Sexaholics Anonymous (SA) is an organization based on the 12-step addiction recovery model and is an important resource for people coping with an addiction to sex. It is difficult to quantify exactly how many people suffer from sexual addiction for a couple of reasons. First, the shame and fear associated with compulsive sexual behaviors keep many people from seeking help or even from being truthful in anonymous surveys. Second, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) does not currently recognize it as an official addiction or disorder.
Sexual addiction appears to be more common in males, with behavior typically beginning in late adolescence.However, rough estimates based on existing research suggest around 2–5% of people in the United States have an issue with some form of compulsive sexual behavior that causes distress in their lives. Sexual addiction also appears to be more common in males than females, with behavior typically beginning in late adolescence.1
Older research suggests as many as 8% of the U.S. population has some form of sexual addiction, which is more than people who have addictions to gambling or eating disorders (which are DSM-recognized disorders). Furthermore, researchers believe that sexual addiction is a growing problem due to the increased accessibility of internet porn.2 The cyber world has created more opportunities to easily engage in casual sex or “hook-ups” through internet chat rooms and dating sites.
The Role of 12-Step Groups in Recovery
It is possible to recover from sexual addiction, but many people struggle to overcome denial about their problematic behaviors. Sometimes it takes a significant negative event to precipitate a person seeking treatment, such as a divorce, losing a job, or being arrested for soliciting a prostitute.
Find Relief in RecoveryMental health encompasses a person’s psychological, emotional, and social wellbeing. While some mental health issues may be impacted by behavior, many mental health disorders have neurological or biological causes. Read More
Some people suffering from a sex addiction enter inpatient treatment programs, but many receive treatment on an outpatient basis. Unless you are a danger to yourself or others, inpatient treatment is not usually necessary for treating sexual addiction. However, should you have a co-occurring mental health disorder or a substance abuse problem, inpatient treatment may be the better choice.2
Regardless of whether you receive treatment in an inpatient or outpatient setting, though, SA can act as an important component of treatment that is helpful both as an adjunct to ongoing treatment and as an aftercare service following treatment. SA allows you to meet with others who are recovering from sex addiction and receive support and insight into successful ways to abstain from harmful behaviors.
Sexaholics Anonymous is based on the 12-step model that encourages participants to learn to look at themselves honestly, accept personal limitations, and increase their reliance on a force greater than themselves. The support group environment also provides a social network based on relationships that are not sexual in nature. Unlike substance abuse support groups, however, Sexaholics Anonymous does not focus on total abstinence, but rather on healthy sexual interactions and behaviors.2
For many people in recovery from sexual addiction, the shame and guilt associated with it interferes with relating in healthy ways to others. Even in a mental health treatment setting, a person recovering from sexual addiction may not always feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and behaviors with a therapist. However, in the SA setting, everyone struggles with sexual addiction, which allows many to feel more comfortable and more likely to openly discuss their struggles. Group approaches can also help a person in recovery break through the tendency of those with addictions to isolate from the public.2
What Is Sex Addiction?
The term sex addiction carries many cultural and value judgments and has led to disagreement among the psychiatric community about its validity as an official addiction. It’s not easy to define for several reasons, including the fact that for some people, having multiple sex partners in any given year is viewed as normal, healthy behavior, while others see having multiple sex partners as promiscuous and a sign of addiction.
The terms hypersexual behaviors, compulsive sexual behaviors, or problematic sexual behaviors help provide better parameters around the concept of a sex addiction.
The American Society for Addiction Medicine (ASAM) describes an addiction as the unhealthy pursuit of “reward and/or relief by substance abuse or other behaviors.”3 ASAM notes the involvement of neurotransmitters and other brain functioning factors with the development and maintenance of addiction.
Sexual addiction then, by this definition, is a real addiction for many people. However, the current edition of the DSM-5 does not contain a sexual addiction diagnosis, in part because while some researchers believe it fits the criteria of an addiction, others see it as a compulsive behavior. This disagreement ultimately led to the exclusion of the diagnostic category of hypersexual behavior or sexual addiction.
Still, behavioral health experts point out that when drug-using behaviors or impulses become uncontrollable and you use these drugs despite negative consequences, this drug use is classified as an addiction. So, they posit, uncontrolled sexual behaviors that you still engage in despite negative consequences are clearly a sign of an addiction.1
It is important not to confuse people with a sexual addiction with those with a paraphilia.In all of this discussion, it is important not to confuse people with a sexual addiction with those with a paraphilia. Paraphilias are sexual behaviors that are unusual, taboo, or even criminal, such as sexual behavior involving children or animals or engaging in “peeping Tom” behaviors (voyeurism). Also, paraphilias carry an official diagnosis in the DSM-5. By contrast, sexual addiction usually involves behaviors that are widely considered as normal, such as sexual intercourse between consenting adults, masturbation, or viewing legal pornography.1
Three key areas characterize a compulsive sexual issue:
- Compulsive sexual fantasies.
- Compulsive sexual urges.
- Compulsive sexual behaviors.
Additionally, people with sexual addiction report that common triggers for their behavior includes mood changes and loneliness. Risk factors that influence the development of sexual addiction, include coming from families with some form of addiction, such as substance abuse, gambling addiction, sexual addiction, or eating disorders. Other risk factors include co-occurring mood disorders and substance abuse issues.1
People with sexual addiction often engage in high-risk sexual activities, such as having anonymous sex, unprotected sex, or engaging in sexual activities that lead to physical harm. In addition, many report consequences to their social, professional, and family life due to these behaviors, as well as intrusive fantasies that preoccupy large portions of time and interfere with family and professional responsibilities.1
Signs of a sex addiction may include:4
- Unsuccessful attempts to stop the behavior.
- Preoccupation with sex.
- Escalating sexual acting out, with a need for riskier and riskier behaviors to continue to feel fulfilled.
- Not fulfilling family and work obligations due to sexual acting out.
- Withdrawal, characterized by experiencing anger, irritability, or high levels of frustration when you are unable to sexually act out.
Those with sexual addiction are more likely than the average person to have unwanted pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases, and other medical and physical problems related to risky sexual behavior. In addition, the presence of sexual addiction makes it easier to develop an addiction to alcohol or drugs.
- Derbyshire, K. L., & Grant, J. E. (n.d.). Compulsive Sexual Behavior: A Review of the Literature. Journal of Behavioral Addictions,4(2), 37–43.
- Hagedorn, W. B., & Juhnke, G. A. (2005). Treating the sexually addicted client: Establishing a need for increased counselor awareness. Journal of Addictions & Offender Counseling, 25(2), 66-86.
- American Society of Addiction Medicine. (2011). Quality and Practice: Definition of addiction.
- Carnes, P. J. (2001). Out of the Shadows: Understanding Sexual Addiction. (3rd ed.). Center City, MN: Hazelden.