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You might ask, “What is sex addiction?”  Truthfully, sex addiction is a difficult thing for most people to talk about. It evokes a variety of negative stereotypes or judgments that may also be tied in with moral and/or spiritual guilt and/or shame. 

In recent years, we have seen many high profile figures have examples of their sexual addiction displayed for all to see in the media. Seeing their experiences can drive a lot of us to try to ignore or avoid addressing our own sexual addiction problems. It can also perpetuate unhealthy myths or views of what is truly regarded as sexually addictive behavior. 

Sexual addiction involves a pattern of behavior that can be common to most people. A variety of types of sexual behaviors occur to varying degrees but don’t constitute becoming a sexual addiction unless there is some cost/consequence to the individual or others as a result of being sexual in that specific way. While it is not uncommon to be sexual, sexual addictive behavior can be classified in the following ways: 


  • Fantasy sex- Being preoccupied with sexually charged fantasies, relationships, and situations. 
  • Seductive role sex- A person focuses solely on seduction of potential sexual partners and has no interest in them, after being sexual.
  • Voyeuristic sex- Being sexually aroused by viewing sexual material or people in a sexual manner.  Sometimes the material viewed doesn’t have to be sexually oriented.
  • Exhibitionistic sex- This is becoming sexual aroused by revealing one’s body in a sexually revealing way, so as to garner shock or interest from others.
  • Paying for sex- This involves the purchase of sex or sexual favors. Often people get more aroused around the ritual of preparing for this and find more pleasure in this, than actually being sexual.
  • Trading sex- This involves selling or trading oneself for sexual favors as a way to gain control over another person.
  • Intrusive sex- This involves invading someone’s personal boundaries in a way that seems necessary to feel sexual and it is often done without the other individual discovering this, or there are no legal consequences for the person who is sexual in this way.
  • Anonymous sex- Being involved in high risk sexual behaviors with strangers. 
  • Pain Exchange sex- This involves being humiliated or hurt in order to feel sexually aroused.  Most often, it can cause a person to violate their own or other’s personal values or beliefs all in the effort to become sexually aroused.
  • Exploitive sex- This involves being sexual by grooming and exploiting those who are “vulnerable”.     

Another way in which people may also demonstrate sexual addiction is through a pattern of behavior called “sexual anorexia”. In essence, someone demonstrating “sexual anorexia” avoids sex or anything to do with sexual behavior of any sort. They may act or experience the following:

They may …

  • dread the idea of having sexual pleasure.
  • fear and/or avoid sexual contact.
  • experience despair after being sexual with someone. 
  • demonstrate rigid judgmental attitudes about sex.
  • demonstrate an unrealistic fear around contracting STD (sexually transmitted diseases).
  • demonstrate an obsessive self doubt about their sexual abilities.
  • demonstrate a fearful preoccupation with other people being sexual.
  • engage in self destructive behaviors to limit, stop or avoid sex. 


Sometimes, people go back and forth between sexually acting out their addictive behaviors and sexually aversive behaviors, similar to a pattern of “binging and purging”.  Despite all this, the consequences can be same for the individual in terms of the negative toll it takes on themselves, their relationships, or their lives. 


In this era, we may wonder if being sexual in the above-referenced ways is really that bad … especially if it “isn’t hurting” anyone and both parties are “consenting” to it. In many ways, our society may even condone certain sexual activities, and has come to accept them as a part of normal, healthy sexual practice. Regardless of one’s spiritual or personal values, there are still attributes of sexual behavior that may exist and lead us to question if the behavior has now become an “addiction”. 

What does it look like when one’s sexual practice has become a sexual addiction? Some of the characteristics of sexual addiction are the following:

·         Loss of Control – seen in one’s ability to not be able to resist the impulse to engage in the specific sexual behavior.  

·         Compulsive Behavior – this is the sense that you are unable to limit or control your sexual acting out, and you engage it in it to a greater extent or over a longer period of time. 

·         Unable to Stop – You begin to fail at stopping or lessening the sexual behavior

·         Lost Time - You spend a great deal of time preparing for it, being involved in it, and recovering from the experience of being sexual. 

·         Preoccupation- you are becoming more preoccupied with the idea of being sexual in this way, and preparing for it.

·         Inability to Fulfill Obligations – The sexual behavior gets in the way of fulfilling obligations to work, school, family, or friends.

·         Continuation Despite Consequences- your sexual acting out behavior has gotten to a point that while there are growing negative consequences to your behavior in your social, financial, psychological, or physical state, you still continue to do it. 

·         Tolerance- you start to experiment in the types, intensity, frequency or even risk of the sexual behavior because you find that you need to in order to maintain the level of enjoyment when you are sexual.

·         Sacrificing healthy lifestyle- you begin to give up or limit things that you used to enjoy that were enjoyable and healthy all because of the desire to be sexual

·         Withdrawal effects- you begin to feel restless, anxious, or irritable if you cannot be sexual in that way.

One of the foremost experts in the area of sexual addiction, Dr. Patrick Carnes, author of many books regarding sexual addiction such as  “Facing the Shadow:  Starting Sexual and Relationship Recovery” (2005), or “Out of the Shadows: Understanding Sexual Addiction” (1983), has provided a great amount of knowledge in the occurrence, and prevalence of sexual addiction. He states[just] like an alcoholic unable to stop drinking, sexual addicts are unable to stop their self-destructive sexual behavior. Family breakups, financial disaster, loss of jobs, and risk to life are the painful themes of their stories.

Sex addicts come from all walks of life – they may be ministers, physicians, homemakers, factory workers, salespersons, secretaries, clerks, accountants, therapists, dentists, politicians, or executives, to name just a few examples. Most were abused as children – sexually, physically, and/or emotionally. The majority grew up in families in which addiction already flourished, including alcoholism, compulsive eating, and compulsive gambling. Most grapple with other addictions as well, but they find sex addiction the most difficult to stop.

Much hope nevertheless exists for these addicts and their families. Sex addicts have shown an ability to transform a life of self-destruction into a life of self-care, a life in chaos and despair into one of confidence and peace.”  

Sources:  “Facing the Shadow”, by Dr. Patrick Carnes
            “Mending A Shattered Heart”, by Dr. Stefanie Carnes

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