Acts that cause pleasure are more likely to be repeated, when compared to those that cause pain. As a result, behaviors considered vital to survival, either of one person or of the species, are linked to the release of intense chemical signals of pleasure deep inside the brain. These chemicals remind the person to do this act again in the near future, and they can be powerful and alluring. Many chemicals like this are released during sexual activities and they are, in part, what makes people engage in these acts with such frequency. For some people, however, those little chemical signals can be the root of a significant amount of misery. People like this can develop addictions to the sex acts that once brought them pleasure, and they may also develop drug addictions as they attempt to deal with their disorder.
Estimating the Damage
Most people engage in their sexual behaviors in private, glossing over the details or omitting them altogether when they’re in the company of colleagues, family members or strangers. As a result, it’s difficult to know how many people might engage in activities that would be considered dangerous or addictive.
The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy suggests that nearly 12 million people have a sex addiction, but the organization warns that the easy accessibility of sexually tinged material within the society could mean that there are many more people who have this problem, and who never admit to their behaviors.
A sexual addiction is more than a simple overindulgence in sex. Some people have intensely physical relationships with their partners, engaging in the activities daily, and they might not merit a label of addiction. It’s the thought processes that stand behind the behavior that merit concern by addiction specialists and others. Reading about these thought processes can be difficult, but this knowledge might allow people to understand when they should step in, and when help really might be needed. People with a sex addiction feel compelled to engage in sexual behaviors, including:
- Consumption of pornography
- Cybersex episodes
- Sex with strangers
- Sex with prostitutes
- Multiple affairs
When they’re not actively engaged in a sexual act, they’re planning the next time they can be so occupied. They might also find it difficult to resist the urge to engage in the act, meaning that they might have masturbation sessions at work or look at pornography on the family computer in the middle of the day. They might be happy in a relationship, and yet feel compelled to have sex with strangers on a regular basis. For some people, the acts are enjoyable. Many, however, find their behavior repellent or even disgusting, and they might be intensely ashamed of the things they’ve done and plan to do in the future. These same people might escalate their sex behavior, however, taking yet more risks with each sexual escapade. When they’re not engaged in the activity, they may feel sick and ill.
People who have a sex addiction may face very serious consequences, including:
- Sexually transmitted disorders
- Loss of custody of children
- Financial distress
- Imprisonment, if their sex acts break the law
These consequences may not be enough to deter the behavior, however, and biology may explain why this is the case. With each sex act the person takes on, the brain releases signals of pleasure. In time, the brain becomes accustomed to the constant presence of these chemicals, and those cells may demand chemicals in the future. Even so, the brain might amend its response to the chemicals by producing less or turning receptors off. In time, the person might need to engage in sex just to feel normal, and without sex, the person might be incapable of feeling pleasure. The act becomes compulsive, done to relieve pain rather than to deliver pleasure.
The Role of Substance Use
These same chemical pathways are used by many substances of abuse, and it’s common for people with sex addictions to self-medicate with drugs and/or alcohol. In fact, in a study of sex addicts in the American Journal of Psychiatry, 64 percent had a history of a substance abuse disorder. By taking in drugs, people can introduce the same kind of chemical response their bodies would produce during a sex act. The drugs may help them to deal with the chemical changes the sex addiction has brought about. Some drugs may also enhance a sexual response. For example, in a study of men who had sex with men, published in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, researchers found that many took in methamphetamine because it made marathon sex sessions easier and enhanced the pleasure they felt during sex. People with sex addictions often feel the need to augment their experiences in order to boost the chemical response of the brain, and studies like this seem to suggest that drugs might allow those enhanced sessions to happen just a little easier. People with sex addictions might also just be desperately upset and unhappy due to their behaviors. They may not want to be engaged in these sorts of acts, but they may not realize that there is another way to behave and another way to live. They’re trapped, and sometimes, alcohol or drugs can provide a small bit of relief from sad and low feelings like this. The substance abuse works like a medication, but it can delay the person’s entry into programs that can help. Instead of dealing with the consequences of a sex addiction, a drugged person is limping along. The behaviors may continue, and grow all the more damaging, with the help of drugs.
Stopping the Cycle
People with sex addictions are under the spell of the chemicals they crave, and while they may want to stop their behaviors, they may be unable to do so, especially if chemical addictions are also involved. Thankfully, a treatment program can work wonders. Here, people have access to therapists who can help them to understand their triggers and work toward a brighter future. For some, this therapy involves looking at the past and working through traumatic early episodes that involved sex. For others, this therapy involves identifying high-risk situations in which cravings for sex and drugs seem to grow. This kind of therapy can be augmented by support group participation, in which people have the opportunity to discuss their behaviors openly in the company of others who also have sex addictions. This network can provide the support that can ensure that a relapse doesn’t take place, and that healing really does take hold. At Futures of Palm Beach, we meld therapy, support group involvement, alternative therapy and more into a customized treatment program that can help you reinvent your life and handle your compulsions. Please call us to find out more.