In a culture obsessed with sex, it might seem surprising that we don’t hear more about sex addiction. While there is plenty of information for people addicted to alcohol, drugs and gambling, those addicted to sex are likely to find help and information more difficult to come by.

Part of the reason for this is that sex addiction, a disorder characterized by compulsive sexual thoughts and behavior, is poorly understood and difficult to diagnose. And, in a culture where sex, like alcohol, is socially acceptable and encouraged, and sexual images and provocation abound, it becomes more challenging to distinguish between normal sexuality and excessive, or abnormal, sexual behavior. By applying what they have learned about other addictions, however, experts are becoming better able to understand and treat this sexual disorder.

Some healthcare professionals do not feel that sex “addiction” is the appropriate terminology for this disorder, but most agree that the syndrome is a real one.

Inconsistency in the way sex addiction is diagnosed makes it hard to determine prevalence. Best estimates indicate that between 3 percent and 6 percent of Americans suffer from some form of sex addiction, according to the National Association of Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity. Addiction to sex, which affects both men and women, heterosexual and homosexual, appears to be more common among people who also have other addictive disorders, such as drug abuse. Like other addictions, sex addiction also is treatable.

The American Psychiatric Association (APA) — the organization responsible for determining the diagnostic criteria for mental disorders — does not currently recognize sex addiction as a mental illness. Therefore, no official diagnostic criteria exist for sex addiction.

The APA does, however, have classifications that are helpful for understanding sexual behavior disorders. These disorders are called paraphilias. The most common include:

  • Pedophilia — an adult’s sexual attraction toward children
  • Exhibitionism — sexual excitement associated with exposing one’s genitals in public
  • Voyeurism — sexual excitement from watching an unsuspecting person
  • Sexual masochism — sexual excitement from being the recipient of inflicted or threatened pain
  • Sexual sadism — sexual excitement from threatening or administering pain
  • Transvestic fetishism — sexual excitement from wearing the clothing of the opposite sex
  • Frotteurism — sexual excitement from touching or fondling an unsuspecting person

All of these disorders are characterized by recurrent, intense, sexually arousing fantasies, sexual urges or behaviors involving:

  • Non-human objects
  • The suffering or humiliation of oneself or one’s partner, children or other nonconsenting persons
  • Clinically significant distress in social, occupational or other important areas of functioning caused by the behavior, sexual urges or fantasies.

Sex addiction may include some obsessions and behavior caused by these disorders. Usually what is described as sex addiction, however, involves conventional, or nonparaphiliac, sexual behaviors that, when taken to an extreme, like alcohol, can interfere with daily functioning and produce guilt, shame and recurrent harm to oneself or others.

Explore More About Sexual Addiction

Mark S. Gold, M.D., and Drew W. Edwards, M.S. contributed to this article.