Persistent, intense sexual urges and hard-to-control sexual behavior are two of the most common symptoms of what some call ‘sex addiction.’

Symptoms of compulsive sexual behavior or out of control sexual behavior may be hard to identify. If these terms don’t ring a bell, it may be because you might refer to them by another name: sex addiction.

The term “sex addiction” is, however, not accepted by all members of the medical community. In fact, it’s not considered a formal diagnosis.

Many of the signs and behaviors that are often attributed to sex addiction are, in fact, symptoms of compulsive sexual behavior disorder (CSBD).

If you identify with the phrase “sex addict” or you think, “I’m addicted to sex,” the information in this article might help clarify your experience.

Compulsive sexual behavior is treatable, and talking with a health professional can facilitate a path to recovery and improve your quality of life.

Language matters

In this article, we use “sex addiction,” an expression written about, studied, and discussed in psychology and counseling groups and 12 step programs. Still, there is no evidence to suggest that sex addiction exists or that symptoms of compulsive sexual behavior may be explained as an addiction.

However, this is not to imply your symptoms and concerns aren’t valid or real. This clarification refers to clinical terminology only.

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When you look at the list of symptoms of sex addiction or compulsive sexual behavior, it’s natural to identify with some behaviors more than others.

In fact, even people who don’t experience compulsive sexual behaviors might recognize themselves in a few signs mentioned here.

The causes of sex addiction might also be common.

The key difference if you want to determine if you have signs of sex addiction is in the duration, frequency, and intensity of these symptoms, and how much they interfere with your relationships and daily functioning.

These are general signs of sex addiction:

  • You may find it extremely difficult or even impossible to postpone and control your sexual urges and impulses.
  • Your sexual impulses lead to repetitive sexual activities that are rarely satisfying. You always want more.
  • Your focus on sexual behaviors might lead you to face conflicts at work, in your relationships, and within yourself.
  • You might experience guilt and shame that you can’t stop some of these sexual behaviors.

In other words, sex addiction often refers to a persistent and intense urge to engage in sexual behaviors and fantasies, despite any negative consequences that these may cause you or the little satisfaction they offer you.

Sex addiction symptoms are similar for females and males.

What you may call sex addiction is often explained by the clinical term “hypersexuality.”

According to the International Classification of Diseases, 11th Revision (ICD-11), the most common symptoms of hypersexuality include:

  • being focused mainly on sexual activities, leading you to leave other aspects of your life unattended, including personal care
  • engaging in repetitive sexual activities and fantasies that often cannot be stopped at will or controlled
  • experiencing little to no satisfaction from performing some of these sexual activities
  • experiencing significant distress and conflicts in your life due to your sexual urges and behaviors

To reach a diagnosis, these symptoms need to be present for at least six months.

In sum, there are four main signs of sex addiction or compulsive sexual behavior:

1. Loss of control

This is a key sign of compulsive sexual behavior or what some may refer to as sex addiction.

People who have identified as having sex addiction admit to facing a hard time controlling their sexual impulses and behaviors. But this is, in fact, a symptom of CSBD.

In other words, when you live with compulsive sexual behavior disorder, you might want to stop or avoid certain sexual behaviors but find yourself unable to do so.

This is different for someone who, for example, has a high sex drive but no compulsive sexual behavior. Someone with a high libido can avoid, postpone, control, and interrupt any sexual urges or behaviors if they need to.

But if you live with CSBD, you might feel the urge to watch pornography. You would give in to this urge even if that means missing a day of work or school, or disturbing someone else. You cannot control the urge to watch porn even if it harms you in any way.

In this same case, someone who doesn’t have compulsive sexual behavior disorder might feel the same urge. They really want to watch porn but they can postpone this urge for after work or another day, though.

2. Intense preoccupation with sex

When you live with compulsive sexual behavior, you might find yourself constantly preoccupied with sexual thoughts and fantasies. Even if you make an effort to focus on something else, these thoughts usually prevail.

Sex might become the central part of your life. You might start scheduling everything around your sexual activities.

You could also leave important aspects of your life unattended to perform your sexual activities or follow your sexual impulses. This could include your job or school, but also your personal hygiene and health.

