What is Sexual Obsession?

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When it comes to obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), the main symptoms are unwelcomed thoughts, images, or ideas that don’t leave the mind and cause suffering.

A subset of these symptoms is known as sexual obsession. This is when an idea or thought surrounding sexual activity continually preoccupies or intrudes on your mind. These can happen both with and without compulsions [1].

Furthermore, these obsession come in a variety of themes, including:

  • Homosexuality/sexual identity
  • Incest
  • Infidelity
  • The combination of religion and sex
  • Sex with animals
  • Sexual abuse
  • Sexual perversions
  • Sexual thoughts surrounding friends
  • Violent sexual conduct

Before we begin, it’s important to note there’s a large difference between sexual obsessions and sexual fantasies. A fantasy is something we naturally find pleasure in, doesn’t harm anyone, and is guilt-free. On the other hand, an obsession isn’t desired, causes distress, and seldom leads to arousal.

When it comes to all forms of obsessive-compulsive disorder, sexual obsessions are one of those most difficult subjects to discuss. Many people who experience feel as though they’re doing harm simply have these compulsive thoughts – or worse, they’re going to cause harm onto others.

Due to this, many are afraid to discuss their issue with a medical professional. The purpose of this article is to explore sexual obsessions and provide those who struggle with it a treatment solution.

At the end, we invite you to ask further questions.

The Reward System

Sexual obsession is an addiction and works similarly to drug dependence. When we’re sexually aroused, our reward system is affected in a number of ways [2].

The reward system is responsible for our process of emotions. It’s what tells us to start an action or stray away from an action. Common feelings released by the reward system include:

  • Accomplishment
  • Appetite
  • Motivation
  • Pleasure

The most prominent chemical released within the reward system is dopamine. In the physical world, dopamine appears through movement. This can be observed in people with Parkinson’s disease. Considering they have a lack of dopamine, it’s reflected through their jerky movements.

It’s due to the reward system that we seek out sexual arousal. And people who compulsively seek out sex are doing so in a similar fashion to a drug addict seeking out their fix.

Signs of Sexual Obsession

Keeping the reward system in mind, an obsession with sex is more than what it seems at the surface. When we dig deeper into the matter, it appears to be an obsession with the reward system.

However, people with sexual obsession seek out different types of sexual conduct. In turn, this makes it more difficult to entirely understand the mental health condition [4].

Furthermore, we can understand that sexual obsession isn’t merely a compulsion towards sex or even the reward system. For much of the obsession has to do with carrying out the sexual act rather than just the feelings it leaves one with.

People with sexual obsession involve themselves in a number of activities, including:

  • Compulsive masturbation
  • Constant use of pornography
  • Cybersex
  • Exhibitionism
  • Going to prostitutes or practicing prostitution
  • Many sexual affairs and/or partners
  • Performing unsafe sex
  • Voyeurism

Symptoms

In turn, these activities result in a number of specific types of behaviors, including [5]:

  • Awareness of sexual obsession despite consequences which may arise (financially, medically, or socially)
  • Continuously failing to resist sexual impulses
  • Detachment from the emotions of sex
  • Feelings of guilt or shame
  • Inability to control sexual urges
  • Inability to respect the boundaries of others
  • Losing social, work-related, or recreational activities due to sexual obsession
  • Taking risks in spite of potential dangers, such as sexually transmitted infections, physical injury, or emotional problems
  • Spending a lot of time and energy in the attempt to obtain sex, in being sexual, or recovering from a sexual experience

People with sexual obsession may also suffer from sexual rage disorder [6]. This is when a person becomes anxious, restless, distressed, and sometimes violent if they’re unable to engage in sexual activity.

Complications of Sexual Addiction

People with compulsive sexual behavior will find themselves with a number of problems people without the condition don’t often consider.

To begin, there’s been a clear link between sexual obsession and other mental illnesses, such as anxiety and depression [7]. This is due to the fact that many people with sexual addiction are left feeling guilty. In turn, giving them low amounts of self-esteem.

Due to mental illness, a spiral of other problems might begin to appear. These include:

  • Family and friend relationship problems and breakups
  • Financial difficulties
  • Legal complications (usually, a sexual act which is either illegal or publically disruptive)
  • STIs
  • Trouble with romantic relationships

If you know someone with sexual obsession, it’s important to reach out to them and offer a hand. Treatment is available.

What Causes Compulsive Sexual Behavior?

Medical professionals and scientists alike still aren’t entirely sure why some people experience sexual obsession. As mentioned, this condition is a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder and, therefore, people suffering from that may develop a sexual addiction.

However, not everyone with OCD develops this dependence.

It’s understood that people with tendencies of drug addiction may also feel compulsive sexual behavior [8]. This has to do with both drugs and sex impacting the reward system and give a person a rush of dopamine.

If this is true, that would mean similar causes of drug addiction inflict sexual addiction as well, including [9]:

  • Environment
  • Genetics
  • Peer pressure

In a study published by Biological Psychiatry, it was found that lesions on the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) of the brain were linked to compulsive sexual behavior. Furthermore, other studies have claimed that the frontal cortex, responsible for logic and morality, may be impaired by the midbrain in people with sexual addiction.

Finally, there’s been a connection found in people with sexual obsession and dysfunctional families. Those who were abused as children (either sexually and/or violently) are more likely to develop an addictive sexual nature.

Diagnosis

Unfortunately, medical professionals have not developed common ground when it comes to diagnosing sexual obsession. Unlike other mental health conditions, which have a clear criteria to follow in the diagnosis process, that of sexual addiction depends on where you go.

