For most people, sex addiction is not actually driven by sexual desire but by issues related to intimacy, the need to numb emotional pain, assert control, avoid emotional connection, balance moods or reduce anxiety. It’s a very real and rarely discussed disorder which can have a devastating impact on individuals, relationships and families.
For those of us grappling with sex addiction, it can feel like an overwhelming and unstoppable impulse, and because sex addiction is often hidden from family and friends in a shroud of shame or denial, it has the capacity to endure and escalate over time.
“People who present for treatment because their lives are in chaos due to problematic sexual behaviours, are suffering in similar ways to an alcoholic or gambling addict who seeks treatment after a ‘rock bottom’,” says Jane O’Keeffe, Holistic Psychologist and Consultant with South Pacific Private.
However, many people who are struggling with sex addiction do not reach out for help due to secrecy, shame, guilt and fear, which can all feel like insurmountable barriers. These feelings can be compounded if the addiction occurs alongside infidelity or confusion over sexuality and/or gender identity.
“It is the seeking - the suspense, anticipation, obsessive search for sexual stimulation which ignites many different neural pathways, releasing a cascade of emotions that sex addicts can become addicted to prior to the acting out behaviour,” explains O’Keeffe. “Feelings of remorse, despair, shame are often experienced after acting out and so the addict returns to the preoccupation stage again to block these unpleasant feelings,” she adds. “As the addiction progresses, people will become secretive and lie to conceal the extent of their compulsive behaviour.”
Sometimes described as hypersexuality, porn addiction or sexual compulsive disorder, sex addiction – is actually very common.
“Sex addiction is a process addiction, which means people are addicted to a mood-altering experience. A person alters their mood by engaging in behaviour which brings about an obsessive, trance-like state because they are in sexual fantasy,” explains O’Keeffe.
“The typologies can include compulsive consumption of porn, fantasy sex, (compulsive masturbation, intrigue, obsession), voyeurism, spending long hours at strip shows, anonymous sex, cruising behaviour, exhibitionism (eg driving a car with pants down waiting for someone to notice), compulsive paying for sex (including phone and cybersex), frotteurism (non-consensual behaviour of rubbing oneself up against an unsuspecting person), inappropriate sexual talk during a conversation, pain exchange- sex where physical pain is involved and or being humiliated (self or others), illegal behaviour and exploitative sex.”
Seeking help for sex addiction
According to O’Keeffe, it’s important to seek treatment because compulsive sexual behaviour is not healthy sexuality. “It is progressive over time, as are the emotional, financial, social, occupational and cognitive consequences that can accompany addiction,” she says. “Untreated, people can stay in the cycle of addiction for decades. Often, other substances may be involved and depression and anxiety can increase.”
She says if a person is not emotionally available to themselves, they are not emotionally present to others, including their partners, children, friends and colleagues. “This makes it impossible to have emotional intimacy with others.”
South Pacific Private has pioneered the treatment of sex addiction in Australia. Clients are met by trained therapists who understand addiction and have lived experience. “It’s important to take a multi -faceted approach to treatment. For long-term recovery to occur, one must deal with the presenting issue (sex addiction and other co-occuring symptoms, such as depression, anxiety, or other addictions) as well as underlying issues (developmental trauma),” explains O’Keeffe.
“Clients receive education about the cycle of sex addiction, including the learning about the neural pathways in the brain involved in the addiction,” she adds. “It is important that they identify their arousal template. To identify this, clients need to specify what their ideal fantasy would look like with the purpose of tracing back to the origins of the original arousal experience. For example, a client who only feels aroused when they are engaging in sex that causes them (or others) physical pain may trace the origins back to being a child who grew up with a violent alcoholic father.”
Partners of people with sex addiction
Those of us who have partners battling sex addiction, will understand the feelings of despair, anger, stress and betrayal. “If infidelity occurs, the breach of trust can create deep despair, a lack of safety and impact on the self esteem and sense of the value for the partner as the sex addict lies or manipulates (gaslights) their partner to enable continued compulsive acting out,” says O’Keeffe.
As a partner of someone with sex addiction, it is perfectly normal to feel angry, fearful, upset and helpless. It’s important to take time out for self-care and seek help if you’re feeling overwhelmed.
If you’re concerned you or your partner may have a problem with sex addiction, you can schedule a free, confidential, professional phone assessment with our team on 1800 063 332.
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