Recognizing and Treating Sexual Addiction

Though the condition is not clearly defined, sexual addiction is real. Here’s how to find help.

a male patient sits in a therapists office; we see the man's hands in the foreground and his female therapist in the background

Medically reviewed in December 2022

Updated on January 11, 2023

If you’ve followed the news in recent years, you may have heard of a condition called sexual addiction. A number of celebrities—including Tiger Woods, Ye (aka Kanye West), Michael Douglas, Charlie Sheen, and Russell Brand—have at various times admitted to having sexual addiction.

But is sex addiction like drug or alcohol dependence, or something else? Despite its presence in the public consciousness, experts are split on the question.

Understanding causes and triggers
Sexual addiction (also known as hypersexual disorder or sexual compulsivity) is thought to occur in about 3 to 6 percent of the population. It is more prevalent among men than women.

Though it is called an addiction, it wasn’t included in the most recent version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (aka DSM-5, the go-to text for defining mental health conditions), published in 2013 and updated in 2022. This is, in part, because unlike with drugs and alcohol, there isn’t yet a great understanding of what causes sexual addiction.

For some people, it looks like an addiction: engaging in sexual behaviors despite negative consequences and loss of control. For others, it may manifest as a compulsive sexual behavior disorder, which involves a persistent pattern of being unable to control intense, repetitive sexual impulses or urges. Sexual addiction can also be for some like obsessive-compulsive disorder, where someone uses sexual activity to calm anxiety or fear.

Some experts hesitate to consider it a mental health disorder at all. The American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists say doing so could stigmatize consensual sexual behaviors.

Knowing the signs
Regardless of how it is classified clinically, sexual addiction is more than just having a high libido. As with other addictions or compulsions, it is characterized by the inability to control one’s actions, even when there are negative consequences. People who experience it may focus on sex to the point that:

  • They neglect their own health and responsibilities
  • They make repeated attempts to stop the behavior without success
  • They no longer derive pleasure from sex, but continue the behaviors anyway
  • The behavior lasts longer than six months
  • The behavior interferes with normal work, family, or social activities and obligations

Sex addiction encompasses more than just the act of sex with one or more partners. People with a sexual addiction may also masturbate compulsively, engage in unsafe sexual practices, or struggle with excessive use of pornography or cybersex.

Help is available
If you or someone you love suffers from compulsive sexual behavior, don’t hesitate to seek treatment. There are a range of options available depending on your needs and lifestyle.

Therapy, including cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), is one option. CBT helps people identify and understand negative behaviors and learn coping strategies and actions to replace the behaviors or make them harder to accomplish.

If you aren’t a fan of individual therapy, you could try group programs like Sex Addicts Anonymous, Sex and Love Addicts, and Sexual Compulsives Anonymous. Modeled after other 12-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous, these gatherings are available throughout the country and in many cases may be accessible online or via teleconference. Keep in mind that data is lacking on the effectiveness of these programs, but they do provide a place for camaraderie, support, structure, accountability, and are free to attend.

Medication can also be used to treat sexual addiction. A healthcare provider (HCP) may prescribe antidepressants or mood stabilizers to reduce the compulsion for sex. Naltrexone, used to treat alcohol or opioid addiction, may reduce the addictive need for sex. Anti-androgens may be used for men to block sex hormones and reduce sexual desire.

Many people with addictive and compulsive behaviors also experience depression, anxiety, or substance use disorder. The goal of treatment for sexual addiction is to help people understand the cause of problematic sexual behaviors, reduce them, and maintain healthier ones.

Article sources open article sources

American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists. AASECT Position on Sex Addiction. Page accessed on December 9, 2022.
Mayo Clinic. Compulsive sexual behavior. Page last revised on February 7, 2020.
Kraus, S. W., Voon, V., & Potenza, M. N. Neurobiology of Compulsive Sexual Behavior: Emerging Science. Neuropsychopharmacology : official publication of the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology. 2016;41:385–386.
Fong TW. Understanding and managing compulsive sexual behaviors. Psychiatry (Edgmont). 2006;3(11):51-58.
Karila L, Wéry A, Weinstein A, et al. Sexual addiction or hypersexual disorder: different terms for the same problem? A review of the literature. Curr Pharm Des. 2014;20(25):4012-4020.

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