Increasing numbers of men and women are seeking clinical treatment for sexual addiction. This is partly the result of the increasingly endless variety of Internet-based sexual content, and partly the result of easy accessibility of anonymous sexual partnering via smartphone apps and social media.

It is estimated that three to six percent of the general U.S. population suffers from some form of addictive sexual behavior with self or others. However, the current lack of a universally recognizable clinical diagnosis — combined with a dearth of publicly funded research and ongoing cultural shame and stigma regarding sexual disorders in general — likely prevent many more individuals from identifying the problem and seeking help.

Traditionally, the majority of inpatient and outpatient sexual addiction patients (approximately 85 percent) have been adult males. However, there is growing awareness that women also struggle with the disorder and they, too, are seeking help in increasing numbers.

Typical Sex Addict Behaviors

Below is a brief overview of common behaviors exhibited by active sexual addicts:

  • Compulsive masturbation with or without pornography
  • Ongoing abuse of soft- and hard-core porn
  • Multiple affairs and brief “serial” relationships
  • Attending strip clubs, adult bookstores and similar sex-focused environments
  • Prostitution, or use of prostitutes and “sensual” massage
  • Compulsive use of cybersex
  • Ongoing anonymous sexual hookups with people met online or in person
  • Repeated patterns of unsafe sex
  • Seeking sexual experiences without regard to the immediate or long-term consequences
  • Exhibitionism or voyeurism

What Is Sex Addiction Like?

For active sex addicts, the sexual experience itself can, over time, become less tied to pleasure and more to feelings of relief or escape. Healthy, pleasurable, life-affirming experiences become tied to obsession, secrecy and shame.

Sex addicts abuse sexual fantasy – even in the absence of sexual acts or orgasm – to produce the intense, trance-like feelings that temporarily provide emotional detachment and dissociation from life stressors. Research suggests that these feelings, often described as being in “the bubble” or “a trance,” are the result of the neurochemical process induced by a fantasy-based release of adrenaline, dopamine, endorphins and serotonin, not dissimilar to a “fight or flight” response.

Over time, the hidden fantasies, rituals and acts of the sexually addicted person can lead to a double life of lies to self and others, manipulation, splitting, rationalization, and denial. These defenses allow sex addicts temporarily to escape their core feelings of low self-worth, fears of abandonment and depression or anxiety, as sexual fantasy and sexual acts are abused in an attempt to fulfill unmet emotional needs.

For the sex addict, sexual acting out most often takes place in secret, against a background of social isolation, and absent genuine, intimate relatedness. The problem can occur regardless of outward success, intelligence, physical attractiveness, or existing intimate relationship commitments or marriage.

Similar to the criteria for other addictive disorders, sexual addiction is characterized by:

  • Loss of control over sexual thoughts and behaviors
  • Escalation in frequency and intensity of sexual activities
  • Negative consequences resulting from sexual behaviors
  • Losing significant amounts of time as well as interest in other activities as a result of pursuing or engaging in sexual activities
  • Irritability, defensiveness or anger when trying to stop a particular sexual behavior