Man looking up at woman's legs

What Causes Sexual Addiction?

Highlights

  • Experts call sexual addiction “compulsive sexual behavior disorder.”
  • Chemical imbalances are among the causes of sexual addiction
  • Psychotherapy is a first-line treatment for compulsive sexual behavior. 
  • Some people benefit from medication, such as antidepressants. 
  • The goal of treatment for sexual addiction is not to stop having sex altogether but to go back to a safe expression of sexuality. 

Sex is a wonderful thing, but for some people, it can become an addiction. An estimated three to six percent of the population struggle with compulsive sexual behaviors. Understanding the causes of sexual addiction is key to finding the right treatment.

What Is Sexual Addiction?

Scientists are still deep in discussion as to what sexual addiction is (and whether it even exists). Many doctors prefer to use the term compulsive sexual behaviors. For them, this is more of an impulse control problem than a typical addiction. 

According to the World Health Organisation, compulsive sexual behavior disorder is a “persistent pattern of failure to control intense, repetitive sexual impulses or urges resulting in repetitive sexual behaviour.”

The therapeutic community is cautious about labeling sexual activity as negative. Some experts claim you can’t be addicted to an overall positive and natural thing such as sex. Despite these differences of opinion, therapists see clients who struggle to control their sexual urges. 

Man giving money to woman in lingerie
People with a sexual addiction feel like their urges control their life

Causes of Sexual Addiction

Why do some people develop out-of-control sexual behaviors while others don’t? Let’s explore some of the possible answers.

Chemical Imbalance

Our mood and behavior depend on the delicate balance of chemical substances circulating in our bodies. One theory that’s been tested on men suggests that higher levels of oxytocin (known as the love hormone) could be behind hypersexual behavior. 

It’s also possible that neurotransmitters, especially serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine, play a role in compulsive sexual behavior. These substances are the drivers of desire, and an imbalance could reduce sexual inhibition to an unhealthy level. 

History of Psychiatric Illness

Scientists have long suspected a link between compulsive sexuality and mental health issues. A recent study confirmed that 91.2 percent of people with a sexual addiction had a coexisting psychiatric disorder, compared to 66 percent among the study participants who did not meet the criteria for compulsive sexuality. 

Here are the common mental health problems that frequently co-occur with a sexual addiction:

  • Alcohol dependence and abuse 
  • Substance abuse or dependence
  • Major depressive disorder 
  • Bulimia nervosa 
  • Borderline personality disorder 

Brain Trauma

Some people start showing signs of a sexual addiction after being in a car crash or having brain surgery. This could happen if parts of the brain responsible for behavior control are damaged. 

Neurological changes of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease may also lead to increased interest in sex to the point of compulsion. 

Medication Effects

Modern medicines are life-saving, but sometimes they can lead to unexpected side effects. For example, the treatment of Parkinson’s disease can lead to hypersexuality.

Popular anti-depressant drugs called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are known for their tendency to reduce sex drive. With some patients, however, the opposite happens — they begin to show signs of compulsive sexual behavior. 

Woman holding a pill
Compulsive sexual behavior can be a side effect of medication

Treatment for Sexual Addiction

Can sexual addiction be cured? With the right treatment, it is possible to control sexual urges and risky behaviors, at least partially. This problem is still such a taboo that people wait for decades before seeking professional help. 

Current treatments for sexual addiction include: 

Psychotherapy and Psychoeducation

These methods are regarded as first choice for people with sexual compulsivity. 

Cognitive behavioral therapy is effective because it changes negative patterns of thinking. Working with a therapist can also help you make more conscious sexual choices. 

Medication

Currently, there are no medical treatments dedicated solely to sexual addiction. Psychiatrists prescribe medication to manage chemical imbalances in the brain. 

If someone already has a mental health issue, a carefully selected dose and type of treatment can be useful in managing compulsive sexual behavior, too. 

Common choices include anti-depressants, mood stabilizers, and anti-androgens (treatments targeting male sex hormones). 

Two men with a therapist
Couples’ therapy can help partner deal with the aftermath of sexual addiction

Self-Help Groups

Even though the medical community is divided on their effectiveness, some people benefit from attending self-help groups focusing on sexual addiction. These meetings follow the model of 12-step programs, such as Alcoholics Anonymous. 

The challenge with these approaches is that “quitting” is not a realistic goal. Sex is a normal part of life for most people, and stopping sexual activity entirely is not conducive to a healthy, fulfilled life. For this reason, each program has its own definition of sexual “sobriety.” Usually it’s about avoiding self-destructive sexual behaviors. 

Couples’ Therapy

Sexual addiction affects more than the person suffering with it. If he or she is in a relationship or has a family, loved ones will also suffer. Couples’ therapy can help partners deal with the aftermath of infidelity and rebuild trust in a relationship. 

By committing to therapy together, a couple makes a commitment to work on their challenges.  Since sexual addiction causes feelings of shame or even self-hatred, working with a therapist could make it easier for the sufferer to open up and express emotions, which can be a pathway to healing relationships and embracing a healthier perspective on sexual behavior. 

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