Sexual Addiction
Roschbeth Ewald

May 13, 2003


sexualSexual addictions are among the least talked about and probably the least understood of all addictions.  Sexual addiction has been around apparently going back as far as we have recorded history.  The lack of knowledge and understanding about it comes from our society’s unwillingness to take an honest and open look at sexuality.  However, it has only been in the last two or three decades that a clearer understanding of it is being reached.  Sexual addiction is rapidly becoming recognized as a major social problem with similarities more well-known to alcohol and drug addiction or compulsive gambling.  Today, the concept that a person could be hooked on sex is unsettling to most people.  People are more able to admit to have bad habits, but shy away from saying that they are hooked on someone or something.  This fear comes from society’s stereotype of addicts (Book, 1997, pp 14).

Sexual addicts are those who engage in persistent and escalating patterns of sexual behavior acted out despite increasingly negative consequences to self and to others. They become addicted to the neuro-chemical changes that take place in the body during sexual behavior.  To be seen as addict is to be seen as being inferior or defective.  Usually an addicted person is considered “weak” or lazy (Knauer, 2002, pp183).  In the late 1970’s, Patrick Carnes, a psychologist and researcher, was instrumental in the initial identification and treatment of sexual addiction as a condition.  After a ten year research, Carnes estimated about 8% of the total population of men and 3%of women are sexually addicted. That adds up to 15 million people who suffer from this problem. Sexual addiction has many different forms: compulsive masturbation, sex with prostitutes, anonymous sex with multiple partners, multiple affairs outside a committed relationship, habitual exhibitionism, habitual voyeurism, inappropriate sexual touching, repeated sexual abuse of children, and episodes of rape (Book, 1997).  Of all forms of sexual addiction, none is more harmful to both the addict and the victim than childhood sexual abuse.

The beginnings of sexual addiction are usually rooted up in adolescence or childhood.  It is found that 60% of sexual addicts were abused by someone in their childhood (Book, 1997,pp 52).  The child may have grown up in a hostile, chaotic or neglectful home, or the family may have been very normal but the child grows up emotionally starved for love because affection is rarely expressed.  Gradually sex becomes a replacement act to turn to in times of any kind of need, from escaping boredom, to feeling anxious, to being able to sleep at night. The child may repeatedly  turn to masturbation for escape. Masturbation can be a normal and natural part of childhood.  In other cases, the child maybe introduced to sex in inappropriate ways.  Instead of the normal sexual experimentation that often takes place out of curiosity between similar aged children at some point growing up, some are brought to it by some adult who uses them instead of another adult for their own sexual pleasure.  It may even be another child who is five or more years older where the sexual experience doesn’t feel mutual.  In these experiences, there often is a combination of natural curiosity, newfound pleasurable feelings and even the feelings of fear or shame (Carnes, 1991 pp 31-40).

Sex addicts don’t necessarily enjoy sex more than other people.  In all reality, the sex addict is compelled to act out sexually.  The addicts themselves may not be able to understand why they are acting out sexually or why constant thoughts either of having sex with someone or compulsively masturbating fill their minds, and push out other avenues of interest.  The addiction is often mistaken by the sex addict as “love”, but love really has nothing to do with it.  What passes for love, is really a progressively negative and intrusive behavior that takes away all of the addict’s self-esteem.  It has little to do with true intimacy, but more so involves exploration and use of power or manipulation.  Sex addicts have no comprehension of the risks they are taking.  They feel their life is out of control.  To deal with the pain, the addict may resort to other addictions such as alcoholism, eating disorders, and abusive drugs.  Many times suicide is also a constant thought.  Or the addicts will punish themselves by engaging in sexual acts that are degrading.  Sometimes so degrading that the addicts can’t share what is happening with anyone else in their lives.  “Contrary to enjoying sex as a self affirming source of physical pleasure, the addict has learned to rely on sex for comfort from pain for nurturing or relief from stress” (Carnes, 1991, pp 34).  The constant need for excitement and conquest takes the focus off addict’s internal pain and sense of being unconnected to what should have been meaning in the addict’s life.  The addict maybe addicted primarily to one behavior, but the forms of sexual addiction would be exhaustive and increases with the addicts needing to find new ways of sexual thrillers.  Each new sexual adventure gives meaning to the sex addict’s life, for a short time.  The relief that the sex addict gets from each new sexual conquest is temporary and must be repeated with new partners over and over again when any sense of boredom or routine begins in the relationship.  Sexual addiction, by contrast, usually is a preoccupation with sexual arousal and sexual release which often has little to do with who the person is and requires no relationship.  The addict feels shame about what he or she is doing or has done usually immediately after engaging in sex acts that violate some of the person’s standards, sometimes even denying the shame, which causes the addict to live a double life.  Well-known, respected, and admired in his visible life, but secretly engaging regularly in sexual acts that would be shocking to those who know him.  The addiction doesn’t make a person worthless, it just hides the addict’s true personality and positive qualities.

