When golf legend Tiger Woods went away to rehab to be treated for an alleged sex addiction he became the butt of a thousand jokes, lost millions of dollars in product endorsement revenue and became the poster boy for wayward spouses.  In one fell swoop of his wife’s golf club, his pristine image as a blue chip athlete was totaled.   Tiger became a laughingstock on and off the golf course and many of the men I know rolled their eyes and said, “Yeah, right.  There’s no such thing as sex addiction…a man is only as faithful as his options.”  Many of the women I spoke with also expressed skepticism about an addiction centered around an activity that is a primary human instinct.  “Please…Tiger is just being a man.” 

What most people don’t realize is that there is fact a VERY big difference between someone who loves to have sex or someone who is a sex addict.  Sex addiction (also referred to as sexual compulsivity or hypersexuality) isn’t about having a strong sex drive…it’s using sex in a compulsive way as a way to avoid feeling or dealing with what’s really happening in your life.  This avoidant behavior ultimately does its job too well and becomes a problem in and of itself. 

The National Council on Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity defines sexual addiction as “engaging in persistent and escalating patterns of sexual behavior that is acted out despite increasing negative consequences to self and others.”  Sexually addictive behaviors include compulsively seeking new sexual partners, compulsive fixation on an unattainable partner, compulsive masturbation, and compulsive sexuality within a relationship.  Yes, many people go through a phase where they may spend an inordinate amount of time scanning Match.com or trolling a local watering hole.  You can love someone from afar, masturbate frequently and have hours upon hours of marathon sex with your partner-and still not be a sex addict.  The difference is in the thought process driving their actions and the increasingly negative consequences that do little to stem their compulsive behavior. 

Healthy sexuality is pleasurable and freeing. It is a powerful energy that is a conscious, positive expression of our sexual being that enhances one’s self-esteem, emotional relationship and physical health.  Sexual addiction, on the other hand, has the exact opposite affect.  It is unconscious, destructive behavior that damages self-esteem, causes harm in relationships and damages physical health.  While the substances or methods used to escape their pain vary (cocaine vs. gambling vs. pornography), at the core of every addict is the desire to escape reality coupled with an inability to stop their behavior.  A sex addict will pursue their next fix with the same fever and single-mindedness of purpose as a crack addict will for a rock.

Dr. Patrick Carnes, a leading expert in the field of sex addiction established the following outline to define addictive sexual behavior:

1.    Recurrent failure (pattern) to resist impulses to engage in acts of sex.

2.    Frequently engaging in those behaviors to a greater extent or over a longer period of time than intended.

3.    Persistent desire or unsuccessful efforts to stop, reduce, or control those behaviors.

4.    Inordinate amount of time spent in obtaining sex, being sexual, or recovering from sexual experience.

5.    Preoccupation with the behavior or preparatory activities.

6.    Frequently engaging in sexual behavior when expected to fulfill occupational, academic, domestic, or social obligations.

7.    Continuation of the behavior despite knowledge of having a persistent or recurrent social, academic, financial, psychological, or physical problem that is caused or exacerbated by the behavior.

8.    Need to increase the intensity, frequency, number, or risk of behaviors to achieve the desired effect, or diminished effect with continued behaviors at the same level of intensity, frequency, number, or risk.

9.    Giving up or limiting social, occupational, or recreational activities because of the behavior.

10.  Resorting to distress, anxiety, restlessness, or violence if unable to engage in the behavior at times relating to SRD (Sexual Rage Disorder).

The number one way to determine if you or someone you know is an addict is to look at the impact the behavior is having on their (your) life.  Are you consistently putting yourself at risk for STDs with anonymous partners? Have you lost your spouse or significant other(s) due to your compulsive cheating?  Has there been a negative impact on your career or finances as a result of your sexual behavior? If your libido is wreaking havoc on other facets of your life, you could be addicted to sex.

Denial is a hallmark of addiction and before someone can get help they first have to admit that he/she has a problem.  All too often it takes a major crisis such as the loss of a job, an arrest, health-crisis or divorce to force an addict to acknowledge there’s a problem.  But once that happens they can begin to take the steps to healing.  Treatment for sexual addiction includes individual counseling, twelve step recovery programs, as well as medications that can help curb the obsessive-compulsive thoughts that drive an addict’s out of control and unmanageable behavior.  Over time, an addict can develop a healthy relationship with sex-but it won’t happen without some form of treatment that helps them find healthier ways of managing their stress and learning to deal with life on life’s terms-without using sex as an escape.