What You've Always Wanted To Know About Sex Addiction

Is it even really an addiction?
Sex addiction: actually not as sexy as it seems.
Sex addiction: actually not as sexy as it seems.

'Sex addict' is a term that is often bandied around, either wishfully, boastfully or derogatorily, but nearly always incorrectly.

What it isn't is a horny schoolboy or someone who likes to have sex a lot. In actual fact, those who do have a sexual addiction are more likely seeking treatment than boasting about it to their mates.

According to the Mayo Clinic, what actually constitutes compulsive sexual behaviour is "an obsession with sexual thoughts, urges or behaviors that may cause you distress or that negatively affects your health, job, relationships or other parts of your life".

For relationship counsellor and sex therapist Alinda Small, it's better defined as "when one is seeking sexual encounters for self fulfillment. It's an obsession with the physical act of sex -- either by themselves or with a partner -- an obsession of the mind and compulsion of the body which can't be quelled unless they fulfill it."

What Small describes is destructive behaviour, certainly, but is it actually an addiction?

"There is some contention around whether or it's really a bona fide 'addiction' in the scientific basis of the word," Professor Frances Quirk, director of research at Barwon Health told The Huffington Post Australia. "But in part, it's possibly because at a macro level, there's of a number of things which we call sex addiction but potentially aren't. I suppose some would meet the criteria and others wouldn't."

Quirk says one reason sex addiction is so difficult to define is because of society's restrictive view towards all things sexual, stating, "when it comes to sex research and our understanding of human sexuality -- the good, the bad and the ugly -- we don't have an awful lot of information.

"That's a reflection of how uptight and stigmatised we are about normal human sexual function, never mind something that's out of the range of normal. There's a socio-political layer on top of anything that's to do with sex or sexual activity.

"We are so under-informed about our own sexual nature and have so little in the way of significant funding to [conduct appropriate research] unless it concerns sexual offending, which is obviously different."

The most significant sexual organ a human being has is their brain.

Another reason Quirk says there's a lack of clarity surrounding sexual addiction comes down to the reason it occurs in the first place.

"Is a sex addict born or made?" she questions. "Is the driver for the behaviour about avoiding other complex emotions, like avoiding intimacy? Is it about self medicating? Is it a serotonin or dopamine driver? Is it an OCD variant or part of something like a bipolar disorder presentation? Is this hyper-sexuality related to chemical imbalances in the brain?

"The bottom line is, the most significant sexual organ a human being has is their brain. Clearly there is something that's either an influence or a disruption that's brain originated, either from a neuromodulation perspective, which is actually chemicals not doing what they would normally do, or a brain's response to something external."

You can just imagine what the internet does... If you are a sex addict, you can get your fix pretty easily at any moment at any time.

According to both Small and Quirk, the end result can have destructive effects on an individual's personal and professional life, not to mention their health.

"It's like an overriding desire. A bit like an alcoholic who really needs a drink," Small told HuffPost Australia. "They need it and at all costs they will get it.

"For instance, a client of mine, he can't work or think straight unless he goes to a massage parlour for a 'happy ending' or to brothel at the risk of a normal life. He cannot function until this need is hit.

"[The release] doesn't have to be with another person necessarily, it can be with themselves," she continued. "It's not like normal sexual desire. It's an overbearing, overriding drive that they will endeavour to fulfill at the risk of everything.

"You can just imagine what the internet does for that. It feeds it like never before. If you are a sex addict, you can get your fix pretty easily at any moment at any time."

Adds Quirk: "I'd say primary interpersonal relationships would definitely be suffering because of infidelity. There would also be a question mark around the person's ability to function at work, because they have had so many sexual interactions over the course of a day."

The accessibility of pornography on the internet only makes getting that sexual 'hit' even easier.
The accessibility of pornography on the internet only makes getting that sexual 'hit' even easier.

In terms of seeking treatment, Quirk says it may be a case of the person themselves realising intervention is required.

"They might have an insight to the fact this behaviour is resulting in negative consequences and as a result, they are concerned about it," she said. "And in an ideal world, someone who would present for help is willing to be helped.

"This is not always the case, if they have been referred for help, for instance. But hopefully, even though they are deriving some pleasure or satisfaction from their behaviour, the consequences are something they recognise as detrimental and may be enough for them to want to do something about it."