Is Sex Addiction Real?

Is Sexual Addiction Real?

There’s been much in the news lately about whether sexual addiction is a real addiction, or just bad behavior. Here’s a quick response:

A classic (and rather simple) definition of addiction is that it is continuing in a behavior despite known negative consequences. However, in August, 2011, The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) released a new definition of addiction highlighting that addiction is a chronic brain disorder and not simply a behavioral problem involving too much alcohol, drugs, gambling or sex.  This new definition was the result of an intensive, four-year process with more than 80 experts actively working on it, including top addiction authorities, addiction medicine clinicians and leading neuroscience researchers from across the country.

What is important to note here is that both substance AND process addictions are included in ASAM’s definition of addiction, and they have included sex in their list of addictions along with gambling.

I would also point to some of the more prominent ways scholars have explained the origins of sexual addiction.

A Brain Disease
Our brains learn to act in certain ways and to crave certain things (Chocolate).  The addict’s brain can become “hijacked” to the point they can look at something and know beyond any doubt “This is bad, This will get me in trouble,” and do it anyway. The pre-frontal cortex which is responsible for emotional regulation and decision-making shuts down when an addict is craving his/her drug of choice.

An Intimacy Disorder
Addicts have a flawed sense of self. The Core Beliefs of an addict are:
(1) I am a bad unworthy person
(2) If people really knew me, they would reject me.
(3) If my emotional, physical, relational needs are going to be met, I have to take care of that myself.
(4) Sex is my most important need.

As a result of such faulty core beliefs, it becomes almost impossible to be securely attached to another person. In place of attachment to another persona in a healthy way, the addict becomes “attached” to the addiction. It is the “old familiar friend” who always provides some form of connection… artificial though it may be.

A Problem of Attention
Addiction and what we call Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) is amazingly similar. I’m reminded of the dog in the animated film Up. Doug had trouble staying focused. “Squirrel!” Addiction seeks novelty and thrives in fantasy. The next (high, meal, sexual encounter, spending spree, etc.) will be the best and will fill the longing in my heart. The sex addict is always scanning for its next diversion, the next partner to hook up with, the next person to fantasize about, etc.

A Maladaptive Response to Stress
Addicts use their addiction to avoid dealing with the stresses of life. All of us have some trauma in our past. Addicts dwell on their addiction, as opposed to dealing with the problem. There is a dissociative element to addiction. Addicts get “lost” in their fantasy, lost in their behavior. And to the addict, it is better than thinking about reality.

A Family Disease

Addiction serves a function in families. It becomes a way to relate to one another person. It has a genetic component (it is partly Nature). The role of modeling is huge as well, so it is partly Nurture.  A very high percentage (some say as high as 97%) of sex addicts come from homes in which the parents are rigid (too many rules) and emotionally disengaged.

Is this definitive? For the person how is convinced it is only bad behavior this isn’t enough. But there is science behind each of the theories I have listed here. For more information I encourage you to check out

Or, view a three-part interview with Dr. Patrick Carnes, international expert on the treatment of sexual addiction.


Thanks for stopping by.

Tim Barber LPCC-S, CSAT-S, NCC


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