Is Sex Addiction Even a Real Thing?I tended to scoff at the likes of Charlie Sheen, David Duchovony, Rob Lowe, and Michael Douglas when they attributed their sexcapades to the condition of sexual addiction. It sounded like a rather convenient, Hollywood excuse used by philandering celebrities to justify a lack of control.

Is sexual addiction real?

Well, it turns out that, yes, it is.  Sexual addiction is a real condition with a basis in the dopamine pleasure circuit in the brain which sex and orgasm activate. Brain scans of men during orgasm look very similar to that of someone shooting heroin. In his book, The Compass of Pleasure: How Our Brains Make Fatty Foods, Orgasm, Exercise, Marijuana, Generosity, Vodka, Learning, and Gambling Feel So Good, David Linden, quotes the poet Jim Carroll describing his first experience mainlining heroin as feeling “like 50,000 orgasms all at once.” Addictive drugs activate the same pleasure circuit as sex.

Because of neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to change form and function based on behavior and thoughts, repeated orgasms are believed to create the same path of addiction as a drug, producing changes to the pleasure circuit in the brain. In fact, studies have shown that highly palatable foods and potent sexual stimuli are the only things capable of activating the dopamine reward circuitry of the brain with anywhere near the same extent as addictive drugs.

Linden writes:

In a way, acceptance of the concept of sex addiction has some of the same problems as accepting the idea that over eating and obesity result from food addiction.  Unlike taking heroin, eating is a necessary activity.  Similarly, although it isn’t necessary per se, almost everyone has sex, and, of course, heterosexual sex is the traditional way to propagate the species. When does a normal behavior that almost all of us perform become an addiction?  Is the horny teenager who masturbates three times a day a sex addict?  The woman who never leaves the dance club on Saturday night without a new sexual partner? What about the businessman who seeks out prostitutes every time he travels for work? Defining sex addiction is not always straightforward, but the fundamental criteria are really no different than those for drug or alcohol or food addiction…

Just like a drug

Sex addicts go through the same cycle as other addicts: tolerance, withdrawal, craving, and relapse,  They develop a tolerance where more and more sex is necessary for achieving pleasure and go through withdrawals if they cannot get sex.  Just like with a drug, sex addicts go through the same process where liking the object of their addiction, in this case sex, turns to a wanting – not even a liking anymore, and the sex that used to provide pleasure becomes nothing more than a fix to satisfy a craving.  Just like any other addict, the sex addict experiences strong cravings when they try to quit.

According to Dr. Daniel Amen, people with Attention Deficit Disorder have a higher propensity to become sex addicts because of their impulsive and excitement seeking brains.

Sex addicts are among the least likely to seek help because of social stigma and lack of compassion as exhibited by my earlier attitude. A number of treatment programs are available using the same strategies that have proven effective in treating chemical dependencies, such as 12 step programs, cognitive behavioral therapy, interpersonal therapy, and group therapy.  Recent research suggests that antidepressant medications may also be useful in treating sexual addiction.

13 Comments

  1. Thank you Debbie for shedding light on this controversial issue. Most people don’t admit they have a problem. Balancing and Harmonizing the Brain also helps with this addiction. Thanks again for your insight.

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      Nora, good to hear from you! I can certainly see how this would be a hard addiction to admit to and seek help for with all the judgement surrounding it. About anything can be addictive really. Since Brain Optimization helps everything to do with the brain function better, in my humble opinion, it can most definitely help this. It is amazing stuff!

  2. I think it’s real too. I wish they would do some research on the correlation between testosterone levels in men and women, and sexually addictive behavior. I’m guessing that’s one cause. Hormones can produce powerful impulses toward action.

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      I have no doubt that certain biological tendencies predispose someone to one addiction over another. Environmental circumstances also, I think, play a huge role. Some people are just never going to be exposed to drugs, for instance, but they would encounter food or sex in a “normal” life.

  3. Thanks Debbie. In addition to being a coach, I am also a therapist, and have worked with this issue. I recommend Dr. Patrick Carnes’ books and treatment programs as a resource for folks struggling, or at least questioning, in this area. His perspective is not the only one, but he’s been around forever as a researcher and clinician for sex addiction. For the true addict, help is available. Without help, this problem can literally destroy lives and families. It’s no joke.

    Thanks again for writing about this Debbie.

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      Sean, thank you for the heads up on the book. Will check it out. I can see how sexual addiction can be particularly devastating because, unlike say a food addiction, it violates some of the moral foudations on which our society is built. It can potentially destroy marriages, families, and careers. As you say, it is no joke!

  4. Sol | Some Insight Required Reply

    Why does that picture of Charlie Sheen remind me of Mr. Burns?
    “Exceeelleeent…”

    I can’t help but feel compassion for addicts of any kind. Not that it needs help, but… figure of speech, y’know. I want to hug them 🙁

    And this was such a scientific article too…

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      Feeling compassion for addicts is much preferred to the judgment which is all too common! Thank you for your positive expressions about the blog!

  5. Hi Debbie,

    Found you through Posit Science on Facebook and came for a looksee. Love it that you respond to posts, I know how much time it takes. Just started reading Compass of Pleasure? Looking forward to generating lots of conversation with you. Mike Logan

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      Mike, thanks for stopping by! If anyone takes the time to read and write a commentk, I can take the time to respond!

  6. Pingback: Games Your Brain Plays | The Best Brain Possible

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