Sex addiction: its causes, symptoms and treatment, and why some people still don’t think it’s real
Like any form of dependency, addiction to sex is an escape mechanism, but it’s a compulsion with a stigma attached that stops people seeing it for what it is. A doctor and sex therapist offers a definition and explains how it can be treated
Addicts often feel inadequate, dissatisfied with themselves or their life, or both. That deep dissatisfaction can be crippling. Besides feeling hollow, they may also feel excluded by others.
They stumble on an experience that they believe gives them a sense of euphoria and hope, no matter how fleeting, to counter all those nasty feelings. As a result, they suddenly feel good and feel alive.
Addiction is the driver behind that false feeling.
Sex addiction, like any form of dependency, disguises itself as a saviour, an escape mechanism or the ultimate answer to the underlying problems of the addict.
Most sex addicts struggle with a double life as they try to hide their addiction. Many also find it difficult to admit there is a problem, as long as that compulsive habit makes them feel complete and normal.
Ariadna Peretz, founder of Maitre D’ate, a Hong Kong-based matchmaking agency, thinks the stigma attached to it prevents people from recognising the problem.
“I think part of the reason sex addiction is so difficult to talk about is there isn’t a widely agreed upon definition. Some people and organisations don’t even think sex addiction is a real addiction and there’s a stigma attached to it,” she says.
“I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Hong Kong has a higher rate of sex addiction than other places in the world because of the stress Hongkongers deal with on an ongoing basis. Hong Kong is a very stressful environment and people have literally no work-life balance, so they’re going to look for ways to block out the stress.
“The Cabin, which has an outpatient addiction counselling clinic in Hong Kong, noted a 30 per cent increase from 2016 to 2017 in sex and love addicts. I’m not surprised, as dating apps have become so pervasive in Hong Kong.”
Sex addiction is a complicated condition. Just as an eating disorder is not just about food, or gambling is not about money, sex addiction is not all about sex.
Family physician and sex therapist Dr Angela Ng Wing-ying, a former vice-president of the Hong Kong Association of Sexuality Educators, Researchers & Therapists, defines what addiction is.
“Addiction is a condition in which a behaviour can produce pleasure and reduce pain … It is characterised by recurrent failure to control the behaviour and continuation of such behaviour despite significant harmful consequences,” says Ng.
She says addiction is not determined by the type of behaviour, its object, frequency, social acceptability or even a lack of discretion. Instead, it’s defined by how the behaviour relates to and affects a person’s life. She warns that any sexual behaviour has the potential to become addictive.
Ng says we must differentiate between sexual addiction and loving sex.
Sex addiction concerns recurrent and intense sexual fantasies, sexual urges, and sexual behaviour over a period of at least six months and characterised by four or more of the following conditions:
● Excessive time consumed by sexual fantasies, urges, planning for and engaging in sexual behaviour;
● Repetitively engaging in these sexual fantasies, urges, and behaviour in response to problematic moods (e.g. anxiety, depression, boredom, irritability etc) or stressful life events;
● Repeated but unsuccessful efforts to control or significantly reduce the sexual fantasies, urges, and behaviour;
● Engaging in sexual behaviour repeatedly while disregarding the risk of physical or emotional harm to oneself or others;
● Significant personal distress or impairment of social, occupational or academic functioning associated with the frequency and intensity of these fantasies, urges and behaviour;
● Sexual fantasies, urges, and behaviour that are not triggered by the direct physiological effects of taking drugs or medication, or by manic episodes.
People who have frequent sexual fantasies and sex simply for physical pleasure have nothing to worry about as long as they can control the frequency. It’s also fine, according to Ng, as long as they don’t use sexual behaviour or fantasies to deal with bad moods or stress, or cause significant risks or harm in the pursuit of sexual pleasure.
If you are wondering whether you could be a sex addict but are not sure, Ng offers more advice: “One should start to worry if one sees decreased or no sexual activity with or desire for one’s partner, spends excessive time in sexual fantasies or behaviour or loses control over such fantasies and behaviour, and is secretive about such behaviour.”
Ng says although treatment helps a sex addict differentiate healthy, natural sex from unhealthy, compulsive sexual behaviour, relapses can occur throughout a person’s life, as there is no complete cure. However, addicts can learn to identify the triggers that may induce sexually addictive behaviour and how to deal with or avoid these triggers and urges.
If your partner is a sex addict, seek professional help. “It’s because the partner will inevitably feel betrayed, hurt, insecure and ashamed,” says Ng. “They also need to seek support from group therapy.
Having understanding family and friends is essential. Finally, the partner of a sex addict also needs to learn to rebuild trust and regain self-esteem.”
Those who have never been addicted to anything may find it hard to comprehend the problem. The reason sex addiction, or any addiction, is dangerous is because it pushes us to pursue it at all costs without considering the consequences.
Sex addiction will almost certainly damage relationships, and people who become addicted often push their loved ones away until it’s too late. By the time they realise they need help, there may not be anyone available or willing to offer it.
Luisa Tam is a senior editor at the Post
Who is prone to sex addiction?
1. People who grew up in a dysfunctional family;
2. Those with a history of physical, emotional or sexual abuse in childhood; and addiction in the family (e.g. father is an alcoholic)
3. People already addicted to something (e.g. substance abusers)
4. Those who suffered stress growing up, for instance from being bullied or because of their poor academic performance)
Advice from Dr Angela Ng Wing-ying