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Sexual compulsivity is a progressive intimacy disorder in which an individual cannot control his or her sexual impulses and/or actions. The individual becomes so obsessed with sexual desires and behaviors that it negatively affects other areas of their lives, such as relationships and careers. Although the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders does not yet recognize sexual compulsivity as a disorder, it is a very real and serious problem for an estimated three to six percent of American adults.
The National Council on Sex Addiction and Compulsivity defines sexual addiction as “engaging in persistent and escalating patterns of sexual behavior acted out despite increasing negative consequences to self and others.” In other words, someone with a sexual compulsion will continue his or her behaviors despite negative, life-changing consequences like divorce, health risks, financial troubles, and even being arrested.
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For many people, sexual compulsivity is not about the pleasure one receives from sexual acts—instead, sex is often used as a way to feel less lonely, become numb to painful feelings, and avoid boredom. “Most people I talk to get to the point where they don’t even like sex,” said Kelly McDaniel, a licensed professional counselor in San Antonio, Texas.
According to the Mayo Clinic, about 80 percent of people with sexual compulsivity have been sexually or emotionally abused. “When you have abuse in your background, you’re less likely to trust people, (and) you’re more likely to turn to something like sex addiction as a manifestation,” said psychologist Mark Schwartz. He also said that having feelings of being neglected as a child can lead to sexual compulsivity.
Signs and symptoms of sexual compulsivity may begin with excessive masturbation, obsessive use of pornography, or partaking in phone sex services. As the disorder develops, the severity of the symptoms increases. Individuals may compulsively date, engage in unsafe sex, and may have multiple or extra-marital affairs. These acts are harmful not only to the individual’s health, but also to their relationships with loved ones.
Sexual compulsivity often occurs with other disorders, such as drug or alcohol addiction and eating disorders. This is especially true among women. At Promises Treatment Centers, a substantial group of both male and female clients have engaged in compulsive sexual behaviors as part of their addictions. Even after becoming abstinent from drugs and alcohol, many clients crave the excitement, distraction, and attention that comes from engaging in multiple and often reckless sexual encounters. Compulsively engaging in sex increases the risk of relapsing since drugs are used by many to overcome inhibitions and heighten sexual experiences.
Promises individualizes its approach to individuals whose addictions are complicated by compulsive sexual behaviors. Trauma treatment groups and EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) are used to help overcome childhood physical and sexual trauma. Individual psychotherapy focuses on treating feelings of loneliness, low self-esteem, and depression that often fuel compulsive sexual behaviors. Therapists who specialize in compulsive sexual disorders work with clients and their families to develop new coping strategies and alter behaviors.
Unlike treatment for alcohol and drug addiction, those seeking treatment for sexual compulsivity are not advised to abstain from sex entirely, but instead are encouraged to learn to control their behaviors and positively associate sex with relationships. An effective treatment program involves individual and group therapy, 12-step support, and possibly psychiatric medications, depending on the individual’s needs.