Many addicts, however, are not involved in any public activities that would enhance their level of arousal.  Instead they spend hours reading or watching pornography, with eventually masturbation as part of their activity.  The internet has become the newest, most rapidly growing form of sexual acting out for many sexual addicts today.  A lot of sexual addicts have added computer sex to their repertoire.  They spend increasingly amounts of time surfing the net, downloading and reading information on sex bulletin boards, and exchanging sexual information with others in sexual chat rooms or directing their own live sex shows on interactive sites.  The internet just happens to provide many of the things sex addicts seek all in one place; isolation, secrecy, fantasy material, endless varieties, around the clock availability, and instant accessibility.  Sex addicts on the internet often experience a rapid progression of their addiction.  They eventually move to more extreme behavior with taking greater risks, and even getting caught more frequently.  In some cases the sped up progression of the addict’s problem via the internet can turn into a blessing, since it can move the addict into the consequences more quickly, which can cause him to get help.

Sexual addiction is progressive and it rarely gets better.  Over time it gets more frequent and more extreme.  At other times when it seems under control, the addict is merely engaging in one of the common traits of the disease process in which he switches from sexual release to the control of it.  The control phase inevitably breaks down over time and the addict is back in the behavior again, despite his promise to himself or others never to do it again.  When the ecstasy of the release is spent, the addict will feel remorse at his failure and will switch back to another “white knuckle” period of abstaining from the behavior until his resolve weakens again. Besides being addicted to sexual behavior, some sex addicts are also sexually codependent.  These are the addicts who don’t really enjoy sex, but are involved in the sexual acts just to please their partners.  They fear abandonment, so they don’t tell their partners that they are not enjoying the sex. Without help, this is the way the sexually addictive person lives life.  Many addicts seek help but discontinue it or find it not helpful.  They have a growing appreciation of the reality of the problem but tend to counter this realization by minimizing the problem or thinking they can handle it by themselves.  Most fear that letting go of the addiction would mean giving up sex completely.

Addiction can be a positive factor on one’s life, if we realize that it may be the one thing that enables one to endure the very worst situations and go on to live a life that can later be full and rewarding.  It is how the addiction is addressed and dealt with that will determine how the addict will fare later life.  Addiction may have been the tool that has kept the survivor’s feelings and memories at bay.  Recovery is not a straight incline leading directly to a desired goal, but it does follow a somewhat predictable path.  To get on this path, the addict must first recognize his or her problem and be able to address their addictive behavior, then must understand the role that the addiction has served.  The addict must learn the value of his self as a whole person, rather than as a sexual object.  By doing this, the addict will understand that recovery is not possible without abstaining from it.  By doing this they are able to develop a new sense of themselves.  They begin to appreciate their sense of strength and purpose.  They begin to take responsibility for their own lives and happiness.  Then a new way of looking at life emerges.


Book, Praeger. (1997). Sex & Love Addiction, Treatment & Recovery. New York: Lucerne Publishing.

Knauer, Sandra. (2002). Recovering from Sexual Abuse, Addictions, & Compulsive Behaviors. New York: Haworth Press.

Carnes, Patrick. (1997). Don’t Call it Love. Minnesota: Gentle Press.

Silverman, Sue. (2001). Love Sick. New York: Norton & Company.