Why some people, and not others, develop an addiction to sex is poorly understood. Possibly some biochemical abnormality or other brain changes increase risk. The fact that antidepressants and other psychotropic medications have proven effective in treating some people with sex addiction suggests that this might be the case.
Studies indicate that food, abused drugs and sexual interests share a common pathway within our brains’ survival and reward systems. This pathway leads into the area of the brain responsible for our higher thinking, rational thought and judgment.
The brain tells the sex addict that having illicit sex is good the same way it tells others that food is good when they are hungry. These brain changes translate into a sex addict’s preoccupation with sex and exclusion of other interests, compulsive sexual behavior despite negative consequences and failed attempts to limit or terminate sexual behavior.
This biochemical model helps explain why competent, intelligent, goal-directed people can be so easily sidetracked by drugs and sex. The idea that, on a daily basis, a successful mother or father, doctor or businessperson can drop everything to think about sex, scheme about sex, identify sexual opportunities and take advantage of them seems unbelievable. How can this be?
The addicted brain fools the body by producing intense biochemical rewards for this self-destructive behavior.
People addicted to sex get a sense of euphoria from it that seems to go beyond that reported by most people. The sexual experience is not about intimacy. Addicts use sexual activity to seek pleasure, avoid unpleasant feelings or respond to outside stressors, such as work difficulties or interpersonal problems. This is not unlike how an alcoholic uses alcohol. In both instances, any reward gained from the experience soon gives way to guilt, remorse and promises to change.
Research also has found that sex addicts often come from dysfunctional families and are more likely than non-sex addicts to have been abused. One study found that 82 percent of sex addicts reported being sexually abused as children. Sex addicts often describe their parents as rigid, distant and uncaring. These families, including the addicts themselves, are more likely to be substance abusers. One study found that 80 percent of recovering sex addicts report some type of addiction in their families of origin.
Explore More About Sexual Addiction
- What is Sexual Addiction?
- What Causes Sexual Addiction?
- Symptoms of Sexual Addiction
- Symptoms of Hypersexual Disorder
- Am I Addicted to Sex? Quiz
- If You Think You Have a Problem with Sexual Addiction
- Understanding More About Sexual Addiction
Mark S. Gold, M.D., and Drew W. Edwards, M.S. contributed to this article.