Sex: it’s a beautiful, rewarding, and healthy part of the human experience. It brings couples together, improves our general wellbeing, and it’s one simple way for us to feel safe, warm, and validated.
Although sex is probably one of the best parts of being alive, it comes with risks. Think back to 6th-grade health class. You probably remember the warnings about sexually transmitted infections and unintended pregnancy. However, do you remember if anyone ever warned you about how unhealthy sexual behavior can lead to an addiction?
I doubt it. Talking about sex is hard enough already without adding in topics like mental health, emotions, and addictive behavior patterns.
The way addiction starts is in the brain’s dopamine reward center. The “high” provided by sex, especially high-risk sex with new lovers, is very similar to the high provided by drugs like cocaine, heroin, and alcohol. Sure, the feelings are vastly different between sex and the effects of a substance, but on the brain’s neurotransmitter level that difference isn’t so pronounced. This is why we see these physical and emotional symptoms of addiction in those who compulsively rely on sexual adventures to feel better:
- Feelings of loneliness, and emptiness
- Emotional/Psychological dependence on sex just to “feel ok”
- Damaged or lost relationships
- Physical sexual dysfunction, inability to perform.
- Feeling insecure
- Inability to advance in your career
- Symptoms of Mental illness
- Co-occurring drug addiction
The Factors of Addiction: Sex vs. Drugs
It turns out, the factors involved in becoming an addict don’t change much if our addiction is to sex, drugs, alcohol, or any other problematic behavior. The main things we need to focus on are the chemical mechanisms of addiction, underlying depression and anxiety, the ways we learn to cope with those feelings, and our inherent personality traits.
Personality: Sensation-seeking tendencies, emotional dysregulation, and impulsivity
Some of us are simply born with personality traits that put us at an elevated risk for developing an addiction. Sensation-seeking individuals are motivated by the good feelings that life has to offer, sex being one of them. Emotional dysregulation, an inherited trait, makes it harder for us to stay in control of our emotional lives. Impulsive individuals struggle to make calculated decisions, instead, they act in the moment, sometimes without thinking. These three traits that can be passed down in our genes, make us susceptible to all forms of addiction; including alcohol, drugs, or behaviors like sex.
In other words, we don’t inherit specific addictions, but we do inherit traits that make us more susceptible to addiction in general.
Underlying Depression and Anxiety
For most individuals, addiction isn’t an isolated issue. When we dig a little deeper, we find that most addicts have been experiencing some level of depression or anxiety. At some point along the journey, we find a quick-fix that soothes their mental anguish. For some of us, that quick-fix is a drug, and for others it’s sex.
By using sex or drugs to cope with emotions, we’re engaging in something called Self-Medication. Since we’re just patching things over when we self-medicate, the deeper issues stay in place, continuing to affect our mental health and behavior. The immediate high of our quick-fix behavior works well at first, but as time goes by we find that the effects aren’t so strong anymore. We end up needing more drugs, more sexual partners, more SOMETHING just to feel ok. In this way, we end up dependent on sex or drugs just to get by, falling apart when they’re denied, and starting the vicious cycle over again.
Sex Addiction: What it’s not
The official guidebooks listing all of the medically recognized diagnoses do not include sex addiction. So, as of now, medical doctors and psychologists cannot formally diagnose you with sex addiction. However, this doesn’t mean that sex addiction is fake or made up.
When we’re talking about sex addiction, we’re not talking about people that really like sex, highly sexual individuals, or people with unusual sexual desires. That’s because having lots of sex, or a kink or two, does not automatically mean you’re addicted.
Sex addiction happens when our sexual behaviors become compulsive, and out of control; however, it can be hard to admit when we’ve lost control. These question might help you recognize the signs.
- Do you feel powerless in regards to your sexual behaviors? Simply incapable of limiting yourself?
- Are your past sexual choices making life unbearable for you now?
- Do you feel shame, guilt, or self-loathing because of your sexual behaviors?
- Are you unable to quit certain sexual behaviors, despite making a determined effort to do so?
- Do sexual thoughts control you? Or, are you always preoccupied with the subject?
Although it seems easier to just keep going, without acknowledging our harmful behavior patterns, it’s worth it to take the time and get to the root of the problem. Repairing our wounds, and the bad habits we’ve developed over time will help us unlock true intimacy in our romantic and sexual relationships.