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What causes sexual addiction psych central

However, this is not to imply your symptoms and concerns aren’t valid or real. This clarification refers to formal terminology only.

In this article, we use “sex addiction,” an expression written about, studied, and discussed in psychology and counseling groups and 12 step programs. Still, there is no empirical evidence to suggest that sex addiction exists, or that symptoms of compulsive sexual behavior may be explained as an addiction.

Regardless, if you’re experiencing compulsive and intrusive sexual behaviors, you may find improvement after seeking the support of a mental health professional.

Even then, not all experts agree these symptoms fit into one single mental health condition. This can sometimes make diagnosis challenging.

Although sex addiction is not a formal or recognized diagnosis, the phrase has often been used to describe symptoms associated with compulsive sexual behavior disorder (CSBD) .

Different factors and experiences may lead someone to develop sex addiction and other sex disorders.

Many people have intense sexual urges, fantasies, and behaviors. But what happens when these become intrusive and persistent?

It’s natural to wonder where your symptoms came from. However, the root causes of compulsive sexual behavior disorder, also known as hypersexuality, are not well understood.

Experts have identified a few factors that may be associated with what you or others may refer to as sex addiction.

However, whether they cause your symptoms, contribute to your symptoms, or are a result of your symptoms, has not been fully determined.

Potential causes and contributing factors of CSBD include:

  • frontal lobe abnormalities
  • neurotransmitters
  • medications
  • emotional dysregulation
  • parental relationships
  • childhood abuse

Frontal lobe abnormalities

There’s limited neuroimaging research on hypersexuality that would answer if and how different the brain is in people with compulsive sexual behavior.

However, some literature suggests that, in some cases, hypersexuality may be associated with frontal and temporal lobe injuries or tumors.

This review suggests hypersexuality is more likely to occur when there are previous psychosocial challenges or abnormalities on both temporal lobes.

Not all people with frontal or temporal lobe lesions experience compulsive sexual behaviors, though. In the same way, not every compulsive sexual behavior can be explained by a lesion in your brain.

Neurological conditions, such as dementia, have also been linked to sexual compulsions. A causality hasn’t been established yet, though.


Imbalances in some neurotransmitters — such as the highly addictive dopamine — may contribute to compulsive sexual behavior disorder, though the exact mechanisms are unclear.

Neurotransmitters are an important part of your body’s sexual reaction, triggering responses of the central nervous system such as increased heart rate and regulating reactions to pleasure.

Significant changes in the levels of these neurotransmitters may impact your sexual behaviors.

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Certain medications may trigger compulsive sexual behaviors, although experts have yet to understand the exact mechanisms.

For example, a 2010 study found that some treatments for Parkinson’s disease based on dopamine replacement have been associated with increased symptoms of compulsive sexual behavior and other impulse-control disorders.

More research on this topic is needed, however, to establish a cause and effect relationship.

Mood states and emotional dysregulation

Some experts have noted a relationship between mood states and emotional regulation with an increase in compulsive sexual behaviors.

A 2020 study, for example, found that emotional dysregulation can be both a symptom of and a contributing factor to the development of the condition.

Emotional dysregulation refers to a difficulty managing your emotions or regulating emotional reactions to a specific stimulus.

A 2020 review also found a link between feelings of boredom and hypersexuality, although more evidence is needed to establish a causal relationship.

In general, higher levels of both pleasant and unpleasant emotions have been linked to an increase in impulsive-compulsive behaviors.

Parental relationships

Family dysfunction may also contribute to symptoms of hypersexuality, although no cause and effect link has been established.

Older studies examined in a 2015 review found people from disengaged and rigid families experience more compulsive sexual behaviors than those from different family structures.

Childhood abuse

A 2020 study and a literature review from the same year indicated that childhood and adolescent sexual abuse is significantly associated with hypersexual behaviors.

However, this is not to imply your symptoms and concerns aren’t valid or real. This clarification refers to clinical terminology only.

In this article, we use “sex addiction,” an expression written about, studied, and discussed in psychology and counseling groups and 12 step programs. Still, there is no evidence to suggest that sex addiction exists or that symptoms of compulsive sexual behavior may be explained as an addiction.

Compulsive sexual behavior is treatable, and talking with a health professional can facilitate a path to recovery and improve your quality of life.

If you identify with the phrase “sex addict” or you think, “I’m addicted to sex,” the information in this article might help clarify your experience.

Many of the signs and behaviors that are often attributed to sex addiction are, in fact, symptoms of compulsive sexual behavior disorder (CSBD).

The term “ sex addiction ” is, however, not accepted by all members of the medical community. In fact, it’s not considered a formal diagnosis.

Symptoms of compulsive sexual behavior or out of control sexual behavior may be hard to identify. If these terms don’t ring a bell, it may be because you might refer to them by another name: sex addiction.

Persistent, intense sexual urges and hard-to-control sexual behavior are two of the most common symptoms of what some call ‘sex addiction.’

