How to spot the difference between a healthy sex drive and dependence / addiction

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How can you tell if someone has a problem with sexual behavior? Sometimes peoples’ defense is simply that “I just have a strong sex drive.” Where is the line between a healthy sex drive, and addictive behavior? What follows is a list of criteria from Dr. Pat Carnes’ web site “Sexhelp.com,” with some edits and clarifiers from me.

While an actual diagnosis for sexual addiction should be carried out by a mental health professional, the following behavior patterns can indicate the presence of sexual addiction. Individuals who see any of these patterns in their own life, or in the life of someone they care about, should seek professional help.

1. The person exhibits a pattern of out-of-control sexual behavior

We refer to this as “acting out.” Sometimes these behaviors include “paraphilias” (non-mainstream sexual practices that often involve dysfunction or deviance). But this is not always the case, as you can see from the list of “acting out” behaviors below:

  • Compulsive masturbation
  • Indulging in pornography
  • Having chronic affairs
  • Exhibitionism
  • Dangerous sexual practices
  • Prostitution
  • Anonymous sex
  • Compulsive sexual episodes
  • Voyeurism

2. Experiencing severe consequences due to sexual behavior, and an inability to stop despite these adverse consequences

Some of the losses reported by sexual addicts include:

  • Loss of partner or spouse 40%
  • Severe marital or relationship problems 70%
  • Loss of career opportunities 27%
  • Unwanted pregnancies 40%
  • Abortions 36%
  • Suicidal obsession 72%
  • Suicide attempts 17%
  • Exposure to AIDS and venereal disease 68%
  • Legal risks, ranging from nuisance offenses to charges of molestation or rape 58%

3. Persistent pursuit of self-destructive behavior

Even understanding that the consequences of their actions will be painful or have dire consequences does not stop addicts from acting out. They often seem to have a willfulness about their actions, and an attitude that says, “I’ll deal with the consequences when they come.”

4. Ongoing desire or effort to limit sexual behavior

Addicts often try to control their behavior by creating external barriers to it. For example, some move to new neighborhood or city, hoping that a new environment removed from old affairs will help. Some think marriage will keep them from acting out. An exposer may buy a car in which it’s difficult to act out while driving.

Others seeking control over their behavior try to immerse themselves in religion, only to find out that while religious compulsion may soothe their shame, it does not end their acting out.

Many go through periods of sexual anorexia during which they allow themselves no sexual expression at all. Such efforts, however, only fuel the addiction.

5. Sexual obsession and fantasy as a primary coping strategy

Though acting out sexually can temporarily relieve addicts’ anxieties, they still find themselves spending inordinate amounts of time in obsession and fantasy. By fantasizing, the addict can maintain an almost constant level of arousal. Together with obsessing, the two behaviors can create a kind of analgesic “fix.” Just as our bodies generate endorphins, natural antidepressants, during vigorous exercise, our bodies naturally release peptides when sexually aroused. The molecular construction of these peptides parallels that of opiates like heroin or morphine, but are many times more powerful.

6. Regularly increasing the amount of sexual experience because the current level of activity is no longer sufficiently satisfying

Sexual addiction is often progressive. While addicts may be able to control themselves for a time, inevitably their addictive behaviors will return and quickly escalate to previous levels and beyond. Some addicts begin adding additional acting out behaviors. Often addicts will have three or more behaviors which play a key role in their addiction — masturbation, affairs, and anonymous sex, for instance.

In addition, many addicts report regularly “bingeing” to the point of emotional exhaustion. The emotional pain of withdrawal for sexual addicts can parallel the physical pain experienced by those withdrawing from opiate addiction.

7. Severe mood changes related to sexual activity

Addicts experience intense mood shifts, often due to the despair and shame of having unwanted sex. Sexual addicts are caught in a crushing cycle of shame driven and shame-creating behavior. While shame drives the sexual addicts’ actions, it also becomes the unwanted consequence of a few moments of euphoric escape into sex.

8. Inordinate amounts of time spent obtaining sex, being sexual, and recovering from sexual experiences

Two sets of activities organize sexual addicts’ days. One involves obsessing about sex, time devoted to initiating sex, and actually being sexual. The second involves time spent dealing with the consequences of their acting out: lying, covering up, shortages of money, problems with their spouse, trouble at work, neglected children, and so on.

9. Neglect of important social, occupational, or recreational activities because of sexual behavior

As more and more of addicts’ energy becomes focused on relationships which have sexual potential, other relationships and activities — family, friends, work, talents and values — suffer and atrophy from neglect. Long-term relationships are stormy and often unsuccessful. Because of sexual over-extension and intimacy avoidance, short-term relationships become the norm.

Sometimes, however, the desire to preserve an important long-term relationship with spouse or children, for instance, can act as the catalyst for addicts to admit their problem and seek help.

3 thoughts on “How to spot the difference between a healthy sex drive and dependence / addiction”

  1. Pingback: Eric
  2. My husband of 20 years, was an executive, and I found out he did prostitution, while he traveled for his job. At first I was very ignornant, and what I found out, kind of put me in denial… I made myself believe “he would never do that again”, and I was very wrong….now I realize I must have been seeing the tip of the ice-berg, and it was just to shocking to absorb the whole truth.

    I divorced him, because I do not believe he can stop his addiction, or will even seek help…he is just too good at lying. He remarried and started that marriage with the same lies, he fed to me….I was a 2nd wife. He blamed it on the 1st wife…

    When I doubted his behavior, and could not put my finger on the reasons why he seemed fake, and odd in the way he communicated…he has every form of lying, and projecting, down to a science….he would make me doubt myself, and tell me and our children “your mother is insane”.

    I would like to find out more about the Side behaviors… how they behave, when they are in the family “pretending”….that interest me, because I feel both myself and my adult children need to know and be in counseling.

    Do you have any information, on the way the “pretend” and lie…. while not doing the sex behind out backs, but are in a family setting, lying? I would like information on that side of his personality.

    Thank you,

    Jackie

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