Can you really be addicted to sex in the same way you can be addicted to drugs and alcohol? Many psychiatrists believe so.
Certainly, having multiple sexual partners isn’t always a sign of being physically magnetic. In some people, the drive for sex certainly becomes a compulsion for which they seek help for.
Do I have a sex addiction?
From salacious headlines to our private thoughts, sex seems to be ever present. But for those who have a compulsive and problematic relationship with sex – when the thoughts are all-consuming, the encounters numerous and risky, where relationships are compromised and the rest of life is frequently put on hold to satisfy uncontrollable urges – an act, which is supposed to engender fulfillment and pleasure, never quite delivers on its promise and may conceal something more concerning.
What is sexual addiction
The term hypersexual disorder, or Compulsive Sexual Behaviour has not been officially recognised, but mental health professionals and psychiatrists do regard it as an illness in its own right. For psychiatrist and addiction specialist Dr Dimitri Popelyuk, it can be defined as ‘any sustained sexual behaviour that feels “out of control”. That includes intense sexual fantasies, images and thoughts that feel persistent, intrusive or obsessive, but also highly arousing, and excessive amounts of time planning and engaging in sexual behaviour.’
Lots of sex does not always mean sex addiction
What sex addiction is not is equally important to define, stresses Dr Popelyuk. For instance, studies have shown it has nothing to do with what a person finds a turn on. ‘Somebody with a high sex drive may not have sex addiction. Likewise, someone who indulges in more unusual sexual practises, again, may not have a sex addiction. Nor does the increased anonymity surrounding meeting sexual partners and the use of online apps such as Tinder and Grindr.’ These he sees as a reflection of a societal shift in behaviour and changing moral codes.
Statistics do show, however, that men are more susceptible to developing a sexual addiction than women, and that it is most prevalent from late adolescence through to age 30. Rates are also higher among gay and bisexual men than heterosexuals.
The roots of sexual addiction
Rather than draw critical conclusions about the behaviour of different groups, specialists such as Dr Popelyuk see a pattern in the triggers for sex and other addictions such as gambling, drugs, alcohol and shopping. ‘There are different theories,’ he says, ‘but at the core of sexual compulsion is an attempt to recover from a negative childhood experience.’ This would include physical, emotional or sexual abuse and neglect. ‘When someone has attachment difficulties, it impedes our ability to relate to others and form relationship.’
Instead, negative beliefs set in, of being bad and unworthy of love, and untrusting of others to satisfy their needs. It skews a person into ‘self-soothing’, in this instance, by relying on multiple partners to remedy traumatic experiences and relieve emotional pain. When ultimately it doesn’t repair the childhood damage, the addiction is further fuelled – compounded by feelings of failure, shame, denial, helplessness and low self-esteem. The cycle may also be exacerbated by stressful life events, anxiety, depression and boredom.
The recovery process
Often, it’s only extreme circumstances that will prompt a person to seek help: when they feel increasingly isolated from family, friends and peers; when their actions result in harmful legal, financial or medical consequences. Perhaps they have lost their job after surfing the web for pornography or acting out sexually while at work. Having discounted any physiological factors such as hormonal abnormalities, the psychiatrist will look at a range of short- and long-term recovery processes, aimed at self-awareness, behaviour change and the ability to develop truly meaningful relationships. For Dr Popelyuk cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and psychotherapy are the key components. ‘CBT uses educational intervention techniques to help people transform thought patterns so people can cope more effectively with their condition and develop a healthier lifestyle. Through psychotherapy a person is helped to integrate feelings, needs, fears and beliefs, and internalise self-regulating behaviours that they missed out on in their childhood. Increasing their intellectual understanding of the condition will help patients become aware of the mental and subjective processes that are basis for their behaviour.’
Twelve steps to recovery
Additionally Dr Popelyuk suggests that the group support from a 12-step programme (such as that used for alcoholics) will encourage patients to be honest with themselves and learn strategies from a peer group. Medication, which reduces the frequency and intensity of the sexual appetite, in the form of Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRI) is an option too. With support, understanding and positive outcomes from changes in behaviour, the road to recovery is possible.
Dr Dmitri Poplyuk has a practice at Twenty-five Harley Street day clinic where he sees patients for a range of issues, including sex addiction. He is also part of the team at Serena House, a new detox clinic located in the centre of London. Serena House offers bespoke detox programmes and treatment for associate problems such as sex addiction.To find out more, please see Serena House