Overwhelming Desires - The Backdrop to Sex Addiction

What is Sex Addiction?

Sex addiction is characterised by an overwhelming urge to engage in sex or other sex-related activity, even if these actions may jeopardise the person’s health and wellbeing. Sex addiction is commonly referred to as 'compulsive sexual behaviour' or 'hypersexual disorder'.

Clearly it is natural to have sexual desires are these are a normal and healthy part of life. It’s important to understand that there is a significant difference between sex addiction and having a high sex drive or enjoying frequent sex.

Sex addiction is characterised by an overriding and impulsive desire for continual sexual gratification. The sexual urges are overwhelming, and the consequences can be extremely destructive. Strong and persistent sexual thoughts can interfere with the ability to maintain relationships with a partner, friends and family, work, and complete daily activities.

The compulsive need to achieve a sexual high is comparable to the type of fix that a person with alcohol addiction seeks from a drink, or someone with drug addiction seeks from drugs. Sex addiction shares many of the same characteristics as love addiction (‘co-dependency’) where there is an overwhelming and irrational urge to feel continually in love.

For some people, sex addiction can be highly dangerous. Behaviour associated with sex addiction includes seeking out multiple sex partners and can manifest itself as a compulsive need to be in sexually stimulating situations. As with drug or alcohol dependence, it has the potential to negatively impact a person’s physical and mental health, personal relationships, quality of life and safety.

Sex addiction is currently not a clinical diagnosis. As a society we have accepted the existence of addictions to substances (such as nicotine, alcohol and other drugs) and other behaviours (such as gambling and binge-eating). However, the threshold for to diagnose sex addiction has not yet been achieved. As of today, the World Health Organisation categorises excessive sex drive as a ‘compulsion’ as opposed to an ‘addiction’.

Compulsion is a narrow term which refers to an intense urge to do something. Addiction is a broader term which describes the process by which someone becomes dependent on a specific substance or behaviour, pursuing it with tunnel vision, even when it is harmful to their own health and wellbeing and those around them.

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The Symptoms and Effects of Sex Addiction

Whilst there is no single behaviour or action that definitively determine suffering from sex addiction, there are several signs and symptoms to look out for.

 The following are behavioural characteristics associated with sex addiction;

  • Overwhelming and persistent sexual thoughts and impulses that become all-encompassing
  • A lack of control of how to act sexually
  • Acting on sexual impulses but not to experience joy or pleasure
  • Feeling shame and embarrassment over sexual acts yet failing to alter behaviour
  • Continuing to engage in sexual activity even when deemed to be doing self-harm

The following are among the more common signs of sex addiction:

  • Having persistent and unavoidable sex-related thoughts, urges and fantasies
  • Having unsafe sex with multiple partners, even when you are involved in a relationship
  • Engaging in risky sexual behaviours such as anonymous and unprotected sex, including in public places
  • Spending significant amounts of time viewing pornography

Sex addiction can affect life in many ways, the exact nature of which will depend upon a variety of personal factors. Damaging effects from a mental perspective include a diminished sense of self-worth and a feeling of shame and guilt. The physical damage can include strained relationships (potential separation and divorce) friendships as well as job loss due to deviant behaviour.

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The Causes of Sex Addiction

Whilst there is little empirical evidence as to the causes of sex addiction, some researchers believe the underlying causes are similar in nature to those to clinically diagnosed addictions such as alcohol and drugs.

Psychological Effects

Mental health: Certain conditions that lead to mental or emotional extremes or manic states, for example, mental health conditions such as bi-polar disorder, depression and anxiety.

Environmental: Exposure to, and experience of, shock events, such as abuse and sexual content, can contribute to underlying ‘manic’ behaviour that drives hypersexuality


Genes: A genetic predisposition towards impulsivity, sensationalism and emotional dysregulation.

Hormones: Abnormally high production of sex hormones such as testosterone that determine sex drive


Isolation: Social deprivation can lead to seeking abnormal ways of being sexually gratified and cause other problems such as mental health conditions that can feedback to unhealthy sexual behaviour

Social learning: Spending time with a friend, or a group of friends, engaging in extreme sexual behaviour can normalise it

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The treatment for sex addiction is the often similar in nature to other forms of addiction. The main focus is desensitising addicts, thereby helping them regain control over their sexual impulses.

One of the most common treatments is the Sex Addicts Anonymous (SAA) 12-step programme. It follows the same model as Alcoholics Anonymous. It doesn’t prohibit sex entirely, but there is a focus on stopping the compulsive and destructive behaviour.

Other treatments include cognitive behavioural therapy which identifies the triggers that set off the sexual impulses and tries to adjust the lifestyle to deviate away from them.

In other instances, medication, such as that used to treat depression, may be used if is deemed to be the underlying cause behind the excessive sex drive.

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Written by Mike Firth, GP and Medical Director

This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.