Blog post

Is sex addiction a real thing?

Despite affecting 10% of the adult population, sex addiction is not currently considered as a diagnosable disorder. Here Yasuhiro Kotera, Academic Lead in Counselling, Psychotherapy & Psychology and Christine Rhodes, a Lecturer in Counselling & Psychotherapy at the University of Derby Online Learning, explore why it is a universally underestimated and misunderstood intimacy disorder and an issue of growing concern worldwide.

By Yasuhiro Kotera - 24 July 2019

Defining sex addiction

Sex addiction, also known as sexual compulsion and sexual dependency, describes any sexual activity that feels out of control. Sex addiction is predominantly a neurological disorder characterised by strong sexually arousing fantasies, urges or behaviours that persist for six months or more, which causes distress and impairment in the professional, social, and personal life of the individual, despite repeated attempts to stop.

Currently, this disorder is not considered a diagnosable disorder in the present psychiatric system, although similar symptoms are listed in major diagnostic tools. For example, compulsive sexual behaviour is recognised in the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11), a global standard for diagnosis created by the World Health Organisation.

A problem on the rise

The prevalence of sex addiction is significant and appears to be on the rise due to the advent of the internet, which provides a wide spectrum of anonymous, easily accessible and affordable cybersex opportunities. Not least of these opportunities is access to online pornography, which is often described as the 'crack cocaine' of sex addiction.

Due to the variance in definition for this disorder and the ongoing debate related to validity of sex addiction as a diagnosable disorder, statistics vary. It is estimated that around 10% of adult population suffer from sex addiction today. The majority of college counsellors (85%) reported that they treated at least one sex addicted student in the previous year and licensed therapists in America work with four cybersex addiction clients on average per year.

Predicting sex addiction

Despite its increasing prevalence, research into sex addiction has not been thorough, partly caused by its debated definition. Accordingly, in our new study, we have explored relationships between sex addiction and its relevant constructs, namely adverse childhood experience (trauma), motivation, adult attachment, narcissism, and self-compassion. We recruited 104 of balanced samples (53 males and 51 females) including clinical and non-clinical populations, again, due to its debated definition.

Sex addiction has been historically related to trauma, and this was corroborated in our study, alongside anxious attachment, narcissism and a lack of self-compassion. Further, our path analyses revealed that, contrary to previous literature, it is not only trauma that predicts sex addiction.

According to our study, anxious attachment predicts sex addiction. Individuals with anxious attachment often feel that those who are important to them, e.g. their partner, will not be present when needed. They can tend to make an insistent effort to receive reassurance and love from them, often related to their own self-doubts. They are preoccupied with fear of rejection, therefore, as our research finds, some of them use sex to overcome it. We also found that narcissism was a strong predictor.

Our findings suggest that sex addiction treatment may benefit from targeting issues relating to attachment disorder and narcissistic traits. For example, psychoeducation about these two constructs can support addicts to be more aware of their addiction process, thus helping them to cope with root causes and triggers that initiate acting out sexually,

We are now planning a further study to determine if education leading to awareness of these co-occurring disorders will help the individuals to become more aware of any attachment and narcissistic issues. We hope that this programme will help addicts manage their symptoms and lead to long-term, sustained recovery.

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About the author

Yasu Kotera smiling, sitting at a table in front of tea cups and a jug of water.

Yasuhiro Kotera
Former Academic Lead in Counselling, Psychotherapy and Psychology

Dr Kotera's teaching primarily focused on mental health and research modules including supervision at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels.