Is sex addiction real?

Sex is a natural, healthy and enjoyable part of life. It can be a beautiful, happy and bonding experience. So how can it be an addiction? Aren’t people who say they’re sex addicts just making excuses for their lack of self-restraint and control? Don’t they just enjoy it too much?

We face these questions all the time. They come from a whole world of misunderstanding about what addiction is. Sure, it’s true that not every person who has an affair is an addict. And not everyone who’s watched pornography is an addict. And not everyone who has lots of sex with lots of people is an addict. Some people just have high sex drives, or just happen to like certain things. That’s fine, we’re not trying to label everybody as an addict, or create excuses for irresponsible or unfaithful people. But sex addiction does exist. And it’s different from generally high libido, in two major ways:

1. Once we’ve started, we can’t stop

For alcoholics, there’s no such thing as just one quick drink. For gambling addicts, there’s no such thing as 10 minutes at the casino. For sex addicts, there’s no such thing as “5 minutes of porn” or “just an hour in the strip club” or “just one partner this week”. There’s a whole variety of sexual behaviours that can be addictive – but they all share a common thread: whatever we’re addicted to, we find it impossible to stop once we’ve started. We’ll stay up to the small hours on the internet – we’ll empty bank accounts on prostitutes and lap dancers – we’ll suffer STDs from our involvement in sex work - we’ll have affair after affair – we’ll masturbate until we’re sore – and we’ll get up the next day and do it again. Once we’ve started, we lose control over how much or how long or with whom or when or where.

2. We can’t stay away, no matter what the consequences

The above would all be academic if we could just not start in the first place! If only the alcoholic could remember the disaster of the last time he drank! If only the gambler could recall with sufficient force the horror of the loan shark and the bailiff! If only the sex addict could remember the STD test and its shameful result – the painful discoveries and broken relationships – the jobs lost, the sleep lost – the pay-cheques. Many of us have faced such consequences time and again. But they’ve not stopped us going back for more. It seems baffling to others – but all the terrible, humiliating things in the world don’t seem to cure the obsession. In fact, the worse ours lives become, the harder it seems to stop, and stay stopped!

Most people enjoy sex normally. They assume we enjoy it too – just too much. For us, that’s not always the case. Often our addictive behaviours leave us hurt, injured, demoralised, broke, despairing, and even suicidal. Yet no matter how often we experience these negative consequences – no matter how much we hate ourselves and what we’re doing – we always keep going back. Despite repeated and humiliating failures, there’s always one more attempt to control ourselves and enjoy sex as others do, and one more failure. That’s addiction.

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