In accordance with the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders, there is little evidence suggesting that compulsive sexual behavior can be formally diagnosed. With that, the condition isn’t even recognized.

Still, not all medical professionals agree on this. The International Classification of Diseases offers that a proper diagnosis can be made for those who suffer from sexual obsession. Under the section F52.8, a disease is stated as: “other sexual dysfunction not due to a substance or known psychological condition.” [10]

This category includes the following:

  • Excessive sexual drive
  • Nymphomania
  • Satyriasis

In accordance with a study done by the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, UCLA, sexual obsession can be diagnosed as a mental disorder as long as a person:

“Experience repeated sexual fantasies, behaviors, and urges that last upwards of 6 months and are not due to factors, such as medication, another medical condition, substance abuse, or manic episodes linked to bipolar disorder.”

Criteria for Diagnosis

Though there remains conflicting views on how to diagnose sexual addiction, Dr. Aviel Goodman, director of the Minnesota Institute of Psychiatry, has produced a document which relates similarly to a substance abuse disorder’s diagnosis criteria [11].

If you’ve experienced the following traits within a 12-month period, you’re suffering from sexual obsession:

  • Built a tolerance and experiences withdrawal without sex
  • Continued sex doesn’t produce the initial effects you continue to desire
  • Hold the desire to stop or take control of your conduct, but are unable to
  • Inability to adjust to personal circumstances due to sexual addiction
  • Letting go or decreasing your role in responsibilities, such as school, work, or social.
  • Spending large amounts of time either engaging in or pursuing sexual activity
  • You continue to seek out sex despite it causing problems in your life and worsening both your physical and psychological stability
  • You continue to seek out sex to avoid withdrawal symptoms

Treatment

Treating sexual addiction is similar to treating drug and alcohol addiction. With that, people who have are compulsively sexual tend to react to treatment similarly to the way a person struggling with addiction does.

They continue to rationalize why they’re allowed to continue pursuing this behavior no matter what the consequences. And they’ll deny the fact that there’s a problem to begin with.

If you know someone who’s currently in this state, keep in mind that s/he is most likely aware of their problem. They simply have trouble admitting it and, in turn, receiving the help they need.

Treatment options for sexual addiction are, likewise, similar to that of drug and alcohol addiction:

1. Therapy

Without a doubt, the most effective form of treating sexual obsession is that of psychotherapies. There are a variety of different ones to look towards, including [12]:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) – the purpose of this therapy is to help you develop an understanding of your sexual patterns and, through this knowledge, develop new and healthier patterns. CBT literally helps to change your perspective on your circumstance and beat the guilty thoughts that come with sexual addiction. It’ll also help you prevent relapse.
  • Residential Treatment Programs – Though commonly associated with drug and alcohol treatment, some residential programs offer help for sexual addiction as well. In order to learn more, you’ll want to do some research on residential treatment programs in your area.
  • Self-Help Organizations – By talking out your addiction with other individuals, you’d be surprised how much better you’ll feel about yourself. Through self-help groups, you’re not only surrounded by others also struggling with addiction, but you’re developing a support system which can last a life time. Some self-help organizations to look out for are:
    • Sexaholics Anonymous
    • Sex Addicts Anonymous
    • Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous
    • Sex Compulsives Anonymous

2. Medication

There is medication available to help decrease sexual desire and arousal. The most notable is Prozac. However, it must be noted, this drug is not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for treatment of sexual addiction.

Helping a Loved One

Do you know someone who’s addicted to sex? Are you unsure how to reach out and help him/her?

There are a number of ways for you to make a difference in your loved one’s life. It’s important to first seek out guidance from a medical professional – preferably, someone who has a lot of experience in sexual addiction.

From there, you have the option of staging an intervention. Admittedly, this can be tricky as everyone reacts to an intervention differently. Some people are open to it while others will detest you for it.

If you do plan to stage an intervention, it’s important to talk this over with the medical professional. They will make sure you take the right steps to produce the best possible outcome.

From there, all you can do is influence treatment. If you can financially help in this regard, it will make a huge difference for your loved one. With the proper treatment, s/he will be able to recover from sexual addiction.

Your Questions

This article sought to answer everything you need to know about sexual obsessions and their relation to people who suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

Still have questions?

We invite you to ask them in the comments section below. We also invite those with more information or personal experiences with sexual obsession. We’ll make sure to reply to each legitimate comment in a prompt and personal manner.

References:

[1] Psychiatry MMC: Understanding and Managing Compulsive Sexual Behaviors

[2] Harvard Health Publishing: Harvard Medical School: How addiction hijacks the brain

[3] NCBI: [Dopamine: not just a neurotransmitter].

[4] UCLA Newsroom: Science supports sex addiction as a legitimate disorder

[5] Indian Journal of Psychiatry: Psychosocial intervention for sexual addiction

[6] Industrial Psychiatry Journal: A case of intermittent explosive disorder

[7] MedlinePlus: Obsessive-compulsive disorder

[8] NCBI: Sexual addiction in drug addictions: The impact of drug of choice and poly-addiction

[9] NIH: A Study of Gene Polymorphisms Associated With Specific Presentations of Sexual Addiction

[10] Wiley Online Library: Diagnosis of hypersexual or compulsive sexual behavior can be made…

[11] NCBI: Diagnosis and treatment of sexual addiction.

[12] Psychology Today: The many different options to getting sex addiction help

Featured Image by Nicole Allison Fleming (original Flickr post)

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