Overview and Presentations of Sexual Addiction

Man standing in front of light overview of sexual addiction

By Ralph Earle (PhD, ABPP) and Rick Isenberg (MD, CSAT)

In the human experience, sexual expression takes a myriad of forms, limited only by the bounds of imagination. As the field of human sexuality progresses, more and more sexual behaviours have been catalogued and acknowledged as normal variants. As myriad as the range of sexual behaviours are the various manifestations of sexual addiction. Addiction, with its obsession, compulsion, tolerance, cravings and withdrawal, may distort any form of human sexual and romantic expression, and turn what is potentially joyful and intimate into something compulsive and problematic.

Much work has been done to understand the various manifestations of sexual addiction. It is apparent that certain behaviours present in clusters that may accompany specific forms of psychopathology. In this chapter, we review the various common presentations of the disorder, considering first those medical and psychological disorders that present similarly and must be ruled out before making the diagnosis of sexual addiction.

 

Differential Diagnosis of Sexual Addiction

In the field of mental health, despite our reliance on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) (American Psychiatric Association, 2013), not everything that quacks like a duck is truly a duck. We learn from our colleagues in medicine that a practitioner must always consider a differential diagnosis before making and acting upon a diagnosis. We have come to understand that when presented with depression, for instance, we must rule out hypothyroidism, syphilis, Lyme disease, post-concussion syndrome and drug effects, among many other disorders. So it is, too, with patients presenting with problematic, compulsive sexual behaviour. Especially in light of the shame, discrimination and contempt showered by our society on men and women with sexual addiction, we as clinicians must be discerning in our application of the label. Not all that quacks like a sexual addict is a sexual addict.

 

Definition of Sexual Addiction

In keeping with the nomenclature applied to substance use disorders and gambling disorder, Carnes has proposed ten criteria for the diagnosis of sexual addiction, which include elements of obsession, compulsion, risk-taking, tolerance, withdrawal, cravings, unsuccessful efforts to stop and social impairment. It is important to recognize that there are conditions that present with only some of the diagnostic criteria that must be separated from the rubric of sexual addiction, and other medical and psychological disorders that largely mimic sexual addiction and must be excluded before a diagnosis is made. We next explore these ‘rule out’ conditions.

 

Medical Conditions that May Mimic Sexual Addiction

Hypersexual behaviour has been associated with a range of neurological and psychiatric disorders. Before making a diagnosis of sexual addiction, consideration must be given to these medical disorders that are associated with sexual behaviour that is compulsive, inappropriate, uncharacteristic or excessive: Traumatic Brain Injury, Stroke and Neurosurgical Injury, Dementia, Autism Spectrum Disorder, Parkinson’s Disease, Bipolar Disorder, and Substance Abuse. The diagnosis of sexual addiction should not be made when these disorders are present without extensive consideration.

 

Non-Pathological Behaviours

In this discussion of conditions subject to misdiagnosis as sexual addiction, it is important to emphasize that the concept of healthy sexuality may include sexual behaviours that are frequent or different from the norms of the prevailing culture (such as homosexuality, BDSM, polyamory, etc). The clinician would do a disservice by reflexively labelling such behaviour as addictive. Such behaviors would not qualify as addictions unless all the criteria of obsession, compulsion, risk-taking, tolerance, withdrawal, cravings, unsuccessful efforts to stop and social impairment are present.

 

The Clinical Presentations of Sexual Addiction

In recent years, multiple typologies have been proposed for sexual addiction.

The most extensive characterization of the phenotypes of sexual addiction has been performed using latent profile analysis of a large database of patient self-reported data obtained through use of the Sexual Dependency Inventory (SDI-4.0).

As described by Carnes, close to two hundred different sexual behaviours have been catalogued as part of the development of the SDI. Using the statistical technique of factor analysis, these behaviours are found to cluster in distinct types, each with characteristic acting-out behavioural patterns. In the derivation of the SDI-4.0, 20 behavioural clusters were identified. It is common for sexual addicts to endorse behaviours in multiple categories. Details are provided in the book chapter.

These behavioral clusters include:

  • Fantasy Sex
  • Pornography Use
  • Phone Sex
  • Use of Inanimate Objects
  • Anonymous Sex
  • Conquest and Seduction
  • Group Sex
  • Relationship Addiction
  • Humiliation & Domination
  • Pain-Exchange Sex
  • Paying for Sex
  • Power Exchange Sex
  • Intrusive Sex
  • Voyeurism & Covert Intrusions
  • Exhibitionism
  • Exploitation of Trust
  • Sexual Exploitation of Children
  • Production of Pornography
  • Compulsive Sexuality with Drug Use

 

Conclusion

Sexual addiction presents in a myriad of ways with recognizable clusters of behaviour. The clinician facing a client with problematic, compulsive or excessive sexual behaviours must be mindful of the medical and psychological conditions which resemble sexual addiction and must be differentiated, with appropriate specific treatment provided. Multicultural sensitivity is necessary, especially when working with sexual minorities.

 

By Ralph Earle (PhD, ABPP) and Rick Isenberg (MD, CSAT)