When you look at the list of symptoms of sex addiction or compulsive sexual behavior, it’s natural to identify with some behaviors more than others.

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In fact, even people who don’t experience compulsive sexual behaviors might recognize themselves in a few signs mentioned here.

The causes of sex addiction might also be common.

The key difference if you want to determine if you have signs of sex addiction is in the duration, frequency, and intensity of these symptoms, and how much they interfere with your relationships and daily functioning.

These are general signs of sex addiction:

  • You may find it extremely difficult or even impossible to postpone and control your sexual urges and impulses.
  • Your sexual impulses lead to repetitive sexual activities that are rarely satisfying. You always want more.
  • Your focus on sexual behaviors might lead you to face conflicts at work, in your relationships, and within yourself.
  • You might experience guilt and shame that you can’t stop some of these sexual behaviors.

In other words, sex addiction often refers to a persistent and intense urge to engage in sexual behaviors and fantasies, despite any negative consequences that these may cause you or the little satisfaction they offer you.

Sex addiction symptoms are similar for females and males.

What you may call sex addiction is often explained by the clinical term “hypersexuality.”

According to the International Classification of Diseases, 11th Revision (ICD-11), the most common symptoms of hypersexuality include:

  • being focused mainly on sexual activities, leading you to leave other aspects of your life unattended, including personal care
  • engaging in repetitive sexual activities and fantasies that often cannot be stopped at will or controlled
  • experiencing little to no satisfaction from performing some of these sexual activities
  • experiencing significant distress and conflicts in your life due to your sexual urges and behaviors

To reach a diagnosis, these symptoms need to be present for at least six months.

In sum, there are four main signs of sex addiction or compulsive sexual behavior:

1. Loss of control

This is a key sign of compulsive sexual behavior or what some may refer to as sex addiction.

People who have identified as having sex addiction admit to facing a hard time controlling their sexual impulses and behaviors. But this is, in fact, a symptom of CSBD.

In other words, when you live with compulsive sexual behavior disorder, you might want to stop or avoid certain sexual behaviors but find yourself unable to do so.

This is different for someone who, for example, has a high sex drive but no compulsive sexual behavior. Someone with a high libido can avoid, postpone, control, and interrupt any sexual urges or behaviors if they need to.

But if you live with CSBD, you might feel the urge to watch pornography. You would give in to this urge even if that means missing a day of work or school, or disturbing someone else. You cannot control the urge to watch porn even if it harms you in any way.

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In this same case, someone who doesn’t have compulsive sexual behavior disorder might feel the same urge. They really want to watch porn but they can postpone this urge for after work or another day, though.

2. Intense preoccupation with sex

When you live with compulsive sexual behavior, you might find yourself constantly preoccupied with sexual thoughts and fantasies. Even if you make an effort to focus on something else, these thoughts usually prevail.

Sex might become the central part of your life. You might start scheduling everything around your sexual activities.

You could also leave important aspects of your life unattended to perform your sexual activities or follow your sexual impulses. This could include your job or school, but also your personal hygiene and health.

3. Impulsive or compulsive sexual behavior

Science hasn’t provided proof that you can be addicted to sex. This is why sex addiction is controversial and sex addiction symptoms are often explained as compulsive or impulsive behaviors.

If you have CSBD, you might show both impulsive and compulsive behaviors. These terms refer to what causes your sexual behaviors.

A compulsion is a repetitive behavior that you engage in to decrease emotional distress. Impulse refers to a behavior you engage in without planning or thinking about the consequences.

Sex addict behavior may mean you may engage in sexual activities for immediate pleasure without thinking about the consequences, which is considered impulsive behavior. Or you could repetitively perform sexual activities to escape specific emotions, which is considered compulsive.

Sometimes, impulsive sexual behavior comes first. For example, you may have sex for fun and pleasure with someone you just met.

Later on, you might start engaging in compulsive behaviors. For example, you’re stressed at work, so you engage in sexual behaviors. Or you feel nervous or anxious, so you have sex.

It’s not uncommon to continue engaging in sexual behaviors even when you no longer find sexual pleasure in them.

Impulsive and compulsive sexual behavior may happen at different times or at the same time.

4. Sexual behavior that leads to negative consequences

Another symptom of what some people call sex addiction is the presence of persistent behaviors that damage your relationships or put people’s safety in jeopardy.

One indication a person is living with CSBD is if they’re neglecting other areas of their life, such as family or employment obligations, so that they can engage in sexual behavior.

This is why some people think “I’m addicted to sex!” The behavior may be similar to someone who lives with substance use disorder or addiction. You start prioritizing the behavior over everything else in your life.

In this case, even though the behavior is similar, the cause is different. Using substances may have a chemical explanation while being addicted to sex cannot be explained physiologically.

According to one review article, people often report feeling remorse or guilt after engaging in compulsive sexual behavior. Even then, they find themselves unable to avoid or stop such behaviors.