3. Impulsive or compulsive sexual behavior

Science hasn’t provided proof that you can be addicted to sex. This is why sex addiction is controversial and sex addiction symptoms are often explained as compulsive or impulsive behaviors.

If you have CSBD, you might show both impulsive and compulsive behaviors. These terms refer to what causes your sexual behaviors.

A compulsion is a repetitive behavior that you engage in to decrease emotional distress. Impulse refers to a behavior you engage in without planning or thinking about the consequences.

Sex addict behavior may mean you may engage in sexual activities for immediate pleasure without thinking about the consequences, which is considered impulsive behavior. Or you could repetitively perform sexual activities to escape specific emotions, which is considered compulsive.

Sometimes, impulsive sexual behavior comes first. For example, you may have sex for fun and pleasure with someone you just met.

Later on, you might start engaging in compulsive behaviors. For example, you’re stressed at work, so you engage in sexual behaviors. Or you feel nervous or anxious, so you have sex.

It’s not uncommon to continue engaging in sexual behaviors even when you no longer find sexual pleasure in them.

Impulsive and compulsive sexual behavior may happen at different times or at the same time.

4. Sexual behavior that leads to negative consequences

Another symptom of what some people call sex addiction is the presence of persistent behaviors that damage your relationships or put people’s safety in jeopardy.

One indication a person is living with CSBD is if they’re neglecting other areas of their life, such as family or employment obligations, so that they can engage in sexual behavior.

This is why some people think “I’m addicted to sex!” The behavior may be similar to someone who lives with substance use disorder or addiction. You start prioritizing the behavior over everything else in your life.

In this case, even though the behavior is similar, the cause is different. Using substances may have a chemical explanation while being addicted to sex cannot be explained physiologically.

According to one review article, people often report feeling remorse or guilt after engaging in compulsive sexual behavior. Even then, they find themselves unable to avoid or stop such behaviors.

Diagnosing sex addiction and compulsive sexual behavior can be challenging. For one, there’s no consensus within the scientific community.

The diagnosis of sex addiction has also been excluded from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5). This is the most used diagnostic handbook among mental health professionals in the United States.

Despite sex addiction not being included as a stand-alone diagnosis, hypersexuality can be diagnosed using the manual by referring to the category of “Other specified sexual dysfunction.”

The condition can also be diagnosed using other diagnostic manuals, such as the ICD-11. Hypersexuality appears as a condition under impulse-control disorders. It’s not classified as an addiction.

The ICD-11 is a diagnostic book published by the World Health Organization. Its purpose is to provide a global language for reporting and diagnosing diseases.

Not everyone will experience the same symptoms or with the same intensity.

In fact, a 2015 literature review suggested there are significant variations among individuals when it comes to early signs and symptoms of compulsive sexual behavior.

Despite this, there are no reports that indicate symptoms of sex addiction in females are different from those experienced by males.

What some research does suggest is that symptoms of what many refer to as sex addiction are more prevalent among males.

For example, a 2013 study working with 1,837 students found that 2% of participants had symptoms of compulsive sexual behavior. Of those, 3% were males and 1.2% were females.

Some experts believe prevalence estimates might not reflect the real numbers, though. This might be because not everyone feels as comfortable talking about their sex addiction symptoms or admitting to some behaviors.

It might be even harder for some females to openly talk about their sexual addiction symptoms in some cultures. This might be a contributing factor when putting together prevalence estimates.

Seeking professional help when you live with compulsive sexual behaviors is highly advisable and particularly important if you’re:

  • taking higher risks to engage in sexual activities
  • hurting yourself or others during sexual activities
  • neglecting important aspects of your life
  • thinking about harming yourself or others

The symptoms of sex addiction aren’t formally established because the condition isn’t a widely accepted diagnosis. Instead, popular diagnostic manuals for mental health professionals talk about hypersexuality and compulsive sexual behavior disorder.

There’s a lack of evidence to suggest compulsive sexual behaviors can be explained as an addiction.

Your symptoms are nonetheless real and valid. If you’re living with any of them or believe you’re addicted to sex, reaching out to a mental health professional can help.

Consider these resources as the first step to recovery: