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What is sex addiction?

You may have come across various descriptions for sex addiction, some more confusing than others! 

However, a helpful definition, from an article by Jerry Kennard, Ph.D., is that sex addiction is “the compulsive engagement in sexual acts despite adverse consequences. Furthermore, it is emotionally distressing rather than fulfilling.” 

Much debate surrounds sex addiction, with many experts believing that the condition is not a legitimate diagnosis; however, sex addiction can cause severe damage to individuals and their families, and has real consequences for those affected.

Here, we will explore sex addiction, its symptoms, and effective treatments that can help. 

Support and awareness for people with sex addiction

Many people with sex addiction experience problems in their interpersonal relationships, work, and physical and emotional well-being due to their condition.

More research, awareness, and acknowledgment are needed within the clinical field to support those with sex addiction, which may help prevent adverse health and life outcomes for those with the disorder.

Compulsive behaviours like those observed in sex addiction can significantly strain relationships and cause various physical and mental health issues for those affected. 

For example, those with sex addiction often lie to cover up their behaviours and put their health (and that of others) at risk by having sex with multiple partners.

Sex addiction is still not classified within the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) as an official diagnosis, but it is classified as ‘compulsive sexual behaviour disorder’ by the World Health Organization (WHO) in the ICD-11. 

However, it isn’t classified in the grouping of ‘Disorders Due to Addictive Behaviours’ (i.e. with gaming disorder and gambling disorder) as WHO believes the evidence is not currently strong enough to support this model.

This lack of clarity can lead to some confusion among mental health professionals and be harmful for those with sex addiction as it may reduce their access to the support and treatment they need to achieve recovery.

What are addictive behaviours?

The term ‘addiction’ is typically associated with substances such as alcohol and drugs but has recently been extended to include several behaviours or activities called behavioural addictions. 

According to mental health professionals, behavioural addiction involves the compulsion to continually engage in a specific activity or behaviour, despite the negative consequences on your ability to remain mentally, physically, and emotionally healthy and functional.

Different types of behavioural addictions

Behavioural addictions, sometimes referred to as process addictions, can include the following behaviours: 

  • Gambling
  • Internet use
  • Social media
  • Video games
  • Work
  • Food
  • Shopping
  • Exercise 

Other terms used to describe sex addiction

As research on sex addiction continues, and its classification remains somewhat ‘up in the air’, mental health professionals may use various terms to describe this condition, including:

How to spot the signs and symptoms of sex addiction

Sex addiction is characterised by persistent, hard-to-control sexual urges, thoughts, and impulses that become the main focus of an individual’s life – interfering with their ability to work, maintain relationships, and carry out their daily activities.

Unlike someone with a natural, healthy sex drive, individuals with sex addiction may spend a disproportionate amount of time seeking out or engaging in sexual activities, often lying about their behaviour to keep it a secret from others.

Sex may dominate an individual’s life to the exclusion of most other activities. 

Signs that usually indicate compulsive sexual behaviour disorder include the following:

  • Excessive masturbation
  • Multiple affairs, sexual partners, and one-night stands
  • Persistent or excessive use of pornography
  • Practising unsafe sex
  • Exhibitionism or voyeurism
  • Cybersex
  • Using sex chat lines
  • Meeting with sex workers

Additional signs and symptoms of sex addiction

As well as the activities mentioned above, individuals with sex addiction may also exhibit the following signs and symptoms:

  • Lying to cover up behaviours. 
  • Chronic obsessive sexual thoughts and fantasies.
  • Inability to control or stop the behaviours.
  • Experiencing remorse, shame, or guilt after sex.
  • Compulsive sex with multiple partners, including people you don’t know.
  • Engaging in sex with various partners, including extramarital affairs.
  • Engaging in dangerous sexual activities, including public sex, unprotected sex, attending sex clubs, and exhibitionism.
  • Experiencing other adverse consequences, either personally or professionally, because of the behaviours.
  • Becoming quickly involved with other people sexually – for instance, seeking sex with new partners.
  • Feeling immobilised due to sexual obsessions that can interfere with other daily activities and responsibilities.
  • Excessive masturbation and use of pornography.
  • Compulsive use of digital technologies, such as sexting, dating or hookup websites and apps, and webcams.
  • Regularly visiting adult bookstores, strip clubs, and other sex-focused environments, including visiting sex workers.
  • Needing to increase the frequency, intensity, and risk of sexual behaviours to achieve the desired effects.
  • Feeling distressed, anxious, or irritable if unable to engage in the behaviours
  • Spending excessive amounts of time attempting to acquire sex, have sex, be sexual, or recover from sexual experiences.
  • Experiencing increased symptoms of an existing, co-occurring mental health condition – for example, those with depression may notice their depressive symptoms worsening due to the effects of sex addiction.

If you think you or someone you know may have any signs and symptoms of sex addiction, it’s important to speak to a mental health professional who can help. 

Early treatment can prevent symptoms from worsening and will improve treatment outcomes for many.

Contact a specialist at Centres for Health and Healing for further advice and support on our sex addiction treatment program.


One of the biggest challenges for those with sex addiction is the stigma surrounding the condition, meaning individuals tend not to seek the help and support they need due to embarrassment or shame. 

