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13 February 2009
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Addicted to sex

Sexual addiction is hard for many people to take seriously, but for sufferers and their partners it can be devastating. Relationship psychotherapist Paula Hall explains what it is and what you can do if you think the problem's affecting your relationship.


What is it?

Experts define sexual addiction as any sexual activity that feels out of control. A sex addict feels compelled to seek out and engage in sexual behaviour, in spite of the problems it may cause in their personal, social and work lives.

Sexual addition can take many forms, but it's generally characterised by behaviour that feels out of control. This behaviour might include:

  • excessive use of pornography
  • compulsive masturbation
  • exhibitionism
  • voyeurism
  • fetishes
  • high-risk sex
  • prostitution
  • telephone or internet sex
  • multiple affairs
  • anonymous sexual encounters

Sex can become addictive in a similar way to alcohol and illegal drugs. During sex, our bodies release a powerful cocktail of chemicals that make us feel good. Some people get addicted to these chemicals and become obsessed with getting their next fix - their next sexual high. As with other addictions, the body also gets used to these chemicals, so the sufferer needs increasing amounts of sex to achieve the same buzz.

Between the highs of sexual and chemical fulfilment are the lows. These are often characterised by feelings of shame, regret, remorse and anxiety. Sex addicts can feel alone, isolated and powerless to change their behaviour. And so the cycle begins again, as they seek out sex as a way to escape these difficult feelings.

How common is it?

According to conservative estimates, between three and six per cent of the population experience sexual addiction, but it's likely that the real figure is much higher. As the addiction can be accompanied by feelings of shame and embarrassment, sex addicts often find it difficult to seek help.

There's no profile of a typical sex addict. Sufferers come from every walk of life and approximately 20 per cent are female. Women can have particular problems being taken seriously when they look for help for compulsive sexual behaviour.

Since the launch of the internet, with it's vast range of sexual services available cheaply and anonymously, professionals have seen a massive increase in sexual addiction. And with limited services available for sufferers, it looks as though the problem will continue to rise.

What are the signs?

Dr Patrick Carnes, a leading expert in sexual addiction, suggests there are ten possible warning signs:

  1. Feeling that your behaviour is out of control
  2. Being aware that there may be severe consequences if you continue
  3. Feeling unable to stop your behaviour, despite knowing the consequences
  4. Persistently pursuing destructive and/or high-risk activities
  5. Wanting to stop or control what you're doing and taking active steps to limit your activities
  6. Using sexual fantasies as a way of coping with difficult feelings or situations
  7. Needing more and more sexual activity in order to experience the same high
  8. Experiencing intense mood swings around sexual activity
  9. Spending an increasing amount of time planning, engaging in or regretting and recovering from sexual activities
  10. Neglecting important social, occupational or recreational activities in favour of sexual behaviour

The consequences

A survey of sexual addicts (source: Dr Carne's site, www.sexhelp.com) revealed that as a result of their behaviour:

  • 70 per cent had severe relationship problems
  • 40 per cent had lost a partner
  • 27 per cent had lost career opportunities
  • 40 per cent had experienced unwanted pregnancies
  • 72 per cent suffered suicidal obsession
  • 17 per cent had attempted suicide
  • 68 per cent had been exposed to sexually transmitted infections

If you think you're a sex addict

If you've recognised any of the above in your own behaviour, the most important step you can take is to acknowledge that sexual addiction is a real problem that won't go away by itself. You must take personal responsibility for your recovery.

Most addicts find it very difficult to change their behaviour on their own. You may be able to minimise the behaviour for a while, but often the cycle is too strong. A professional therapist can help you to understand what's happening and encourage you to take steps to change to a healthier sexual lifestyle.

If your partner's a sex addict

If you suspect that your partner is a sex addict, chances are you've already tried to change their behaviour. Ultimately, though, no one can recover from an addiction unless they accept that they have a problem and want to change.

Being the partner of a sex addict is painful and confusing, but there's help available for you too. As well as individual therapy, there are a growing number of support groups.

Further help

British Association of Sexual and Relationship Therapists - offers a directory of private sex therapists.
Web: www.basrt.org.uk


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