Sex addiction is still little understood, as the ongoing debate in scientific circles about its true nature demonstrates. It was only acknowledged as a disorder as late as the 1980s and the limited scientific research conducted since then means that its nature and causes have yet to be positively determined.
The nature of sex addiction
Sex addicts find themselves compelled to have multiple partners, to frequent prostitutes and strip clubs, to read pornography and to masturbate frequently in a cycle of behaviour that often becomes increasingly intense. They give in to their cravings irrespective of the possible consequences, but usually exhibit feelings of guilt and remorse afterwards. Their aim is not only to find pleasure but also to escape unpleasant feelings or to relieve stresses they might be under.
Sex addiction and the brain
It is possible that sex addicts have some biochemical abnormality; this is indicated by the fact that treatment with anti-depressants and psychotropic drugs has proven to be effective in some cases.
It appears that, as with other addictions, sexual activity causes sensations that enter the brain’s reward system and cause a sense of satisfaction that is recorded in the memory. This same system is linked with human survival; it provides the memory and stimulus required to make us eat and reproduce. In the case of addiction, however, the system becomes overloaded, causing the sufferer to feel compelled to repeat the activity that has given the pleasure – sex, drugs, alcohol and so on. These cravings become so strong that they must be satiated.
Environmental factors and sex addiction
While the brain might be responsible for creating the urges in sex addiction, the initial triggers for addiction can often be found in the background of the sufferer. Researchers have found that in many cases sex addicts have grown up in dysfunctional families or claim to have been sexually abused as children.
Among the factors that have been identified as possible causes of sex addiction are:
- Growing up with addiction – in around 80% of cases, it is believed that the sex addict has grown up in a family where there has been drug or alcohol addiction.
- Early exposure to sex – it is considered possible that early exposure to sex might cause changes to the brain that affect later behaviour.
- Trauma – a traumatic experience at a young age sometimes leads to drug or alcohol abuse and may also trigger sex addiction. This is especially the case if, at the time of the trauma, the child does not receive the support they need.
- Parental domination – in families where parents enforce strict control over their children leaving them effectively unable to deal with life’s challenges, the children can become addicted to sex.
- Poor sex education – if sex is regarded as a taboo subject or a child is made to feel that it is shameful or something to be regarded as secret, than the child is likely to find it difficult to regard sex as normal and will seek to hide sexual activity.
- Poor role models – dysfunctional families and uncaring parents create an environment that can confuse a child’s emotions, meaning that in later life they are unable to cope with emotional stress and so try to find ways to help them through. This often manifests itself in the use of alcohol or drugs, or sex addiction.
Sex addicts can be helped
The nature of sex addiction means that addicts are often reluctant to seek help, the feelings of shame being particularly strong in many sufferers. But there is help available and the addiction can be controlled. The focus for treatment is usually a therapeutic approach, which aims to identify the causes of the addiction and find alternative ways of satisfying the sufferer’s needs.