Sex Addiction: The Silent Epidemic

You may not have heard about sexual addiction, but you have encountered people with various forms of it. Men aren’t the only ones who have such intimacy issues. One woman per every 3 men are afflicted by this disorder (1). But most don’t talk about it. This very devastating and life threatening addiction remains in the background of mental health treatment as millions struggle with their intimate life.

Sexual addiction is a form of an intimacy disorder.

Sexual addiction is defined as a persistent and escalating patterns of sexual behavior despite increasing negative consequences to one’s self or others. Examples of compulsive sexual behaviors include serial affairs, casual hookups, pornography addiction, or having several uninformed partners. Note that having several partners that are unaware of one another differs from polyamory. Polyamory is a separate setup in relationships where each person is knowledgeable of all parties involved.

The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapists (AAMFT) report that 12 million people struggle with sexual addiction in the United States (2). From the research of Dr. Stephanie Carnes and her father and research pioneer, Dr. Patrick Carnes, there is now a deeper understanding of this disorder that affects so many. Begun in the 1990’s, Dr. Patrick Carnes’s groundbreaking work on sexual addiction paved the way for further comprehension of intimacy disorders and traumatic relationships.

I write a lot on shame. Brene Brown’s ground breaking work opened a door to several areas of trauma for people. While shame can be good, to prevent harmful acts that go against one’s values, it is often used as a method to control others’ and for the distorted narratives of societies. Shame is used to put others down at their expense more often than not. That great imbalance of self esteem causes one who feels lesser than internally to present as better than others externally, in order to equal out that power imbalance. Shame is a tool to create a false sense of power or superiority. And that often is the lie.

It also kills.

Suicide is the biggest danger for those with sexual addiction.

Often I see individuals who’ve reached utter dispair and hopelessness. The uncontrollability of these urges and the devastationt their addictions have on their lives pushes them into the darkest corners. Research shows that 19% of people have attempted suicide and 72% of sex addicts have thought about it. Many turn to suicide as a means to escape their personal hell and overwhelming shame from their behaviors. The double lives they created become difficult to lead. The shame and embarrassment of their behaviors lead them to suicide as a means to avoid societal consequences of being killed or exhiled for their behaviors. Therapy is usually the last resort because talking about it is the last thing they want to do.

Every addiction affects intimacy is some manner. And with sexual addiction, it is especially offensive. Partners feel betrayed (and rightly so). Their lives are at risk with the high exposure to sexually transmitted diseases (STD), and they incur consequences that cause them to lose jobs and encounter horrendous legal problems- sometimes criminal. Research notes that 55% of sexual offenders are sex addicts. But not all sex addicts are offenders (like R. Kelly).

The first step in treatment is to reduce the shame and stigmatization related to the addiction. While every addiction contains a certain amount, sexual addiction is so highly stigmatized that those affected are so afraid to seek or find help that they turn to death as the only way out. All addictions contain characteristic behaviors that one normally would not exhibit if they were not under the influence. All people with dependency or addiction have committed acts that are shameful and regarded as socially unacceptabl. Like a heroin shooter who steals money to support a drug habit, these behaviors are hideous. All addictions are devasting and uncontrollable. Addiction physically alters the structure of the brain. It’s not like these people said growing up, “I want to be a junkie when I’m adult. I’d like to have zero grounded relationships, and hurt everyone I possibly know.”

Society influences those who are affected by sexual addiction or intimacy disorders. The rules for men versus women dictate what is acceptable to display in public or not. The man rules and woman rules are some of my favorite topics. Now, given that I have a brain that has never thought in this paradigm, I never personally adopted such guidlines. I’ll climb a mountain with bears or gut a fish before I get a manicure. Yes, I do eat meat.

The man rules make behaviors acceptable for men to exhibit and prohibit others.

Those include the display of anger or stoicism as primary feelings. Men are human also. This means that they have feelings of pain, sadness, frustration, shame, guilt, joy, etc. You name it, they feel it on some level. However, most would rather cut off their big toe than cry in front of someone. They turn to walls and emotional numbness to keep themselves safe emotionally. This fortunately is improving as American culture becomes more accepting of the display of more than two feelings. However, it is still prevalent.

close up shot of a man crying
Photo by cottonbro

Women rules are contrary to those of man. To be a woman means that you have to be an emotional basketcase, gossip, and have conversations based on where you get your hair and nails done. Women are expected to be feminine, wear dresses, display sloppy feelings to everyone, stay home, stay silent, stay uneducated, and clean and cook. Learn science or earn doctorates? God forbid. In my generation, this was still a thing. Grandma expected me to be barefoot and pregnant by 16. Sorry grandma, I needed my graduate degree first.

When we adhere to outside expectations that we do not hold for ourselves, we end up living lives that are controlled by anyone but ourselves.

person wearing guy fawkes mask and hoodie
Photo by Tnarg on

We begin to develop a facade; a mask that we display to the world. In order to cope with the dissatisfaction of ourselves and resentment from the superficialness of it all, we form maladaptive coping mechanisms to get us through. Sex addiciton and intimacy disorders are just one of the many ways a person can learn to cope with horrendous circumstances like trauma. I typically see individuals with deep levels of familial dysfunction and/or sexual abuse. These people did not ask for these events to occur, and they found a way to live through it. In that sense, addiction is a good thing. It becomes the problem when the consequences begin to overwhelm your life.

That is where I begin. I help those afflicted by addiction to see there are ways to change. You can live a normal life in recovery. You are accepted, belong, and loved. We all are. Nothing is ever so bad that it can’t be changed given serious effort and work. Life is limitless.

  1. Carnes P. Nonmaker D. Skilling N. Gender differences in normal and sexually addicted populations. American Journal of Preventive Psychiatry and Neurology. 1991:4:16-23. 
  2. AAMFT Therapy Topic, “Sexual Addiction”, 
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