However, without professional help and treatment, sex addiction may worsen, eventually resulting in far-reaching consequences that can cause further damage to the addicted individual and their family, friends, work colleagues, and extended community.

Compassion is essential to the healing process, making space for all the various parts that may have led a person to engage in addictive behaviours without judgement, shame, or ridicule.

Fortunately, recovery is possible with professional support and proper treatment.

What are the causes of sex addiction?

Sex disorders are primarily driven by a desire to control or mask emotional or psychological problems, including anxiety, stress, loneliness, depression, social isolation, or shame. 

The intense rush or ‘high’ a person experiences during sexual acts is often a coping mechanism to escape discomfort and feel short-term relief.

Like other addictions, sex addiction can develop as a result of unresolved trauma, including a history of childhood abuse or neglect, abandonment, and an inability to cope with many aspects of adult life in a healthy, functional way.

Research shows hypersexuality could also be symptomatic of a mental illness like bipolar disorder. 

In addition, researchers have found that neurological disorders, including dementia, head injuries, and epilepsy, may also cause hypersexual behaviours. 

Risk factors for sex addiction

Experts have identified several potential causes and contributing factors that may put an individual at higher risk of developing sex addiction, including:

  • Family history of addiction (of any type) – a genetic predisposition to impulsivity, risk-taking, emotional dysregulation, or sensation-seeking behaviours can make people more vulnerable to sex addiction.
  • Co-occurring mental health disorders like anxiety, depression, or bipolar disorder may drive hypersexual behaviours due to specific underlying influences associated with these conditions.
  • Unresolved trauma – neglect, abandonment, inconsistent parenting, physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, and domestic violence, can put individuals at higher risk of sex addiction.
  • Childhood environmental factors – studies show that around fifty per cent of the risk for addiction is environmental. Traumatic events during childhood, such as neglect, abuse, or exposure to adult sexuality, can increase the likelihood of maladapted sexual behaviours in later life.
  • Social isolation – can be responsible for individuals seeking comfort inappropriately and may cause other mental health complications such as depression or anxiety.
  • Social learning and peer pressure – research shows that individuals with friends who engage in sex addiction behaviours (such as excessively watching pornography or regularly visiting sex workers) are likely to be influenced by peers who engage in these behaviours.
  • Neuro-chemical – evidence suggests that natural pleasures (such as sex) can cause imbalances in specific brain processes similar to drugs and alcohol. For example, the brain may adapt to being rewarded when a person’s addiction needs are met – meaning they cannot feel ‘normal’ without it.
  • Medications – certain medications may trigger compulsive sexual behaviours. However, experts have yet to determine an exact link. More research on this topic is needed to establish any cause-and-effect relationship.

It’s important to remember that all addictions are progressive diseases and do not just develop overnight. 

For example, it’s rare for someone to become addicted after engaging in a particular behaviour only a few times. Even those who frequently engage in certain behaviours may not become addicted.

As with other behavioural or substance addictions, no single factor causes sex addiction. However, genetic and environmental factors may drive a person to engage in destructive behaviours, such as compulsive sex.

For instance, the need to escape or avoid painful feelings, emotions, and memories often fuels people to behave compulsively, whether the behaviour involves alcohol, drugs, gaming, gambling, or sexual acts.

Can sex addiction be treated?

Fortunately, sex addiction is treatable, provided people seek professional help and support. 

However, recovery can take time and requires persistence, dedication, and commitment from all involved.

In addition, it’s essential for an individual’s treatment plan to address any co-occurring mental health disorders that may be present for them to achieve the best and most effective treatment outcome possible.

Each person is different and will require a unique treatment plan tailored to their specific needs, goals, and preferences.

Moreover, treatment plans are usually created between therapist and client, who work collaboratively to create a safe and effective personalised recovery program.

Sex addiction treatment

Sex addiction treatment includes many of the same strategies and techniques used with substance addictions.

Typically, sex addiction treatment programs include the following therapies and approaches:

Addiction services in Ontario

An effective sex addiction treatment program will address the underlying cause(s) of addiction, treat any co-occurring mental health disorders, and explore intimacy issues.

Each treatment component should be customised to help individuals understand and learn essential skills to develop healthy, meaningful relationships. 

Full recovery from sex addiction is possible with the right treatment program.

Those in recovery from sex addiction can look forward to happy, meaningful lives with healthy, stable relationships; a life that may have been hard to imagine at the beginning.

Contact our recovery centre in Ontario for further information and support about our addiction services.

Sex addiction treatment at Centres for Health and Healing

At Centres for Health and Healing, we have a unique approach to treating addiction and co-occurring mental health disorders.

We provide a holistic treatment program shaped around your personal preferences and therapeutic needs to provide a solid foundation for lasting sobriety and recovery.

Our therapists and support staff have a wealth of experience treating sex addiction (and other types of addiction).

Rehab services you can trust

We use various evidence-based therapies and treatments in a safe and nurturing community – to ensure you receive the help and support you need and deserve for a complete and lasting recovery.

Our personalised, holistic approach ensures deep transformational healing and recovery from sex addiction and other mental health issues you might be experiencing.

We are here to guide and support you and your loved ones every step of the way throughout treatment and beyond.

To learn more about our sex addiction treatment program, please contact us and take the first step on your healing journey.

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