Sexual addiction is the term used to describe any sexual activity that feels 'out of control'.

That might be sex with a partner, viewing pornography, masturbation, visiting prostitutes, or any number of other sexual activities. Although many of these activities don't cause a problem for most people, a sex addict feels compelled to engage in their chosen activity, in spite of the problems it may cause in their relationship.

Sex becomes addictive in a similar way to alcohol and other drugs. During sex, our bodies release a powerful cocktail of chemicals that make us feel good and some people get addicted to the high these chemicals produce. Like substance addictions, the body gets used to these chemicals and the sufferer soon finds that they need more and more sex in order to achieve the same buzz.

As with chemical addiction, in between the highs of sexual fulfilment are the lows. Most addicts feel an immense amount of shame about their behaviour. They also feel regret, remorse, anxiety and isolation. Most feel powerless to change.

Unfortunately these powerful feelings often cause the sufferer to seek out sex as a way to escape. Sex becomes a pain reliever, an escape from the very problem that it has created itself.

What are the signs of sexual addiction?

Dr Patrick Carnes, one of the world's leading experts in sexual addiction, suggests that there are 10 possible warning signs

  1. Feeling that your behaviour is out of control
  2. Being aware that there may be severe consequences if you continue
  3. Feeling unable to stop your behaviour, in spite of knowing the consequences
  4. Persistently pursuing destructive and/or high risk activities
  5. Wanting to stop or control what you're doing and taking active steps to limit your activities
  6. Using sexual fantasies as a way of coping with difficult feelings or situations
  7. Needing more and more of the sexual activity in order to experience the same level of high
  8. Suffering from intense mood swings around sexual activity
  9. Spending more and more time either planning, engaging in or regretting and recovering from sexual activities
  10. Neglecting important social, occupational or recreational activities in favour of sexual behaviour

If you think you suffer from sexual addiction

If the points above are ringing true for you, then you may be a sex addict.

The first step to overcoming the problem is to acknowledge that you are in the grips of an addiction and that your behaviour has damaging consequences. You need to accept that this problem will not go away by itself and you need to take personal responsibility to recover from your addiction.

The majority of addicts find it very difficult to change their behaviour on their own. You may be able to curtail the behaviour for a while, but often a cycle develops that is extremely hard to break. A professional therapist can help you to understand what is happening and encourage you to take steps to change to a healthier sexual lifestyle.

You can get details of a therapist by visiting the Association for the Treatment of Sex Addiction and Compulsivity website at www.atsac.org.uk. Or you can get details of support groups at the Sex Addiction Help website at www.sexaddictionhelp.co.uk

If you suspect your partner suffers from sexual addiction

If you think your partner may be a sex addict, then the first thing to do is to talk to him or her about it.

You may already have tried this before and got nowhere and that could be because it's so difficult for an addict to accept the scale of their problem. Ultimately, no one can recover from an addiction unless they accept that they have a problem and want to change. Being the partner is a very painful and confusing position to be in.

Relate can help you alone, or with your partner, to cope with the problems that sexual addiction causes to a relationship. You'll need to get specialist help to overcome the actual addiction, but a Relate counsellor can support you as you go through what can often be a very painful and difficult time.

How we can help

If you're worried about your sex life, there are various ways we can help.