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Sex addiction or hypersexuality: what is it, symptoms and treatment

In order to understand sexual addiction (synonymous with hypersexuality, sex addiction and sex addiction), we could compare it to any of the other better known addictions, such as internet addiction, compulsive shopping (or shopping addiction) and substance addiction. Those who suffer from sex addiction establish a pathological relationship with sex, becoming sex addicts. Sex becomes more important than family, friends and work and, as with the effects of drugs, can alter mood and affect daily life.

What is sex addiction?

Can always wanting to make love be considered an illness? We talk about sex addiction when a man's propensity to experience sexuality as a natural manifestation turns into an unbridled activity, characterized by a disorder of control of sexual impulses that causes an irrepressible increase in desire, to be satisfied at any cost.

Associated with uncontrollability we find compulsivity, or the inability to choose whether to stop or continue with a given behaviour. The typical behaviours of sexual addiction can also be present during childhood. In fact, hypersexuality in children manifests itself with a sexuality that is discordant with the age and level of maturation of the child.

Sex addiction: the mechanisms

Like all other addictions, sex addiction often occurs in response to unpleasant moods. Compulsive sex can become a strategy used to relieve unpleasant emotions and generate pleasurable ones.

Some people, through their accounts of sex addiction, state:

  • "I always want to have sex".

  • "I think about sex all the time"

  • "I'm obsessed with sex."

They describe themselves as a "hypersexual" person with an emphasis on addiction, seen as a kind of anaesthetic: having "too much" sex becomes a way of coping with difficult times. However, when the anesthetic wears off, the person returns to experiencing unpleasant emotions such as:

  • anger;

  • guilt towards one's partner (if one has one) or towards oneself;

  • sadness..;

  • shame.

A person who is addicted to sex, in order to seek relief from all this, then again feels the urge to detach from reality or from herself and does so through sexual behaviours.

Female hypersexuality and hypersexuality in men

Many terms are used to refer to female and male sex addiction; however, between male and female sexual addiction we find differences more in linguistic terms than in symptoms and causes.

In fact, we speak of satyriasis when we refer to male hypersexuality, while we speak of nymphomania if we want to define female sexual dependence. The mechanisms of dependence, however, remain the same, as do the intrusive thoughts and compulsive behaviours.

Of course, each individual will show peculiarities related to their own psyche and their way of living relationships. It is always good therefore, even if we can speak in general about male and female hypersexuality in similar terms, to make the appropriate differences depending on the person.

Hypersexuality: how to recognize it?

Hypersexuality is not classified as a mental illness in the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). The scientific community is still debating the issue.

On the one hand, some scholars argue that it is incorrect to classify the sexual behaviors of people who have a higher libido level, or live in contexts where hypersexuality is not seen as a disorder.

Sex addiction could be classified as a secondary mood disorder, because it is not uncommon for it to occur alongside mood disorders.

Regardless of the link between mood disorders and hypersexuality, it is undeniable that people who are addicted to sex experience the vicious cycle mechanisms typical of an addiction:

  1. The person feels a constant sexual desire in order to "exorcise" stress or mood swings;

  2. Once the continuous desire for sex is exhausted, emotions such as regret and shame take over;

  3. They are met with a new uncontrolled excessive sexual behaviour.

How to understand if you have a sex addiction?

To understand the mechanisms of sex addiction, understand how to recognize it and grasp the difference between normal and pathological sexual behavior, we must refer to the concept of perceived uncontrollability.

Sexuality brings with it sometimes bursting instincts and urges: relationships can be sought frequently and with different partners. What characterises sexual addictions is:

  • The feeling of not being able to handle the "excesses";

  • The phenomenon of craving (intense desire for the thing on which the individual depends);

  • Addiction;

  • Withdrawal symptoms.

  • The term habituation refers to the fact that the sexual addict needs to increase sexual behaviour or its intensity in order to maintain the desired effect. As time goes on, real psychophysiological changes occur (including an increase in anxiety symptoms), and the sexual addiction behavior itself is implemented to alleviate or avoid these withdrawal symptoms.

Hypersexuality: the causes

Risk factors for sex addiction include:

  • Having experienced physical or emotional abuse that causes traumatic experiences;

  • Hyper-controlling and rigid families, where sex is taboo;

  • A coping style marked by avoidance and escape from reality, with a massive use of dissociation as a defense mechanism.

Sex Addiction: Symptoms

From a behavioral perspective, the symptoms of sexual addiction can be:

  • Frequent sexual encounters;

  • Compulsive masturbation (also frequent when talking about hypersexuality in the elderly, as a consequence of the loss of inhibitions due to pathologies such as Alzheimer's)

  • Search for ever different sexual partners;

  • Numerous unsuccessful attempts to interrupt or reduce problematic or excessive sexual behaviour;

  • Frequent use of pornography.

Cognitive and emotional symptoms of sex addiction

As far as thoughts and emotions are concerned, sex addiction has frequent symptoms such as:

  • Anxiety and obsessive thoughts related to sex;

  • Rationalization of one's compulsive sexual behavior;

  • Guilt related to excessive or problematic sexual behavior;

  • Loneliness, boredom or anger;

  • Depression and low self-esteem;

  • Shame and secrecy about one's sexual behavior;

  • Desire to avoid or eliminate negative emotions;

  • Progressive disconnection between sex and intimacy.

therapy and treatment of sexual addiction

An integrated approach that includes:

  • Group therapy;

  • Individual psychotherapy;

  • Drug therapy

is often the best strategy to overcome sex addiction.

By learning to identify the emotions and events that trigger the desire to engage in compulsive sexual behavior, the person will be able to learn how to manage them through alternative and healthier ways.

Techniques commonly used by psychologists and clinicians treating sexual addiction include:

  • Visualization exercises;

  • Mindfulness exercises for anxiety;

  • Self-monitoring of daily activities;

The goal is not abstinence, but a return to a healthy sexuality through awareness of the reasons that caused the addiction in the first place. Freeing yourself from sexual addiction can be a long journey, to be carried out by relying on professionals.

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