Is Sex Addiction Real?

Jul 27, 2018 at 3:00 p.m. ET
Red couch with lip-shaped phone, handcuffs and a pair of purple underwear
Image: Ashley Britton/SheKnows.

When it comes to sex addiction, it can be hard to reach a consensus on many aspects of the condition, including whether or not it actually exists. This question has been raised for a while, the World Health Organization recently weighed in, adding sex addiction to their list of mental health disorders.

This is a first for WHO, and according their listing, in order to be diagnosed with sex addiction, a person has to show "a persistent pattern of failure to control ones intense, repetitive urges resulting in repetitive sexual behavior.”

We spoke with mental health experts about the importance of naming this a mental health disorder so those who suffer can get the care and treatment they need.

What is sex addiction?

Sex addiction is defined by three major criteria, Robert Weiss, a licensed clinical social worker and sex addiction therapist and CEO of Seeking Integrity, tells SheKnows. The first is preoccupation with sex to the point of obsession with sexual fantasies and behavior, he says. The second criterion is a loss of control over sexual fantasies and behavior, typically evidenced by multiple failed attempts to quit or cut back, Weiss explains. And the third is someone experiencing negative life consequences directly related to a person’s out-of-control sexual behaviors, including relationship trouble; issues at work or in school; depression, anxiety, loss of interest in other activities; declining physical health; or financial woes, he notes.

More: What to Do When Your Partner Says They're a Sex Addict

Weiss says that sex is the substance when you are sex addicted, and you are using it to "numb out" certain feelings, such as stress, sadness and boredom.

According to Dr. Barbara Winter, a sex and relationship expert, licensed psychologist and sexologist as well as a sex addiction certified professional, tells SheKnows that sex addiction is a continuum, and anyone who "turns to sex or porn instead of real connection" can be paving the way for a tough road of dependency or compulsive patterns.

A common misconception of sex addiction is that it's about having too much sex, but that’s false, Michael J. Salas, a counselor in Dallas, Texas, who specializes in relationships and sexuality, tells SheKnows. Having a high sex drive and having an addictive behavior are two different things, he clarifies.

Why is sex addiction just now being classified as a disorder?

Sex addictions are commonly co-occurring with other disorders, so it’s important to be able to define those behaviors through a diagnosis, Lindsay Cooke, a licensed mental health counselor, tells SheKnows. She agrees with the WHO on the fact that sex addiction is a mental health disorder. 

So, why is sex addiction only getting this classification now? Cooke believes it wasn’t classified as a mental health disorder because “there wasn’t enough empirical evidence to support it.” 

Along the same lines, Salas argues sex addiction is a real thing that people are suffering from, although it can be hard to define, and says many people he works with realize there are consequences to their sexual behavior and attempt to stop it but “continuously engage in the behavior.” 

In addition, Weiss explains that over the past few decades, there has been "a small but extremely vocal group of clinicians" that have argued against it as being an actual addiction because some believed it was shaming the victims and spreading fear that a "sex-addiction therapist would act as sex police" and try and influence their patients with their religious and moral beliefs. 

More: How to Tell Your Partner You'd Like an Open Relationship

However, sex addiction is now defined in "science-based, non-moralistic terms," Weiss notes.

Is there any treatment for sex addiction?

Sex addiction has the same basic techniques and strategies that work with other addictions such as alcoholism and eating disorders, Weiss explains. First, the focus is on "containing the problematic behavior" safely, he says. 

Next, Weiss says that clinicians "focus on breaking through the patient’s denial and managing the crisis." 

Over time, treatment usually includes group and individual therapy as well as cognitive therapy, education, social learning and 12-step or other addiction-focused support.

Dr. Fran Walfish, a Beverly Hills family and relationship psychotherapist and author of The Self-Aware Parent, tells SheKnows that the sex addicts she has treated "have a high success rate to psychotherapy treatment" and adds, "Accountability is the first prerequisite needed in order to change."

Like many addictions, it can be difficult to speak up and get assistance, but for those living with sex addiction, the classification as a mental health disorder should make it easier to get the help they need.

If you or someone you know would like more information on or help with sex addiction, please visit the Sex Addicts Anonymous website or call them at 1-800-477-8191 from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. CST, Monday through Friday.

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