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.
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.