How Does Treatment Work for Sex Addiction?

All forms of sexual pleasure result from a release of dopamine by nerve cells as part of the mesolimbic “reward system” in the brain.

There remains a wide spectrum of beliefs, diagnoses, models and theories regarding the topic of sexual addiction. Psychologists, sociologists, neuroscientists and even clinical sexologists have struggled to develop a universal definition for those who struggle with unusually compulsive sexual behavior; some even maintain that sexual addiction isn’t a real addiction. This has made identification and treatment more difficult. However, hypersexual behavior does exist, and often carries with it harmful effects similar to substance abuse or other behavioral health disorders.

Perhaps the most pressing issue in the treatment of sexual addiction is diagnosis. Not all people with high levels of sexual activity or heightened libidos are sex addicts. Even following a successful diagnosis, treatment options and recovery are problematic; unlike recovery from the use of alcohol or other drugs, recovery for the sex addict often means a return to sexual activity.

We will delve into the signs and symptoms of sexual addiction, discuss what treatment methods are available and what a life in recovery looks like.

Warning Signs and Diagnosis

Warning signs of a possible sex addiction include:

  • Sexual desires taking priority over other responsibilities and needs.
  • Sex is used to self-regulate emotional fluctuations.
  • Compulsive masturbation or inability to stop thinking about sex.
  • Compulsive viewing of pornographic material.
  • Consistently seeking illicit activity to fulfill sexual urges, such as prostitution, sexual harassment and rape or thoughts of rape.

It has been argued that many sexual disorders, including sex addiction, begin in childhood as the result of a traumatic experience or experiences. In these cases, addiction is often accompanied by other psychological disorders or substance abuse issues.

Just as there is no widely accepted classification of sex addiction, there are no widely accepted diagnostic criteria for identifying an addict. If you or anyone you know believes you may have a problem with sexual addiction, it is best to not self-diagnose, but rather seek the counsel of professionals in the field.

Treatment Options

As we mentioned earlier, the goal of treatment for sex addicts is rarely a complete and permanent abstinence. For example, the organization Sex Addicts Anonymous has each member create a personalized definition of “sexual sobriety,” whereby the aim is to abstain from a list of compulsive behaviors that can lead to an unhealthy sexual lifestyle.
projectknow-shutter68701513-sex-addictThe forms of treatment for sex addiction are typically psychological rather than medical. Almost all professional treatments begin with a physical separation from sexual activity and from the triggers of unhealthy sexual urges. Depending on the effects of cultural and social stigmas surrounding hypersexuality, the patient may be encouraged to use therapy to confront feelings of guilt, shame or depression. Others use Cognitive Behavior Therapy to circumvent triggers of sexual addiction by substituting in healthy thoughts and behaviors to prevent relapse.

Some treatments involve a 12-step program based on those used in the treatment of alcohol or other addictions. Common components of 12-step programs include: openly admitting addiction, being assigned a sponsor, attending regular group meetings, and seeking the help of a “higher power.”

Distinguishing between “healthy” and “unhealthy” sexual behavior is difficult for the mind of the addict. All forms of sexual pleasure result from a release of the chemical dopamine by nerve cells as part of the mesolimbic “reward system” in the brain. The effect of dopamine is no different on those viewing pornography or visiting prostitutes than it is for those who are in a healthy, committed monogamous relationship. It is important for sex addicts to recognize cravings and sexual urges, and then to learn to distinguish between different kinds of impulses to help regulate behavior.

Some medications may be prescribed if the addict is also suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression or other conditions. Certain mood stabilizers may be prescribed, a common example being carbamazepine (Tegretol). While there has been testing of synthetic hormones designed to interrupt neurotransmitters and reduce libido, trials have produced mixed results.

Abstinence and Life in Recovery

Most professionals maintain that successful recovery from a sex addiction does not require the patient to give up all sexual activity. Often times, however, this does mean abstaining from pornography, one-night-stands and prostitution. Many believe that addiction is a side effect of other psychological issues. The driving forces behind sex addiction can include:

  • Poor self-esteem or poor self-image.
  • Psychological damage from prior trauma.
  • Bi-polar disorder or obsessive-compulsive disorder, among others.
  • Being in an unhealthy relationships, or fear of entering committed relationships.

A healthy sexual lifestyle begins with trust and respect for yourself and your partner. Almost all treatment centers for sex addiction recommend a stable, monogamous relationship. It is also recommended to be open and honest about impulses and to avoid triggers through a disciplined, structured environment. Recovering addicts confront the problems with intimacy and psychological complications accompanied by sex addiction.


If you or someone you know struggles with compulsive sexual behavior, we encourage you to consider looking at sexual addiction treatment centers in your area.

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