Understanding Healthy Relationships
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Sexuality and Intimacy
The idea that sex can be an addiction is new to many people.
The term “addiction” has become a popular metaphor to describe any form of self-destructive behavior that one is unable to stop despite known and predictable adverse consequences. For some people, sexual behavior fits that description. It involves frequent self-destructive or high risk activity that is not emotionally fulfilling, that one is ashamed of, and that one is unable to stop despite it causing repeated problems in the areas of marriage, social relationships, health, employment, finances, or the law.
Recognition that self-destructive sexual behavior can be an addiction has spawned the rapid growth of four nationwide self-help organizations for persons trying to recover from this problem. All are 12-step recovery programs patterned after Alcoholics Anonymous.
One might ask how sex can be an addiction when it is doing what comes naturally and does not involve abuse of a psychoactive substance like drugs or alcohol. The scientific argument for addiction is based, in part, on recent advances in neurochemistry that suggest we carry within us our own source of addictive chemicals.
When pleasure centers in the human brain are stimulated, chemicals called endorphins are released into the blood stream. Endorphins are believed to be associated with the mood changes that follow sexual release. Any chemical that causes mood changes can be addictive, with repeated exposure altering brain chemistry to the point that more of the chemical is “required” in order to feel “normal.”
For example, experiments with hamsters have shown that the level of endorphins in their blood increases dramatically after several ejaculations. Experimental rats habituated to endorphins will go through much pain in order to obtain more. In rats, the addiction to endorphins is even stronger than the addiction to morphine or heroin.
The sex addict uses sex as a quick fix, or as a form of medication for anxiety, pain, loneliness, stress, or sleep. Sex addicts often refer to sex as their “pain reliever” or “tension reliever.” In a popular novel, the heroine describes sex as “the thinking women’s Valium.”
Other indicators that sexual behavior may be out of control include: an obsession with sex that dominates one’s life, including sexual fantasies that interfere with work performance; so much time devoted to planning sexual activity that it interferes with other activities; strong feelings of shame about one’s sexual behavior; a feeling of powerlessness or inability to stop despite predictable adverse consequences; inability to make a commitment to a loving relationship; extreme dependence upon a relationship as a basis for feelings of self-worth; or little emotional satisfaction gained from the sex act.
Compulsive or addictive sexual behavior may take various forms, including what many regard as “normal” heterosexual behavior. The type of sexual activity and even the frequency or number of partners are not of great significance in diagnosing this problem. Some individuals have a naturally stronger sex drive than others, and the range of human sexual activity is so broad that it is difficult to define “normal” sexual behavior. What is significant is a pattern of self-destructive or high risk sexual behavior that is unfulfilling and that a person is unable to stop.
The roots of out-of-control sexual behavior may be quite varied. It may be caused by an underlying personality disorder, an “addiction” to sex, or a physical disorder. The traditional disorders of exaggerated sexuality, nymphomania in the female and satyriasis in the male, are believed to be caused by a disorder of the pituitary gland or irritation of the brain cortex by a tumor, arteriosclerosis or epilepsy. These physical disorders are rare.
Compulsive or addictive sexual behavior is a concern because it may lead to poor judgment or lack of discretion, indicate a serious emotional or mental problem, open one to exploitation, manipulation, or extortion.