Is there really such a thing as sex addiction? After all, sex is not a substance like alcohol or heroin. Isn’t it just an excuse for faithless footballers and spoilt celebs to have sex whenever they feel like it? Does it justify the tabloid headlines and rehab fees?
If someone is using compulsive sex as an escape from unbearable feelings and becomes anxious and panicky without frequent sexual activity, one can think of this behaviour in terms of addiction.
Sex addicts, like most addicts, are trying to fill the emptiness inside, the black hole of depression, anxiety and fear, shame and guilt. Sexual bulimia is a repetitive pattern of sexual binge and guilt with a desperate search for comfort and relief.
Addiction is not a question of weakness or willpower. It’s a complex psychological and physical condition driven by dependence and compulsion. One can become addicted to an activity like gambling or sex because they too pump up the adrenaline and access the pleasure centres in the brain.
Addiction is mood-altering. It’s anaesthetising. It takes one from reward to relief. But what once gave pleasure and enjoyment, becomes something one has to have more and more of in order to function without constant feelings of anxiety or panic. Craving often goes along with denial and a false belief that one is in control. The addict’s behaviour becomes compulsive and destructive, relationships are harmed, and lives are ruined. The drug of sex is no longer recreational. The need becomes obsessive, enough is never enough.
Men who need non-stop sex have very often had cold, unloving mothers who have rejected or abandoned them. The unconscious hope is of somehow finding through repeated sexual connection, the missing emotional connection to the unavailable or absent mother. The power of the penis may also be a way of persecuting and punishing the bad mother and women in general. It’s not about pleasure and fun or notches on the bedpost.
The only real cure is a period of abstinence until the underlying psychological issues are dealt with. On awakening, the addict needs to say, ‘Today I choose not to have sex.’ One day at a time, as the 12 Step programme says. It’s the start of a long and hard journey.
There is much information and support out there. You can even do your own research. For a realistic depiction of sex addiction, I encourage you to watch Steve McQueen’s film ‘Shame‘ with Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan.
Carol Martin-Sperry is a sex therapist and the author of three books about couples and sex. Carol is a fellow of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy.