Am I A Sex Addict?—Identifying Problematic Compulsive Sexual Behaviour

Written by Mike Quarress, a Certified Sex Addiction Therapist at Edgewood Treatment Centre, and Munis Topcuoglu, Editor at EHN Canada.

If you’re wondering, “am I a Sex Addict?” then the first thing you might want to think about is what you want to call it. The label “sex addict” has an enormous stigma attached to it—perhaps even greater than the stigma associated with substance use disorders. People labeled “sex addicts” often feel intense shame resulting both from their own perception of the stigma and also from how it causes other people to perceive and interact with them. As always, the additional distress, low self-esteem, and low self-efficacy caused by shame make it much harder for people to effectively work towards recovery and get better.

Focus on Behaviour to Reduce Shame and Stigma

By seeking to answer the question, “am I a Sex Addict?” you risk the possibility of attaching the profoundly damaging label “sex addict” to yourself. Rather than trying to define what you “are” or “aren’t,” a more constructive approach is to focus on understanding your behaviour. The question then becomes, “do I have a problematic compulsive sexual behaviour?” Answering this question requires examining your sexual behaviours and evaluating their compulsiveness and whether or not they cause significant harm to yourself or others.

If you realize that you have out-of-control sexual behaviour that causes significant harm to yourself or others—then you have a problematic compulsive sexual behaviour. Notice how this avoids moral judgment and shame—framing the problem in terms of your behaviour implies that you just need to change your behaviour. In contrast, labeling yourself a “sex addict” frames the problem in terms of what you “are,” and is much more distressing and daunting because it implies that you need to change your “self.”

What Is Problematic Compulsive Sexual Behaviour?

Hopefully, by now, you’ve been persuaded regarding the benefits of asking “do I have a problematic compulsive sexual behaviour?” rather than “am I a sex addict?” Great! So how do you determine whether or not your sexual behaviours are problematic and compulsive?

What Behaviours Are Not Inherently Problematic

The first thing to keep in mind is that human sexuality is incredibly diverse and contains a broad range of healthy sexual behaviours—limited only by human imagination. On the other hand, the range of sexual behaviours that are considered culturally acceptable is much narrower. The range of culturally acceptable sexual behaviours varies dramatically from one part of the world to another and have also varied significantly throughout history. Cultural relativity exists because cultural beliefs, values, and norms are not based on scientific evidence and are mostly unrelated to the benefits and harms of real outcomes.  (Read this article to if you’re interested in learning more about an evidence-based definition of sex addiction.) Therefore, the following do not reliably indicate that a sexual behaviour is problematic:

  • The behaviour is considered transgressive within the culture in which you live (i.e. it violates cultural norms or sex morals).
  • Other people find the behaviour offensive, disgusting, or disturbing.
  • Your family members or partners disapprove of the behaviour.

Look for Signs Similar to Substance Use Disorders

A starting point for investigating whether your sexual behaviour is problematic and compulsive is to look for signs similar to those associated with substance use disorders. The following are ten signs that could indicate you have a problematic compulsive sexual behaviour:
(1) You feel stress, anxiety, restlessness, or irritability when you’re unable to engage in a particular sexual behaviour—similar to the withdrawal symptoms of drugs.
(2) You have been participating less, or entirely stopping, social, recreational, or professional activities due to time spent engaging in a particular sexual behaviour.
(3) You feel the need to progressively increase the intensity, frequency, or risk level of your sexual activities to achieve the satisfaction that you desire. Alternatively, you feel progressively diminishing satisfaction as you continue behaviours with the same level of intensity, frequency, and risk. This is similar to developing a tolerance to drugs.
(4) You continue engaging in a particular sexual behaviour despite your awareness of the significant harm it has caused, and continues to cause, to yourself or others, such as financial, social, psychological, or physical harm. You feel powerless to stop.
(5) Engaging in a particular sexual behaviour is preventing you, more and more, from fulfilling your obligations and responsibilities in important areas of your life such as family, social, academic, and professional.
(6) You have an obsession with a particular sexual behaviour and are often preoccupied with preparing or planning to engage in that sexual behaviour.
(7) You feel distress because you spend too much time pursuing sex, engaging in sex, or recovering from sex.
(8) You want to stop or reduce a particular sexual behaviour, but you’ve tried numerous times and you have not been unsuccessful.
(9) You frequently engage in sexual behaviours for longer periods of time than you intended, resulting in harm to yourself or others.
(10) You often cannot resist the urge to engage in a particular sexual behaviour that causes harm to yourself or others.

The Sex Addiction Screening Test

A questionnaire commonly used to screen for sex addiction is the Sexual Addiction Screening Test (SAST), which consists of the following 20 questions:
(1) Have you experienced severe consequences because of the behavior?
(2) Have you struggled with depression and, if so, is it related to your desire to engage in the behaviour?
(3) Have you struggled with depression and, if so, is it related to any sexual aversion?
(4) Do you have a history of sexual abuse?
(5) Do you have a history of physical abuse?
(6) Do you have a history of emotional abuse?
(7) Do you use sex to regulate your mood or to deal with stress?
(8) Do you persist in pursuing high-risk or harmful behaviour?
(9) Do you find high-risk or harmful behaviour to be more arousing than lower-risk or healthy behaviour?
(10) Do you have any other behavioural or substance addictions?
(11) Do you engage in the sexual behaviour simultaneously with other addictive behaviours or substances?
(12) Do you often deceive your sexual partners regarding your sexual behaviour?
(13) Do you have other family members who meet the criteria for having an addiction?
(14) Do you feel extreme self loathing or shame due to your sexual behaviours?
(15) Do you have very few intimate relationships that do not involve sex?
(16) Are you currently in a crisis due to your sexual behaviour?
(17) Do you have a history of experiencing crises due to your sexual behaviours?
(18) Do you experience progressively diminishing pleasure from sexual experiences at a constant level of intensity? Are you developing a “tolerance”?
(19) Did you come from a “rigid” family system?
(20) Did you come from a “disengaged” family system?

If you answer “yes” to six or more of the questions above, this suggests further assessment is warranted. We strongly encourage you not to self-diagnose, but to seek the help of a sex addiction professional. Many people may not meet the criteria for addiction, but rather may have issues around intimacy, attachment, trauma or other problematic sexual behaviours.

The Sexual Dependency Inventory and Individualized Treatment

The Sexual Dependency Inventory (SDI) contains a number of assessments, including the SAST, along with other assessments measuring attachments styles, behavioural scales, and entitlement scores. A sex addiction professional experienced in using the SDI will have special interview skills and will understand the nuances of interpreting the different types of information that the SDI collects.  The breadth of the SDI allows the clinician to determine whether or not you need treatment for “sex addiction.” If you do, the SDI’s thoroughness provides the clinician with all the information they need to create an individualized treatment program to address your unique needs and help you get better.

We Can Help You With Sex Addiction

EHN Canada’s online Sex Addiction Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) will be launching within the next few weeks. If you give us your e-mail, we’ll make sure that you’re the first to know about when it launches and other program updates.

EHN Canada Also Offers Residential Sex Addiction Programs

For more information or to enrol in one of EHN Canada’s residential sex addiction programs, please call us at one of the numbers below. Our phone lines are open 24/7—so you can call us anytime.

 

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