Criteria of Sexual Addiction

People often ask how to distinguish one who is struggling with a sexual addiction versus someone who just “enjoys looking at porn.” There are plenty of people who watch pornography and masturbate but aren’t addicted to the behavior. This does not mean they will not be, eventually, but in the moment recreational pornography viewing and masturbation due to arousal is not an addiction. Those people can go long periods without thinking about it or never do it again. It’s complicated but most people who are addicted are often using the illicit sexual behavior to help them through conflict. The root of the addiction goes all the way back to why it started in the first place–to deal with trauma. Those people can’t stop and compulsively feel that they need it in their lives. The person who is addicted likely has at least three criteria of the below list, but most people who are addicted usually have seven or more. Criteria as defined by Carnes & Adams, 2001:

  1. Recurrent failure to resist sexual impulses in order to engage in specific sexual behaviors.
  2. Frequently engaging in those behaviors to a greater extent or over a longer period of time than intended.
  3. Persistent desire or unsuccessful efforts to stop, reduce, or control those behaviors.
  4. Inordinate amounts of time spent in obtaining sex, being sexual, or recovering from sexual experiences.
  5. Preoccupation with sexual behavior or preparatory activities.
  6. Frequently engaging in the behavior when expected to fulfill occupational, academic, domestic, or social obligations.
  7. Continuation of the behavior despite knowledge of having a persistent or recurrent social, financial, psychological or physical problem that is caused or exacerbated by the behavior.
  8. The need to increase the intensity, frequency, number, or risk level of behaviors in order to achieve the desired effect; or diminished effect with continued behaviors at the same level of intensity, frequency, number or risk.
  9. Giving up or limiting social, occupational, or recreational activities because of the behavior.
  10. Distress, anxiety, restlessness, or irritability if unable to engage in the behavior.

Is SA like other addictions?

So, we are often asked how is this addiction different than others? It is actually more similar than not to other addictions such as addictions to drugs, alcohol, gambling, etc. It is also different because we are innately sexual beings. We are not innately gamblers. You cannot cease being a sexual being. Just because you stop the sexual behavior doesn’t mean you stop your sexual desires. By ceasing the sexual compulsive behavior you can change your neuro pathways. Your brain can recover. You can think of sexual addiction in a similar vein to an eating disorder in that food, like sex, is a part of our life and we cannot escape needing it but we can learn to manage it and adjust our thinking about it. Food addictions are also rooted in trauma.
Alcohol, drugs, gambling aren’t necessary fuel for life and for having a prosperous marriage. Like a sexual addiction, you can change your attitude about them and wean yourself from them but it never is a good idea to engage in those things again at any level. Using those in excess also touches on trauma. You can avoid going to bars and hanging out with a crowd of users. You can’t really consider never having sex again. The person struggling with a sexual addiction probably should never engage in pornography, masturbation, chat rooms, or illicit sexual behavior again because that is “falling off the wagon” but they very much should find pleasure in sex again. With enough sobriety behind them, many who suffer with a sexual addiction don’t care to masturbate or look at pornography again. There is hope!

[Are you struggling with a sexual addiction? Or are you a partner of a person who struggles? Specialized sexual addiction counselors have training for not only sexual addiction but helping partners through the pain of this addiction. Search your area for counselors who have the acronyms of CSAT (Certified Sexual Addiction Therapist) or SRT (Sexual Recovery Therapist). S-Anon, COSA, and Pure Desire offer support groups for partners. Click on the link to find a meeting near you.]

2 thoughts on “Criteria of Sexual Addiction”

  1. Joshua Shea says:

    Do you think it’s time to start differentiating between sex addiction and porn addiction? It seems like saying substance addiction and opiod addiction. “Substance” is too broad, and it seems like “sex” is too. I’ve never felt like a “sex addict” but am labeled such because my brand of sex is porn.

    1. Joshua,
      You bring up SUCH a valid point. Currently, sexual addiction isn’t even in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual for psychological disorders. To even get it classified as a true addiction would be a victory for now. But I agree that the term “sex” is quite expansive. Before going into this field, I recall thinking that it meant someone was addicted to having sex all the time. We have a lot to teach others, for sure. Thank you for your input and opinion. Very valid.

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