Sexual addiction is one of the explanatory theories of sex offending. It is also referred to as sexual compulsion
(Leedes, 2001). Sex addiction is described in the same manner as other types of addictions, such as alcohol, drugs, and gambling. Engaging in sexual activity is a mood-altering behavior, providing a "high" to the addict, resulting in chemical changes in the brain. Scientific research continues to show that addiction is a brain disease. Substances and behaviors, such as gambling and sex, cause changes in the release and production of neurochemicals, such as dopamine and serotonin. The brain is chemically out of balance.
People with sex addictions spend large amounts of time in sexually related activities. They neglect obligations and relationships, prioritizing sex above other areas of their lives. When they try to stop the behavior, they fail, and are unable to control either sexual compulsions or sexual behavior. A sex addict will continue to engage in the behavior even after serious losses have occurred, such as loss of marriage, home, and employment. The rate of sexual addiction in U.S. culture has been estimated as high as 36% (Martin & Regan, 2000).
Patrick Carnes (1992) described criteria that determine the presence of a sexual addiction. These include:
- Reoccurring failure to resist the impulses to engage in sexual behaviors.
- Increase in behaviors and longer period of time engaged in sexual behaviors than planned by individual.
- Ongoing desire but unsuccessful efforts to control, reduce, or stop sexual behaviors.
- Large amounts of time involved in planning, engaging in, and recovering from sexual activity.
- Preoccupation with preparation and participation in sexual activities.
- Sexual activity prevents compliance to work, school, family, and social expectations and obligations.
- Continuing to engage in sexual activities even after significant social, financial, psychological, or physical problems have been caused by the sexual behaviors
- Experiences the need to increase the intensity, frequency, number, or risk of sexual behaviors to achieve the same desired effect (or experiences a reduced effect if continues with sexual behaviors at the same intensity, frequency, number, or risk).
- Giving up or limiting engagement in social, work, or recreational activities because of involvement in sexual behaviors.
- Experiences distress, anxiety, restlessness, or irritability if not able to engage in sexual behaviors.
Not all sex addicts are sex offenders, and not all sex offenders are sex addicts. However, a large percentage of individuals who sexually abuse children are also sex addicts. Although sexual addiction is progressive, not all sex addicts progress to victimizing behaviors in which they harm others.
A sex addict uses sex as an escape from reality. One of the early signs of sexual addiction is an individual's use of sex as a coping strategy when experiencing stress. Many sex addicts are unable to maintain intimate relationships with others. They sexualize people, objects, and situations, and objectify sexual partners. The sex addict is focused on the need for sex, similar to a drug addict's focus on the drug, rather than on relationships or responsibilities.
Use of and addiction to pornography
is often a central part of sexual addiction. Individuals are obsessed with reading, watching, and thinking about pornography of different types. Fixated child molesters are often addicted to child pornography and sometimes share pornography with victims. Some molesters take pictures of victims or involve them in the production of pornography.
Sex addiction and pornography had greater social risks involved in the past because purchase of sexually explicit materials and engagement in sexual activities required leaving the home. With the onset of computer pornography, the incidence of sexual addiction has increased significantly. Individuals view pornography and engage in sexual acts with others through computer use.