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Are You a Sex Addict?

Men aren't the only ones who can't control their sex compulsion. An investigation of female addicts.

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Not everyone's convinced. Dr. Michael First, professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University, says that while MRI studies suggest that gambling addicts react to the blackjack table in the same way that cocaine addicts react to a line, there are no comparable studies for sex. "It's a biological process, and there's a limit to how long you can do it," he says. "So the analogy breaks down." To call a natural, pleasurable human behavior addictive begs the question: Where do you draw the line? How do you distinguish between a strong sex drive and a condition requiring medical attention?

The American Psychiatric Association is trying to do just that, as it reviews whether to include "hypersexual disorder" in its next edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the Bible of mental illness. Defined roughly as spending "excessive time consumed by sexual fantasies and urges ... and repetitively engaging in these sexual fantasies in response to dysphoric mood states, such as anxiety or depression ... ," if it passes muster, it will bring sex addiction, if not completely out of the realm of late-night TV jokes, slightly further into the legitimate medical community.

To Veronica, a 39-year-old social worker in Seattle who became hooked on porn in the throes of a bad breakup, sex addiction is no joke. "My boyfriend stopped sleeping with me, and I was looking for other ways to get off," she explains. "Soon I was masturbating to porn with the window open, hoping someone would see me." By day, she was a buttoned-up temp at a law firm; by night, she was online, having sex chats with strangers and watching hard-core videos. Then one evening, she stumbled upon child pornography. "It made me sick to my stomach," she says, "but I kept looking." The next day, she found an SAA meeting.

"Throughout my 20s, I'd equated hooking up with random men in bars with sexual freedom. It made me feel powerful," says Veronica. The sex would be thrilling - until she climaxed. "That's when the fantasy would come crashing down and I'd feel like garbage," she says. Rather than dwell on the bad feelings, she would seek out her next fix. "I'd convince myself, Oh, God, that was so hot, and start chasing the high again," she says. Even after she was sexually assaulted - twice.

While Baird can't pinpoint exactly what causes sex addiction, she says that many addicts have experienced physical, sexual, or emotional abuse and were raised in "chaos, or a rigid, disengaged family." She administers a 250-question battery - Do you feel controlled by your sexual desire?Have you felt degraded by your sexual experiences? - to identify the abnormal behavior, the length of time spent engaging in it, and the effect it's having on the patient's life.

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