Sex addiction is the use of sexual behaviors or compulsive sexual thoughts that impacts the life of the addict and his or her surrounding family members and friends. Sexual addiction is a real problem and is responsible for destroying millions of lives, relationships, and marriages. Like any addiction, the additive behaviors increase and intensify over time.
For some sex addicts, behavior does not progress beyond compulsive masturbation or the extensive use of pornography (though these behaviors, because of their compulsive nature, are very serious and can ruin lives). For others, addiction can involve infidelity and betrayal of their marriages, and illegal activities such as exhibitionism, voyeurism, child molestation, or rape.
Someone who is a sex addict is no longer experiencing gratification during sex acts or behaviors, rather, they engage compulsively in order to satisfy an intense urge, analogous to a drug addict trying to get their narcotic dosage. The person does not have control over their unhealthy behaviors (though they may believe that they do). Addiction can lead to brain changes that challenge an addicted person’s self-control and interfere with their ability to resist these intense urges. These brain changes can be persistent, which is why sex addiction is considered a "relapsing" disease—people in recovery from sexual addiction are at increased risk for returning to their compulsive sexual behaviors even after years of not engaging in them.
The cause of sex addiction can be a result of an attachment problem early on in life, a trauma that occurred later during development, or both. It can be thought of as being similar to heart disease or diabetes in that there are primary causes and secondary, however, in my experience there is always an attachment component. The behaviors of a sex addict, like many other types of addictions, is centered around numbing out and avoiding certain feelings that are intolerable.
WHEN TO SEEK HELP
Often it is not the person engaging in sex addiction who seeks help on their own; unfortunately, it is a spouse or family member who will bring the person in to get the help they need. I say unfortunately because this usually means that the damage has already been done to a marriage or relationship. For sex addicts and partners of sex addicts 12 step and other types of support groups are useful. Individual and couples therapy is almost always needed when trying to repair a relationship, marriage, or family dynamic. Often times a regularly scheduled polygraph is recommended, similar to a drug screening for a drug addict, which can help to rebuild trust once the deceitfulness and lies the addict has used to maintain their addiction have been uncovered.