Considering 1 in 25 people are thought to live with sex addiction, it’s still not widely known about.
“You mention the word sex and it sounds very seedy, like I’m putting a plastic bag over my head with an orange in my mouth wearing marigolds,” says Michael*, who lived with sex addiction for 15 years.
“But that’s not what it is. It’s an obsession to go and use. With an addiction it’s never enough.”
The World Health Organisation recently listed compulsive sexual behaviour disorder as a mental health condition, which led to some publications conflating the disorder with sex addiction. But they are actually two separate issues.
Compulsive sexual behaviour disorder sits within the broader issue of sex and love addiction. The latter is more about struggling to have healthy relationships, according to addiction treatment firm UKAT, while people with compulsive sexual behaviour disorder will specifically need to have sex to get their ‘high’. Because an inability to have healthy relationships is often at this root of sexual behaviour disorder - one essentially feeds the other.
*Michael’s name has been changed to protect his privacy.
For 43-year-old Michael, sex (particularly the build up to it) was his high. It stemmed from an unhealthy relationship with himself, which in turn impacted his relationships with those around him.
He has been in recovery for both sex and drug addiction for a decade now, since the age of 33, and it’s safe to say he’s come a long way since the days when he’d miss important family events in order to meet women and have sex. He can’t recall how many people he slept with during this time, but says quite often it was a different person a day.
“It wasn’t so much the act itself but the thrill of the chase,” he explains. “It’s like the anticipation of the coke dealer turning up rather than the taking of the coke. I needed people to need to be with me.”
He says ultimately “it was a need to be wanted or liked” that seemed to drive his addiction, fuelled by low self-esteem. He likens the feeling of getting that attention to using drugs: “Once I’ve got that and I’ve done that line, I need another line. [You’re] continually chasing that thing.”
Symptoms of compulsive sexual behaviour disorder:
:: Repetitive sexual activities become a central focus of the person’s life to the point of neglecting health and personal care or other interests, activities and responsibilities.
:: They undergo numerous unsuccessful efforts to significantly reduce repetitive sexual behaviour.
:: The repetitive sexual behaviour continues despite adverse consequences or deriving little or no satisfaction from it.
:: The pattern of failure to control intense, sexual impulses or urges (and resulting repetitive sexual behaviour) is manifested over an extended period of time - for example, six months or more.
:: It causes marked distress or significant impairment in personal, family, social, educational, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.
Michael says the moment he realised something needed to change was when he missed a school play which his daughter starred in. “I made up an excuse,” he says. “I really wanted to see it, but the obsession to go and use - to go and meet somebody - was just on me. I was powerless over that.”
He was using work events as an excuse to go out and hook up with people too. A high-flying job in the insurance industry led to long lunches and time unaccounted for. “There were a lot of opportunities to meet people,” he says. “It was a difficult balancing act to find that perfect buzz. It’s contradicting emotions - it’s causing the pain but you’re always chasing it.”
The now 43-year-old, who is a father to three children, went into recovery aged 33. He says it wasn’t the cocaine or sex that made him realise he needed help, it was the constant lying to those he loved. But it was too late and just over four years ago he and his long-term wife separated. “The trust had gone. There’s only so much someone’s going to take,” he reflects. “As much as she loved me and I loved her, the trust had gone and I’d damaged the situation.
“I wasn’t comfortable in my own skin. That’s what this is about. You can’t have a relationship with somebody until you can have a relationship with yourself. If you’re lying to yourself, then how is that going to work?”
Eytan Alexander, founder of UKAT, which is a private treatment centre, says a lot of people with sex and love addiction might not recognise they have a problem because they tend to mask it with some form of substance abuse.
“When we treat our patients, and we really dig deep into the why they do what they do, we generally reveal their struggle with relationships, boundaries and respect,” he says. Treatment tends to involve a mixture of group therapy, individual counselling and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). At present it is not treated on the NHS, meaning most people have to seek help privately.
“Sex addicts will have huge egos but incredibly low self-esteem. They’ll be addicted to love but at the same time will avoid love,” he continues. “They’ll experience both sets of conflicting emotions at the same time which causes them real mental pain.”
In the past few years, Michael says he’s had far healthier relationships with women, however at present he’s single and in a good place. He has shared his story to encourage others to seek help. “Today I’m happy being alone, whereas before that would have been like turning around to an alcoholic and telling them they’re never going to drink again,” he says.
“I feel grateful that I do not have to live a lie anymore.”
If you think you might have a sex addiction:
:: Call relationships charity Relate for details of Relate Centres that offer a sex addiction service.
:: Find details of a trained sex addiction therapist by visiting the Association for Treatment of Sex Addiction and Compulsivity website.
:: Access details of support groups at the Sex Addiction Help website.
:: Call UKAT’s free 24/7 confidential helpline on 0808 250 4523 or find out more about sex and love addiction here. (Please bear in mind they are a private treatment centre).