Facing Sexual Addiction
by Stanley Ducharme, Ph.D.
Sexual addiction is a compulsive and progressive
condition for many men and women. It cuts across people of all ages, economic
conditions, racial ethnicity and religious backgrounds. Sexual addiction is
characterized by a relentless search for sexual gratification without regard to
consequences or personal safety. The addiction progresses gradually in stages
during which time the addict becomes increasingly detached from friends, family
and the real world. Ultimately, the addictive cycle ends with serious legal,
financial or personal distress.
It is easy to confuse the presence of a sexual
compulsion or addiction with a high sexual drive or libido. Having a sexual
addiction, however, is very different than having a strong sexual libido. The
individual with a sexual addiction finds little satisfaction in sexual
activities or in having an intimate relationship. The emotional components of
the sexual relationship are non-existent. For most sexual addicts, there is
little concern for issues such as personal feelings, attachment to others and
emotional closeness. The sexual act itself becomes all consuming.
In spite of its prevalence and severity, sexual
addiction is rarely talked about and often misunderstood. Effective treatment
programs are limited and most people would prefer not discussing such personal
and embarrassing matters. These reactions further intensify the feelings of
despair experienced by an individual with a sexual addiction. Self-loathing and
diminished feelings of self-worth are universal. Sexual addictions also destroy
relationships. Divorce is commonplace and communication with one's partner
becomes increasingly difficult. The addict has a secret that he is unable to
share. Emotional distance in a relationship becomes a way of life.
The Progression of Sexual Addiction
Today, the most prevalent form of sexual addiction is related to the
computer. Fantasy chat rooms, web cams and explicit materials have proliferated
in recent years. Typically, masturbation and various forms of auto-erotic
stimulation accompany this compulsive search for sexual gratification. For many
sexual addicts, this behavior occupies multiple hours each day and can
significantly interfere with the completion of other daily activities such as
work, family responsibilities and relationships. In more severe cases, the
search for gratification can literally consume the majority of one's waking
Like all addictions, the pursuit of sexual
gratification can progress rapidly over a period of months or years until the
behavior is unstoppable. Often, there is an escalation of risk factors as well
as an increasing exploitation of the victim. Although these addictions tend to
be seen primarily in the male population, they can at times occur with
individuals of either gender. Exact statistics as to the prevalence of sexual
addiction are generally unavailable because of the shame and guilt associated
with the behavior. Legal consequences also prevent the collection of reliable
statistics. Secrecy and shame are the hallmark of a sexual addiction.
Most people would never consider engaging in the
behaviors often associated with sexual addiction. Typically, the seriousness of
the behaviors has gradually intensified over a period of time until a major
legal, marital or financial crisis has developed in the life of the individual.
At this point, the addiction has reached overwhelming proportions and the
consequences can no longer be ignored or denied.
Most frequently, these addictive sexual behaviors
are categorized on three levels according to the degree of risk and the legal
consequences involved. Level one behaviors may include: masturbation,
prostitution and anonymous sex. Level two behaviors often include: voyeurism,
exhibitionism and sexually explicit phone calls. Level three behaviors are
considered the most severe and may include: child molestation, incest and rape.
Not surprisingly, severe emotional turmoil also
tends to accompany a sexual addiction. For many people, the sexual behaviors
associated with an addiction can lead to intense feelings of shame, guilt and
despair. Severe periods of depression often follow a period of sexual acting
out behavior. Ending the cycle of addiction often seems impossible. In such a
helpless situation, suicidal ideation and substance abuse become a way of life.
Life often feels out of control.
No one is quite sure why people develop addictions
to sex. Generally, the reasons behind such addictions are different for each
individual. Psychologists however tend to think that most addictions have some
genetic influence as well as psychological factors, such as traumatic childhood
experiences. Various addictions tend to follow family lines leading many
behavioral scientists to believe that such behaviors are learned during
Other medical and psychological professionals
believe that addictions grow out of a need to escape or "medicate" emotional
problems and emotional pain. In this respect, a sexual compulsion is similar to
alcoholism or drug abuse. The behavior is used to adjust a mood, cope with
emotional turmoil or to escape reality. Denial is commonplace.
Often, obsessive thinking and a preoccupation with
sexual matters can accompany the compulsive behaviors. There is an inner
turmoil in which the individual incessantly seeks gratification while feeling a
sense of self-loathing and detachment from others. In many ways, the individual
with a sexual addiction develops a habit to only be aroused during certain
situations such as when exposed to pornographic material or when paying for
For the partner, living with a person who has
developed a sexual addiction, can be emotionally painful, isolating and
extremely frustrating. Partners often feel humiliated and embarrassed by the
actions of the sexual addict and have little emotional support available to
them. Friends may have few constructive suggestions to offer and qualified
professionals may be difficult to find. Because of shame, talking about such
problems may be beyond a partner's emotional capabilities. For many people,
living with a sexual addict is similar to the experience of being emotionally
abused. Silence seems like the only alternative.
If you are concerned that your partner may have a
sexual addiction, there are a number of steps that might be recommended.
Clearly, the first step is to speak with your partner and discuss your
observations and concerns. Like all addictions, a defensive reaction is common.
In some cases, the individual may not realize that a problem exists or that
certain behaviors have become habitual. Encouraging psychological treatment and
providing strong emotional support are critical if changes are expected.
Expressing emotional support is often difficult at this time because of
personal distress and feelings of anger.
There is no one form of treatment that has been
proven most effective. Often, a combined treatment approach is used in working
with the person who has a sexual addiction. For example, some of the
psychiatric medications can be helpful in reducing sexual drive or in
decreasing sexually intrusive thoughts. These medications may also allow an
individual to consider consequences before acting on a sexual urge or impulse.
In addition to medications, treatment almost always involves therapy or
counseling on a regular basis. In the United States there are also self-help
programs for people with sexual addictions. These are modeled after the AA 12
step programs and are found in most major cities in the U.S.
In certain parts of the country, sexual
compulsivity workshops and retreats may be available. These workshops are aimed
at recognizing the origins of the addiction and developing a realistic recovery
program. These workshops are also built on a 12-step model and follow the
standard principles of recovery. To date, there has been no research on their
Like any addiction, maintaining control and
avoiding future problems is a difficult, life-long process. Maintaining
sobriety over sexual addictions requires strong motivation and a constant
vigilance during times of potential danger. With good emotional support,
however, it is possible to make the necessary changes. For most people, ending
psychological counseling too quickly and developing a false sense of confidence
are the biggest mistakes that can lead to future problems.
RECOMMENDED READINGS ON SEXUAL ADDICTION
1. Out of the Shadows: Understanding
Sexual Addiction. Patrick Carnes, Hazelden Publications, Center City,
2. Contrary to Love: Helping the
Sexual Addict. Patrick Carnes, Bantam Books, New York, 1992.
3. In the Shadows of the Net:
Breaking Free of Compulsive Online Sexual Behavior. Patrick Carnes,
Hazelden Publications, Center City, Minn., 2001.
4. Looking for Love in All the Wrong
Places: Overcoming Romantic and Sexual Addictions. Jed Diamond, G.T. Putnam
Publishing Company, New York, 1988.
5. The Warrior's Journey Home: Healing Men,
Healing the Planet. Jed Diamond, New Harbinger Publications, Oakland, CA.,
For more information or for a consultation, Dr.
Ducharme can be contacted at (617) 638-7358. His office is located at 720
Harrison Street, Suite 606, Boston, MA 02118.
© 2005 Stanley Ducharme, Ph.D.