Unlearning Shame
May 20, 2021

What Is Sex Addiction?

Some people with very high sex drives are diagnosed with “sex addiction.” But is sex addiction even real? What should you do if you think you’re a sex addict?
Written by
Emily A. Klein
Published on
May 20, 2021
Updated on
What's changed?
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Human sexuality is an important part of the human experience, and is defined by a wide range of feelings, experiences and desires (1). Sex drive—how often someone thinks about and wants sex—is unique to each individual. Most people fall somewhere on the spectrum from asexual (having very little or no desire for sex) to highly sexual (being very interested in sex and desiring it often). People are often stigmatized for wanting frequent sex or sex with multiple partners, masturbating often, or viewing porn. Some people with very high sex drives are diagnosed with “sex addiction.” But is sex addiction even real? What should you do if you think you’re a sex addict?

Is sex addiction real?

According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, addiction is defined by being unable to stop using a substance or engaging in a behavior, even if it causes harm to self or others. While the idea that substance abuse and behaviors like gambling can be addictive is widely accepted by physicians and psychologists, the idea of “sex addiction” is still controversial (2).

Most mental health professionals agree that behaviors like having sex even when you don’t want to or watching porn in a way that disrupts your ability to focus on work, school, or relationships can be problematic. These behaviors are not classified as addictions, though. They are instead classified as impulse control disorders. What does this mean? According to the American Psychiatric Association, an impulse control disorder is a condition in which someone is unable to control certain behaviors, even when those behaviors have negative consequences, like the loss of a job or relationship.

Where did the concept of sex addiction originate? 

The concept of sex addiction is closely linked with other forms of stigma and control around sex, like slut sharming or blaming people for getting sexually transmitted infections, particularly for female-assigned, queer, and gender nonconforming folks. While people have long been shamed or policed for exhibiting a high sex drive, the term “sex addiction” as a description for supposedly abnormal sexual behavior didn’t come into widespread use until the 1980s (3).

Before it became a trendy diagnosis, the term “sex addict” was used in erotic novels to excite the reader. Writing in the 1960s and ‘70s, a Cornell psychiatrist, Dr. Lawrence Hatterer, categorized homosexuality as an “addictive sexual pattern”—an illness that needed to be treated in the same way as alcohol or drug addiction.

In the 1980s, Dr. Patrick Carnes was credited with popularizing the term through his book Sex Addiction: Out of the Shadows, which describes “out of control” sexual behaviors as rooted in addiction. He recommended a 12-step process, similar to Alcoholics Anonymous, for people struggling with compulsive sexual behaviors.

Does having a high sex drive mean I’m a sex addict?

No, having a high sex drive does not mean you’re a sex addict (4). When someone takes care of their sexual health, practices affirmative consent, is considerate of their partners, and attends to needs in other areas of their life, a wide variety of sexual behavior can be part of a healthy and balanced life (5). Sexual behavior is an essential human function. It is important to explore what healthy sexual behavior means for each individual instead of applying a narrow view of what is “normal” (6).

For some people, though, desiring frequent sex or sex with multiple partners, paying for sex, masturbating frequently, or viewing porn are perceived as deviant or sinful, evidence of an uncontrollable addiction. Common behaviors (masturbation, porn consumption) are understood as dysfunctional, while instances of harm (like infidelity) or violence (like sexual assault) are seen as manifestations of an illness rather than freely chosen bad behavior (3). 

Whether someone views their own sexual desires and behaviors as perfectly normal or as evidence of “sex addiction” may have more to do with their beliefs than their actual behavior (7). Additionally, being labeled as an “addict” can lead to shame and fear of being judged and rejected (8).

What’s the difference between sex addiction and high-risk sexual behavior?

High-risk sexual behavior can include having sex without the use of STI protection methods like condoms or dental dams, especially if you have multiple partners, as well as frequently getting drunk or high during sex (9). High-risk sexual behavior can be changed by educating yourself and practicing safer sex. In contrast, sexual behaviors perceived as evidence of an addiction may seem uncontrollable or very difficult to change (3). 

What if I think I’m a sex addict?

If you are worried about an aspect of your sexuality, it is important to consider why you are feeling that way: Are you dealing with shame, either cultural or religious, or from a partner who has a lower sex drive than you? Are you struggling to come to terms with a kink that seems at odds with your values? Are you ambivalent about your queer or nonconforming identity?

If the source of your discomfort is one of these underlying issues, addressing it with a counselor or sex therapist counseling can go a long way towards helping you to accept and enjoy your sexuality (10). Having a frank discussion with your partner, seeking help from a trained, sex-affirming therapist, learning more about healthy ways to explore a kink, and taking the time to love your body through self-pleasure can all be very healing.

What if my sexual behavior is actually problematic?

It’s important to differentiate between distress caused by shame, cultural and religious conditioning, or mismatched libidos in a relationship, and sexual behavior that crosses the line into harmful compulsion. If your sexual behavior is causing harm to others or yourself, exposing you to risks, or causing you lasting psychological distress, seek out a trained mental health or medical professional who can help you to develop a healthier relationship with sex.

“If you find yourself having trouble establishing relationships that you are interested in having, spending more time than you wish engaging in sexual activities, spending more money that you want to on obtaining sexual gratification, your sexual behavior is impacting your relationships, or you feel bad about yourself for your sexual behavior, seek out a therapist who specializes in sexual health” (6).

Sex addiction is complicated 

Sex drive varies from person to person. The concept of “sex addiction” is controversial and has been rejected by many mainstream psychologists, therapists, psychiatrists, and sexual health professionals (11). If you are struggling with concerns about your sexuality, reach out to someone you trust. A happy and healthy sex life means something different to everyone. You deserve to express your desires and have your needs met, whether you’re asexual, highly sexual, or somewhere in between.  

Reviewed for Medical Accuracy

Emily A. Klein is a freelance writer with deep interests in science, culture, and health. As a student of cultural anthropology, she researched and wrote about kink, reproductive rights, cross-cultural medicine, and humans’ relationship with technology. She has designed and implemented a sexual health curriculum for adolescent girls, worked with foster youth and people experiencing housing insecurity, and volunteered as an emergency first responder. Her writing has appeared in The Establishment, Edible magazine, The Seattle Lesbian, Slog, and elsewhere.

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