We are faced with an addiction to sex when the desire to have sex is frequently manifested, is intense, and is accompanied by compulsive behaviors aimed at satisfying that desire in an irrepressible way.

This is so by understanding sexuality in its different forms, that is, not necessarily by having a sexual encounter with another person but also by sexual behaviors of masturbation, consumption of prostitution, consumption of cybersex or pornography, among others. The person dedicates a large part of their day to looking for a way to satisfy their need , which can affect their work and personal life.

Addictions are usually the result of more primary problems in the person. That is, consumption becomes the solution that can give to a certain problem. When the person consumes or carries out behaviours related to sexuality, in the short term the situation that generates discomfort takes a back seat, becoming an emotional regulator that momentarily placates the discomfort . But what happens in the long term? The solution that is being put into action becomes the problem.

Addiction as a form of emotional regulation

When we consume any substance, our brain releases a hormone known as dopamine, generating pleasant sensations. Due to this pleasure that is obtained, our brain will send us the message that it needs us to repeat this behaviour in order to obtain this pleasant sensation. What happens is that our brain needs more and more of this substance that generates calm.

There are times in our lives when we can experience complicated and painful situations for ourselves. In these moments, we can either face the situation and the discomfort generated or avoid what happened and not face it . This second option can have certain negative consequences for the person.

If the usual way of coping that one employs is avoidance or suppression, what happens is that all those events and psychological wounds that have been appearing in us through our lived experiences will accumulate . These experiences begin at birth and we begin to relate to our figures of care; the first experiences will later mark who we are and how we learn to confront those experiences that come along.

How does the bond with our parents influence the regulation of our emotions?

Many of these wounds are related to how we may have felt as children in the bond with our caregivers. When we are children we seek constant affection and approval from the adults around us . If we don’t get it, we will look for ways to get it. We will set in motion behaviours that attract the attention of our carers, we will try to please them, we will take care of them or we will put aside our needs to cover those of the adult and thus receive the approval we are looking for.

If we have had any such experience, it will be an injury that we grow and develop with. This wound can translate into the form of an emotional void . It is a very painful feeling, which hides a great feeling of loneliness, misunderstanding, fear or sadness. There is a need to feel complete, but the person does not know the formula to feel this way, so sometimes one begins to look for ways to combat this feeling and discomfort and thus be able to feel totally complete.

Sometimes this feeling can awaken or increase after a break-up, a layoff, work problems or some situation that makes the person feel uneasy. Faced with this type of situation, we can look the other way, so that we do not come up against the reality of the moment. But what is really happening is that we will not be facing or regulating our own discomfort, nor the experience we are facing .

The negative consequences of not managing emotions well

When we experience situations that generate discomfort, a bad regulation of these can lead to the appearance of addictive behaviour .

In situations that generate a harm or problem, if there is not a good regulation of the discomfort or what happens, there are people who begin to consume toxic substances, to fill their agenda with plans, to work more hours, to consume pornography for hours, or they have compulsive sexual relations. In this article I would like to focus more on problematic sexual behaviors .

It is known to all that sex is a basic need of the human being, and this is indicated in the pyramid of basic needs created by Abraham Maslow. Sometimes sexual practices can become addictive behaviors. In this case, this type of behavior is not related to the search for pleasure ; the objective would be the search for calm and the relief of the emotional discomfort generated by the different situations that one may have experienced, and furthermore, they are inserted in the context of one’s life history.

Sexual relations will be the way a person learns to regulate and calm his emotions , and this is how he will deal with whatever makes him feel uneasy. You look for stimuli that reward and generate a momentary relief. This also occurs with other types of behaviour such as uncontrolled food intake or substance consumption, exercising self-destructive behaviour on oneself.

In the short term, there is positive reward, followed by relief and reduction of emotional distress. But… what happens in the medium and long term? The discomfort comes back .

First of all, guilt will appear for the consumption itself. This guilt generates emotional discomfort, added to the previous emotional discomfort that has not been managed either. Again, to calm this greater discomfort, the use of this problem behaviour is used again .

Therefore, we will not be facing the problem, but we will be covering it up and not affecting what has generated it. Sometimes, the focus that generated the discomfort may not be seen by the person . But this type of behaviour indicates that something is not right inside us.

Developing sex addiction is also a way of not coming into contact with the discomfort and problem situation. Let’s imagine an inflatable mattress that has been punctured. At the moment, because we need to use it and don’t have the opportunity to buy another one, we put a patch on it. We know that this patch may last us the rest of our vacation, but it will probably be broken again the next time we want to use it. This is what happens when we avoid dealing with the problems that happen to us. For a moment we can survive, but what happens in the long run? That this discomfort will appear intensely, abruptly and be more difficult for us to handle .

How do we know if we are dealing with a problem of sex addiction?

These are several criteria that help to know if there is a problem of sex addiction.

Spends much of the day fantasizing and looking for ways to satisfy the need

This generates great anxiety and the brain has learned that the only way to calm it down is by consuming pornography or having sex, for example.

Activities of daily living are neglected

Examples of these activities that become low priority are work or a couple, family or social relationship.

Anxiety, thoughts, and fantasies do not diminish until the person is using

There is a feeling that the person has no control over the behaviour that appears. You feel that you are controlled by what you need

There is no need to satisfy desire, but to calm and regulate discomfort

In other words, the focus of the experience is fixed on the negative.

The person feels a great emotional void and guilt

He may even feel worthy of being punished and that is why he sets in motion these self-boycotting or destructive behaviors.

The need to go beyond the symptom

Because of my experience in consultation, most of the time we see that, behind the symptom, there is a great need to feel seen, loved, valued, and desired. Therefore, in therapy it is very important that we work on identifying what may be generating these symptoms, and not just a description of them.

Author: Lidia García Asensi, Health Psychologist