memories. While “sex addiction” is a misnomer, it’s the label that will probably stick. (Other terms for this issue include sexual compulsivity, hypersexuality, and problematic sexual behavior.)

How Sexual Addiction Presents

“Sex addiction” is an umbrella term for a collection of often overlapping behaviors. First, there’s the stereotypical sex addict, which covers things like using pornography in any of its forms, visiting prostitutes, strip clubs and massage parlors, and compulsive masturbation. Most people think of the “sex addict” as a male.

The romance addict, more often female, is addicted to the intrigue and the pursuit of romance. This kind of addict thrives on the thrill of the chase but finds it impossible to sustain an intimate, committed relationship.

The third main type of sex addict is the love or relationship addict. This flavor affects both men and women, and the main dynamic is the belief that a particular relationship or a specific partner will be “the one.” Relationship addicts repeatedly become involved in intense, enmeshed, codependent relationships, even when those partners or relationships are destructive. These relationships may be emotional affairs as well as physical/sexual ones. One way of thinking about the relationship addict is to view him or her as the ultimate codependent.

Sexual Anorexia

The opposite of acting out sexually is to “act in,” which is also known as sexual anorexia. These individuals have an aversion to sex and intimate relationships. They spend lots of energy trying to avoid sex, even within a marriage. If the person is single, she or he may avoid dating, especially if it progresses beyond a casual relationship.

Sexual anorexia may best be compared to food anorexia, which is compulsive starvation.

It’s possible to be both acting out and acting in at the same time. Some people may be anorexic in their sexual relationship with their spouses, yet be acting out with partners outside their marriages.

History of the Field

In the last 20-30 years, largely through the pioneering work of Dr. Patrick Carnes within the secular community and Dr. Mark Laaser within the Christian community, attention has been drawn to the often-scoffed problem of sexual addiction.

The reality of an addiction to sex is gaining acceptance, much as alcoholism came to be understood as an addiction forty years ago. Programs of recovery for sex addiction based on the Twelve Steps originally used by Alcoholics Anonymous have expanded across the country. The American Society of Addiction Medicine categorized sex as a form of addiction in 2012, and other organizations and diagnostic coding manuals are considered its inclusion.

Despite the gaining acceptance of sexual addiction, there have been few programs that combine sound clinical treatment with Christian principles. This gap leaves hurting people alone to struggle with the spiritual aspects of their sexual shame.

Bethesda Workshops addresses this need. If you want to get well and are willing to go to any lengths, a Bethesda Workshop can provide the understanding and tools you need.

Visit our For Sex Addicts page to learn more

for Men

for men who personally struggle with pornography and other forms of sex or relationship addiction

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for Women

for women who personally struggle with pornography and other forms of sex or relationship addiction

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