July 07, 2016

Sexual Addictions: The Science and Psychology

In part four of this seven-part series on addiction, we explore how sexual addictions affect millions of people around the world every day through the science and psychology behind it.

Sexual addictions affect millions of people around the world every day. From the general public to celebrities such as Charlie Sheen, David Duchovny, Michael Douglas, Paris HiltonRussell Brand, Tiger Woods, Amber Smith, Jennifer Ketcham, and Terry Crews, to name only a few.

It's more common than you might think. In fact, almost 12 million people, in the United States alone, suffer from having a sexual addiction. In addition to this, sexual addictions are commonly ranked among the top ten addictions in the world alongside coffee, drugs, alcohol, gambling, and the internet.

The term 'sexual addiction' is often confused and mistaken for other sex labels such as hypersexuality, hypersexual disorder, or "high libido." So, if you're confused about the differences, you're not alone. Over the years and across varying sources, the terms have been used interchangeably. And while there are distinct differences between them, they do all have one thing in common. That is—they all refer to having an obsession with sex.

In the previous articles, we explored the effect addictions can have on the brain—particularly from substance abuse. But what about sexual addictions? Since this is more behavior driven rather than substance driven, can it rightly be called an "addiction?" How common is it? And how powerful of an addiction can it be? We turn to science for answers.

The Science

What's really behind sexual addictions and what drives this type of behavior? Sexual activity of any kind triggers the release of dopamine and oxytocin into the brain. Both are pleasure chemicals that activate your brain's reward and pleasure centers. It's why, for most people, when performing a sexual act—it feels pleasurable. This is because they are the same chemicals that help to bring spouses together and motivate them to care for each other and have children.

Is it an Actual "Addiction?"

Although sex addiction is officially not listed in the DSM-5, which is used to diagnose mental disorders, it remains a very real issue. The debate over whether sexual addictions are in-fact "addictions," however, remains heavily contested among the public and professionals in the fields of addiction and mental health.

In her article 'Is Sex Addiction a True Addiction?' Susan Jara sums up the debate amongst mental health professionals arguing that
"The brains of sex addicts react to sexual stimuli in the same way the brains of drug addicts respond to substances."
Rory Reid, Ph.D. and research psychologist at UCLA's Semel Institute for Neuroscience weighs in suggesting it is regarded as an addiction. Rory explains that sex addicts aren't only people who crave lots of sex but instead are people who suffer from "underlying problems such as stress, anxiety, depression, shame."

How Common is it?

Sexual addiction can be as addictive as drugs—if not more so. In fact, according to Brainz.org and other sources, sexual addictions are among the most common forms of addiction.

How Powerful Can it Be?

In the same way, that a lie mixed with truth becomes a more powerful lie, an unhealthy behavior that springs from something healthy and good can be all the more potent of a deception for us to fall and become trapped into. As Dr. Jeffrey Satinover of Princeton University explained to a U.S. Senate Committee, "It is as though we have devised a form of heroin … usable in the privacy of one’s own home and injected directly to the brain through the eyes."

Sex Addict vs. Non-Sex Addict

What, then, is the difference between someone who has a sexual addiction and someone who does not? As Frances Cohen Praver Ph.D. explains, the fundamental difference, for sex addicts, is that they "quickly slide down into despair after the sex act leaving their dopamine receptors hungry for more sex." Conversely, for someone who does not have a sex addiction, they would feel satisfied as a result of their dopamine receptors being satiated.

Fight the New Drug, a website dedicated to exposing the dangers of pornography explains that "thanks to the Internet, porn now mixes the most powerful natural dopamine release the body can produce with a cocktail of other elements—endless novelty, shock, and surprise—all of which increase the dopamine surge." If you want to find out if you have a sex addiction, you can take the free sex addiction self-evaluation assessment at PsychGuides.com.

The Root Problem

As time goes by, more and more information on the topic of sexual addiction, particularly when it comes to pornography, is published and broadcasted throughout the media. Why then, do so many millions of people fall prey to this addiction?

