It seems like sex addiction makes headlines every time a public figure is caught in a cheating scandal. Tiger Woods: sex addict. Anthony Weiner: sex addict. Charlie Sheen: sex addict. It’s often unclear whether their admissions are true or simply an excuse for infidelity. But for the estimated 12 million Americans who are said to suffer from sex addiction and the psychologists who treat them, it’s a serious mental health issue.
“Sex addiction is a compulsive behavior ranging from watching pornography to engaging in sexual activity to get ‘high’ or numb from reality,” Dr. Stacy Seikel, chief medical officer of RiverMend Health’s Integrated Recovery Services in Atlanta, tells Yahoo Health.
This may sound like a safe, even enjoyable addiction, especially compared with other compulsions — such as abusing drugs or alcohol — that can lead to hospitalization and death. But sex addiction is just as persistent and doesn’t necessarily achieve the pleasure or comfort most expect from a sexual experience. “Breaking the addiction can cause anxiety, insomnia, poor concentration, depression, irritability, mood swings, and isolation,” Seikel says. “The person is seeking a feeling or sense of satisfaction that may not be met.”
So who are sex addicts? Though it’s often thought that sex addiction is the result of sexual trauma or something that affects creepy old men who watch porn in dimly lit basements, in reality, sex addiction can affect anyone. And cybersex addiction is rapidly growing in women, Seikel says.
Take Erica Garza, for example. “I feel like I always knew I had a problem with sex and masturbation, even from the very beginning of my sexual exploration when I started having orgasms at age 12,” Garza, a professional writer and essayist who has struggled with sex addiction, tells Yahoo Health. “I admitted openly that I had an addiction and needed help when I was in my late 20s and met my husband.”
Garza’s addiction started with masturbation, which helped her escape her emotions. “I was raised Catholic, and never heard other girls talking about masturbation. I immediately associated my sexual excitement with shame,” she says. “Then I discovered porn, and my tendency to reach for these habits became more immediate and intense, and my shame grew bigger and more powerful. I believe these thoughts of shame are what fueled my sexual habits into actually becoming addictions over the years.”
Before her marriage, Garza says, she took part in destructive behavior and acted out in relationships. This is not unusual among sex addicts: According to Seikel, cheating; lack of intimacy; multiple, random sex partners, unsafe sex, and compulsive masturbation are common characteristics.
The American Psychiatric Association first recognized sex addiction in 1987 in the third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-III). According to the definition in this manual, sexual addiction as a mental disorder — clinically called hypersexuality disorder — is distress about a pattern of sexual conquests involving people who exist only as things to be used. Sexual addiction was removed from the manual update in 1994, and re-introduced in 2013 as a condition that requires more research — though it’s not considered an official diagnosis.
This opened doors for doctors, psychologists, and researchers who don’t see sex addiction as a diagnosable disorder, but rather a concept based on the fear of sex, to speak out. “People with high libido, internalized conflicts over sex, relationship conflicts over sex, LGBTQ orientations, and coping skills that use sex for stress management, are often labeled as sex addicts,” says David Ley, a clinical psychologist in Albuquerque and author of The Myth of Sex Addiction. “This is inappropriate, stigmatizing, and shaming.”
Garza, on the other hand, thinks it’s wrong for people to think that she does not have an addiction or that her symptoms are not the same as those with diagnosable disorders. “I can listen to someone talk about their sex addiction, their alcohol addiction, or their drug addiction and, while the ‘drug of choice’ is different for each, so much else — the underlying emotions of shame and isolation — are similar,” she says. “It all comes back to escape.” She thinks it’s brave for anyone, celebrity or not, to admit to their addictions because it could help end the taboo.
Sex addicts, like Garza, often see therapists so the behavior does not run their lives. Cognitive behavioral therapy is an effective therapeutic method, Seikel says. But according to Ley, there is no evidence that sex addiction can be cured or treated, or even needs to be. He says: “No one in the history of the world has ever died or got sick when they didn’t get to have sex.”
Garza is just one of the many who lives with sex addiction, and each person’s experience is surely unique. To find out some other candid descriptions of what it’s like to live with the addiction, we teamed up with Whisper, the free app that allows users to share their secrets anonymously. Check them out below: