The media talks a lot about sexual addiction, but most people don’t really know what to look for. Sometimes people are having lots of sex (however they define “lots”), and they worry they might be sexually addicted. Sometimes they’re cheating in a supposedly monogamous relationship, and they think maybe they’re doing that because they are sexually addicted.
Other times they engage in fetish behaviors, polyamory, same-sex activity, or some other (perfectly natural and normal) sexual behavior, but because the behavior doesn’t mesh with their social/religious/family value system, they wonder if they are sexually addicted.
This is an attempt to clarify what defines (and doesn’t define) sexual addiction, hopefully eliminating the types of confusion discussed above. Before proceeding, I think it is important to state, very clearly, that sexual addiction has nothing whatsoever to do with who or what it is that turns you on.
So being gay or into BDSM (or whatever) does not make you a sex addict any more than being straight and totally vanilla makes you a sex addict.
The factors that do define sexual addiction are as follows:
1. Obsessive sexual fantasy and preoccupation
Sex addicts obsess about sex. They spend hours, sometimes even days, fantasizing about it, planning for it, pursuing it, and engaging in it. The majority of their decisions revolve around sex, including what they wear, which gym they go to, the car they drive, when and where they socialize, etc.
2. Loss of control
Sex addicts lose control over their sexual life. They try to quit or cut back or to avoid certain behaviors, making promises to themselves and/or others, but they repeatedly fail in these efforts. In other words, they fantasize about and pursue sexual activity even when they need and/or want to be doing other things.
3. Related adverse consequences
Sex addicts eventually experience the same basic negative life consequences that alcoholics, drug addicts, compulsive gamblers, compulsive spenders, and all other addicts deal with—ruined relationships, trouble at work or in school, financial problems, loss of interest in previously enjoyable (nonsexual) activities, anxiety, depression, isolation, shame, loss of social standing, arrest, and more.
In addition to the defining criteria listed above, sex addicts also tend to experience the following:
1. Tolerance and escalation
With substance addictions, tolerance and escalation manifest when addicts must take more of a substance or a stronger substance to achieve and maintain the high they seek. With sexual addiction, tolerance and escalation occur when addicts spend increasing amounts of time engaging with their addiction or when the intensity level of their sexual fantasies and behaviors increases. Over time, thanks to tolerance and escalation, many sex addicts find themselves engaging in sexual activities that hadn’t even occurred to them early in the addictive process.
With sexual addiction, withdrawal tends to manifest not so much physically, as often occurs with substance abuse (i.e., delirium tremens when detoxing from alcohol) but emotionally and psychologically. Sex addicts in withdrawal typically feel depressed, anxious, irritable, restless, short-tempered, resentful, etc.
Denial keeps sex addicts out of touch with the process, consequences, and reality of their addiction. In other words, sex addicts routinely ignore blatant warning signs indicating they have a serious problem. Often, they externalize blame for the consequences of their sexual acting out. In short, they are either unable or unwilling to see the destructive effects wrought by their compulsive sexual behavior.
Once again, sexual addiction is unrelated to who and what it is that turns a person on. Of course, it is perfectly possible to be gay or into a fetish and also sexually addicted, but things like homosexuality and fetishes are a non-factor when making the diagnosis.
Instead, sexual addiction is diagnosed when a person is preoccupied to the point of obsession with sexual fantasies and behaviors, loses the ability to control those behaviors, and experiences negative consequences as a result.