To explore answers, we re-visit the TEDx Talk by Zoe Chance, in which she mentions a theory by Tony Robbins. The theory states that there are six essential human needs; significance, certainty, security, uncertainty, growth, and connection. She expounds on the theory suggesting that, if something meets at least three of these needs, it may well become an addiction.


How does pornography, for instance, hold up under this theory? Does it meet our need for significance? Pornography has the power to thrust the user into a world where they are the focus. Loneliness and feeling powerless are two frequent triggers for pornography use according to Kristi Pikiewicz Ph.D. If we feel ignored in the real world, porn gives us an imaginary world where the people on the screen focus only on us and our need for pleasure and fulfillment, even though it's ultimately empty.


Like anything that gives us a high, pornography will predictably bring us back to the place of satisfaction it always has, even though that satisfaction is very short-lived. Similarly, it brings a sense of security because we know it's always there when we're lonely, frustrated, or discontent. We know where we can turn to for comfort, even though that "comfort" is empty and shameful.


Uncertainty? Porn has that too. The internet provides a neverending supply of video and images to choose from. With the multitude and variation uploaded and available to access from almost anywhere at anytime—all kinds of uncertainty present itself.


With uncertainty comes the sense of growth. The progression from relatively innocent curiosity to hardcore images, to violent content we never imagined we would be interested in. An addiction always escalates, and none as quickly and extensively as sexual addictions. There's always more out there, and it always gets darker and more frightening.


Finally, connection. Again, loneliness is a common trigger for pornography use. It gives us a false sense of connection because it allows us to live vicariously through the people on the screen who ironically aren't really connecting at all, but rather being exploited and objectified. As a viewer, however, it gives us that sense of connection that we long for, releasing the same chemicals as a hug from a loved one—just in an invalid way instead of a caring one.

Replace "pornography" with "compulsive masturbation," "casual hook-ups," or any other number of noxious sexual behaviors and the same truths stand.
Sexual behavior gives us a false but powerful sense of filling our needs and comforting us in our emptiness.

It's Harder than You Think

So just stop, right? If you know that this behavior isn't good or healthy, then why continue with it? Why not just stop now and never indulge again?

That might sound easy but, the reality is that—it never is. When we develop an addiction, we rewire our brains to believe we need this behavior to continue living our lives. But deep down, we sense it isn't the right thing. We know we need to change it. We know it's not good for us but, we don't know what to do.

During the journey of rehabilitation, it's common for addicts to experience withdrawal symptoms, though not as severe or life-threatening as those developed from substance abuse. Experiences may include nausea, headaches, shaking, and even severe teen depression. They pass, but not quickly or easily and, despite your efforts, your brain will tell you over and over to go back to the behavior that brought you here in the first place.

Does that mean that stopping is impossible? Absolutely not. Like any addiction, it's possible to stop, no matter how difficult it might seem. But it involves facing the truth about your struggle. It involves getting help from others and finding healthy, positive behaviors to replace it with.

As the website Your Brain on Porn explains:
"The key for making it through these moments is to remind yourself that all things are temporary and these emotions will pass, no matter how intense."

Stay Positive

More techniques and principles will be addressed further in the following articles, but for now, stay positive and don't lose hope. No matter how many times you've told yourself, this would be the last time. And no matter how many times that turned out to be a lie, it is possible to end it. But, it starts with an honest look at your problem. Is your sexual behavior really helping you towards true growth, connection, and significance, or is it holding you back from your best life?

Other articles in this 7-part series:
  1. What is an Addiction and Addiction Formation.
  2. Stages of Addiction: Are You Addicted?
  3. Substance Abuse: The Catalyst for Drug Addiction.
  4. (This article)
  5. Food Addictions: It's Not Just About Food.
  6. Entertainment Addiction: Are We Escaping Reality?
  7. Breaking an Addiction: How to Set Yourself Free.