Think You Might Be Addicted to Sex? An Expert Weighs In On the Signs to Look For
With additions by Ashley Keegan.
Compulsive sexual behaviors can come in many forms, such as the strong desire to have sex, masturbate, watch porn, or flirt. These are all things that are totally normal in moderation, and the healthy desire for them can vary from person to person. So how can you tell if your behavior is actually a problem?
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We spoke with Nicolette Zangari, M.A., and doctoral candidate in Clinical Psychology, to find out more about the topic, and she notes straight out of the gate that even the label of “sex addiction” is totally misunderstood.
“’Sex addiction' and ‘hypersexual disorder' are not recognized stand-alone diagnostic categories in the DSM-5,” she says, opting to use the term “compulsive sexual behaviors” instead. She also goes on to reference the importance of recognizing that not all sexual behaviors — even those that are considered outside of the “norm” — are necessarily indicative of a problem.
“It is important to remember that engaging in non-normative sexual behaviors; engaging in kinky sexuality; experiencing pleasure from sex or masturbation; and watching pornography are not by themselves signs of compulsive sexual behavior or of any kind of sexual disorder,” Zangari assures us. “[But] if these behaviors are causing you to engage in secrecy and lying, or you are experiencing a preoccupation with sex to the extent that you cannot focus on other things and are experiencing negative consequences, it may be a good idea to seek support.”
Sex addiction. Hypersexual disorder. Compulsive sexual behavior. However you might refer to it, one fact remains true: If the desire for sexual activity is getting in the way of your relationships, your job, and your life in general, then you may want to take this opportunity for self-reflection and consider whether there is a deeper issue that may need addressing. So let’s jump into some of the signs that may indicate compulsive sexual behavior (and how you can seek support for yourself or a loved one, if needed).
1. You’re Leading A Double Life
Do you feel the need to keep your sex life a secret from those around you? Maybe you have an extramarital partner that you’re keeping hidden. Or, maybe you sneak away to engage in sexual behaviors outside of your current relationship because you don’t believe your partner would understand or even be able to satisfy your desires.
Leading a double life for sexual gain can definitely be a sign of sex addiction. It is true that many people — men and women alike — cheat on their partners, but a compulsion to do so is more abnormal. And whether or not you are in a committed relationship, keeping your sex life a secret from friends and family may also point to a problem.
“Compulsive sexual activity can sometimes result in feelings of guilt or shame,” Zangari says. “People may feel embarrassed, dirty, or regretful, and thus work harder to hide these behaviors from others. This can result in strained personal relationships and low self-esteem.”
You might want to ask yourself why you don’t want to reveal your activities. And, if there are negative feelings behind your answer, it may be a sign of a deeper issue. You might also consider whether you might be using sexual activity as a way to avoid remembering something painful or traumatic in your past, or as an outlet to numb depression or anxiety.
2. You Frequently Seek Out Sexual Material
A preoccupation with all things sex can lead to a very narrow existence. When you constantly and consistently seek out media that is sex-related, this might be a sign of sex addiction. Enjoying a bit of porn here and there is one thing; always seeking out sexually related material to the exclusion of other interests is another thing entirely.
Zangari notes, however, that there is great variability in sexuality, offering an example of two people who both masturbate three times per day:
“These two people with identical sexual behavior might experience very different outcomes or have very different appraisals of their sexual behavior,” she says. “One might feel totally consumed by their desire to masturbate to the extent that they cannot maintain other responsibilities or meet other goals. They might feel a sense of shame and embarrassment that masturbation has taken over their life. Meanwhile, the other might experience no issues with functioning, and are able to meet all their goals and feel very comfortable with the amount of sex they are having.”
Ultimately, the frequency or type of sexual behavior is not necessarily a reliable predictor of compulsive sexual behavior. Rather, the level of distress it causes, or its impact on daily functioning is where the issue truly lies. Are you experiencing intrusive, distressing sexual thoughts that negatively impact your life? Be honest in your self-assessment of your behavior, and consider whether your behaviors serve you, or simply get in the way.
3. You’re Compromising Your Personal Relationships
You might cheat, deceive, withhold information, or just generally be untrue to yourself and your partner in a variety of ways. Being unfaithful doesn’t just mean having sexual contact with another person; it can be demonstrated in other ways — like regularly visiting strip clubs — without your partner's knowledge.
