What Is Sex Addiction?

Sex addiction is a problem (not because it involves sex!) but because it is an out-of-control, compulsive behavior with potentially devastating consequences.

Addicts suffer acute losses: loss of job, loss of reputation, loss of health, loss of partners and families. The addiction leads to shame and self-loathing, and sometimes to financial ruin and even physical death.  

For the partners of sex addicts, the devastation, betrayal, trauma, fear, sense of helplessness, self-doubts, shame, anger and depression are unspeakable (all too often, quite literally unspeakable) and they suffer in silence.

And then there are the children… too often lost in these family systems in crisis, seeing more than we know, exposed to early sexualization, and vulnerable to abuse and addiction.

Diagnostic Criteria for Sex Addiction

If you are asking the question, “What Is Sex Addiction?”, you are probably wanting to know what the diagnostic criteria are.

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Unfortunately, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), the official diagnostic reference guide for mental health professionals, does not include a classification for sexual addiction.

The following criteria for “Sex Addiction” are based on the DSM-5 criteria for Substance-Related Disorders and Gambling Disorder.

What Is Sex Addiction?

A. Persistent and recurrent problematic sexual behavior leading to clinically significant impairment or distress, as indicated by at least two of the following in a 12-month period:

1. The sexual behavior is engaged in more frequently or over a longer period than was intended.

2. There is a persistent desire or unsuccessful attempts to decrease or control the sexual urges and behaviors.

3. A great deal of time is spent searching for the climactic image (if porn), planning the next sexual encounter, or creating opportunities to engage in the desired sexual behavior.

4. Frequent craving, or intense desire to act out sexually, even if the behavior is inconsistent with values or illegal.

5. Frequently engages in sexual behaviors to deal with difficult feelings (e.g., anger, anxiety, guilt, depression, powerlessness).

6. Recurrent seeking of sexual stimulation that results in a failure to fulfill major role obligations at work, school, or home.

7. Continued engagement in the behavior despite having persistent or recurrent social or interpersonal problems caused by or exacerbated by the behavior.

8. Important social, occupational, or recreational activities are given up or reduced because of sexual activities.

9. Repeatedly lies in order to engage in and conceal the behavior.

10. Recurrent engagement in sexual behaviors that previously resulted in or place one in jeopardy of: loss of significant relationship, loss of employment, loss of educational opportunity, physical danger, exposing loved one to known health risks, financial difficulties, violence, arrest, or other significant negative consequence.

11. Tolerance, as defined by either of the following:
    a. A need for increased frequency, more variety, or increasingly extreme exposure or behavior in order to achieve the same level of excitement, high, or climax.
    b. A markedly diminished effect (e.g., don’t get the “hit” or difficulty achieving orgasm) with behaviors that were previously effective.

12. Withdrawal (associated with abstinence), as manifested by an increase in anxiety, irritability, anger, agitation, restlessness, insomnia, mood swings, depressed mood, or unpleasant or painful physical symptoms.

B. The sexual behavior is not better explained by a manic episode or other medical condition.

If you see yourself in the above list of sex addiction symptoms, seek help. Like other addictions, sex addiction escalates over time.

If you think your partner exhibits sex addiction symptoms, you will need support whether your partner chooses recovery or not.

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