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social sciences

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Sexual Addiction  
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Addiction may be defined as any activity that interferes in the addict's life in some way, but which he or she continues, despite the negative consequences. In the case of sexual addiction, it is the obsession with and pursuit of (often high-risk and unsafe) sex that interferes in the addict's life but which he or she is unable to stop despite the negative consequences. Primarily an intimacy disorder, sexual addiction often prevents the development of deep personal relationships.

A compulsive behavior that completely dominates the addict's life, sexual addiction frequently causes severe stress on the addict and his or her friends and family. Just as drug addicts find that they need drugs to feel "normal," so sex addicts become dependent on sexual highs in order to feel normal. Sexual addicts struggle to control their behaviors, and their failure to do so causes despair and the loss of self-esteem.

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Sexual addicts may act out because they have internalized at a deep psychological level some erroneous beliefs, including especially a sense of unworthiness, a feeling that they are unlovable as they are, a belief that they cannot rely on others to meet their needs, and an exaggerated idea of the importance of sex to their happiness. Many of them were abused as children or grew up in families where addictions of various kinds flourished.

Sexual addicts come from all socioeconomic backgrounds and include both men and women of all sexual orientations and gender identities. In the gay community, sexual addiction is a touchy subject that is rarely discussed. While far more heterosexual men suffer from this disorder than gay men or lesbians, gay men and lesbians are often reluctant to acknowledge their problem with sexual addiction. They sometimes see any criticism of their sexual behavior as yet another attempt to pathologize their sexuality as a whole and to judge it by heterosexual standards.

One factor that contributes to sexual addiction is the claim that being gay is just a matter of sex and nothing more. Over time, many gay men and lesbians begin to believe this lie and thus create a life built around sexual promiscuity. Because they see few cultural indicators that relational closeness should be valued over sexual conquests, they become prime candidates for sexual addiction.

Signs of Sexual Addiction

The term "sexual addiction" was coined by Patrick Carnes in the subtitle of his landmark 1983 book, Out of the Shadows: Understanding Sexual Addiction, which helped a great many men identify behaviors that caused them distress. Carnes's book did not address gay men or lesbians in particular, but his more recent book, Don't Call It Love: Recovery from Sexual Addiction, includes examples of gay men and their sexual behaviors.

Carnes lists a number of signs of sexual addiction. Among these are the following: 1) a pattern of out-of-control sexual behavior, often occurring over several years; 2) the suffering of severe consequences as a result of sexual behavior, including legal, medical, relational, and familial problems; 3) the inability to stop out-of-control sexual behavior despite these negative consequences; 4) the persistent pursuit of self-destructive or high risk sexual behavior; 5) the desire or effort to limit sexual behavior; 6) the use of sexual obsession and fantasy as a primary coping strategy; 7) the need for ever increased amounts of sexual activity in order to attain satisfaction; 8) severe mood changes around sexual activity; 9) the spending of inordinate amounts of time obtaining sex, being sexual, or recovering from sexual experience; and 10) the neglect of social, occupational, or recreational activities because of sexual behavior.

These signs, especially when an individual recognizes several of them in his or her experience, may point to the need for professional help in overcoming sexual addiction.

Chemical Basis for Sex Addiction

The physical withdrawal symptoms for addictions to alcohol and drugs are fairly well known. But most people do not realize that during any addictive behavior natural chemicals, such as endorphins and adrenaline, are released within the body, making these actions even more compelling. The sex addict's behavior causes chemical changes in the brain that promote a mood- and mind-altering experience.

Another natural drug called phenylethalimine, PEA for short, is an essential chemical for those addicted to inherently risky behaviors such as gambling, shoplifting, bungee jumping, and sex. PEA's molecular structure parallels amphetamine's, and like amphetamine, it is strongest when first released. (Many addicts say they are always seeking the feeling they had during their first high.)

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