This potential sign of sex addiction refers not only to compromising your relationship with your partner, but it can easily extend to social, familial, and even work circles as well. You’re needlessly putting all of your interpersonal relationships in danger when your compulsions (and the lies you need to tell to hide them) get in the way of living your life.
“If people that care about you are raising concerns and you are noticing that your sexual behavior is generally having a negative impact on your life, it might be a good idea to seek professional support,” Zangari notes.
4. You Seek Out Explicit Sexual Adventures
This behavior may manifest itself in various ways. Maybe you can’t get excitement out of having sex with the same person, and so you feel compelled to seek out more exciting encounters. There are certainly open relationships where this type of arrangement could work, but frequently seeking out sexual variety can be indicative of uncontrolled, compulsive sexual behavior which could lead you down a dangerous trail of constantly needing different stimuli to gain satisfaction and sexual relief. This trail could also lead to undesired outcomes, like unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases that put your safety and the safety of your partner(s) at risk.
“There is nothing inherently pathological or abnormal about having high sexual desire or about taking calculated sexual risks,” Zangari says. She goes on to cite the example that many individuals within the BDSM and kink communities establish rules and boundaries within the context of consensual pain and power play, which may entail some level of risk that all parties have agreed upon. “But when sexual behavior introduces an unreasonable or dangerous level of risk, and when it is impulsive, nonconsensual, or involves illegal activity, there may be a bigger problem.”
5. You Get Into Legal Trouble
If you’re regularly engaging in activities that are illegal in most places — such as paying for sex with sex workers or having sex in public places — you may be experiencing sexual compulsions that are out of your control. Or maybe you feel compelled to engage in other activities that might not be criminal offenses, but are offensive nonetheless, such as voyeurism or indecent phone calls. Whatever the case may be, it doesn’t bode well if your sex life is getting you into trouble with others. This goes beyond messing up relationships with your loved ones, as those connections have the potential of being repaired down the road. If your sexual compulsions are causing you to rack up a permanent record, however, it could lead to diminished work opportunities, financial problems, jail time, and embarrassment as your face and name are spread all over the local media, too.
6. You Feel Negatively About Your Behavior
Sex addiction — or the compulsion to engage in certain sexual behaviors — might sound like it could be fun, but it really isn't for those who genuinely struggle with it. These compulsions interfere with one's daily functioning, putting undue stress on relationships, jobs, mental health, and self-worth. Furthermore, they take time away from family, friends, hobbies, and everything else that makes life truly enjoyable. And if you have intense negative feelings about yourself because of your behavior — guilt, remorse, shame, even suicidal ideation — then it’s definitely time to get help.
When we do things because we are compelled to do them, and then beat ourselves up for giving in to the urge, we create a nasty cycle of behavior that can make it nearly impossible to meaningfully engage in our lives. So if you feel that your quality of life is diminished by intrusive sexual thoughts and compulsive sexual behaviors, just know that help is available.
While there's really no one-size-fits-all solution to reigning in compulsive sexual behaviors, Zangari suggests speaking to a sex-positive mental health professional, such as an AASECT-certified sex therapist, who can assess the extent to which your behaviors are affecting your life. Treatment plans will vary per individual, of course, but there are many approaches that could be very beneficial, including cognitive behavioral therapy, mindfulness practices, group therapy, and even traditional 12-step models. She also notes that compulsive sexual behavior can be a symptom of other health issues, such as neurological disorders, PTSD, and drug or alcohol use, so it is important to consider those possible factors when determining a treatment plan with a professional, as well.
“Sex and pornography — like food, gambling, exercise, and alcohol — can be sources of pleasure and of distress,” Zangari points out. “Anything in life that brings us pleasure can also be dangerous and unhealthy when taken to the extreme.”
While many people are deemed to be “sex addicts,” it’s not a title to give to just anyone who is seemingly obsessed with sex. But for those who truly do struggle with compulsive sexual behaviors, just remember that the first step to recovery is admitting that you have a problem. And the second step is recognizing that those behaviors can be changed with self-knowledge, self-compassion, and a good therapist.
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