Among treatment professionals, the validity of sexual addiction as a form of psychological addiction as opposed to being a symptom of an underlying obsessive-compulsive or impulse control disorder is a hotly debated topic with evidence on both sides of the debate. It is not currently included in the "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (SMV-IV). Those who support its legitimacy as an addiction diagnoses equate it to food, gambling and shopping addictions, where an outside substance is not used in getting "high," an activity that comes to be used as a way to manage mood or stress which increases in severity and negative life consequences over time.
According to proponents of the concept, although intercourse and other sexual activity are components of the addiction, the key is the journey as opposed to the destination. That is, the burst of brain chemicals released during the pursuit versus the act of sexual activity. One such chemical is the "euphoria-inducing" dopamine.
The illegal drugs methamphetamine and cocaine are believed to raise the level of dopamine in the brain to as much as 30 times that which is present during an orgasm. Thus, individuals who experience mood regulation problems and discover the powerful soothing effects brought on by these chemicals quickly learn which behaviors will repeat the "euphoric" experience. Over time, however, the constant release of these brain chemicals causes them to lose their effectiveness such that addicts find themselves needing to increase, vary or intensify their activities more and more in order to achieve a similar effect, an experience addicts call "chasing the dragon."
Patrick Carnes, one of the most prolific authors and pioneer reachers on the subject, states that it is the compulsive nature of the behavior that demonstrates addiction. According to Carnes, the behavior of the sexual addict generally conforms to a cycle of preoccupation (complete engrossment with sexual thoughts or fantasies), ritualization (implementing special routines directed at searching for intensification of sexual stimulation, which is often more important than reaching orgasm), compulsive sexual behavior (acting out) and despair (acting out that results in feelings of hopelessness, powerlessness, depression, shame, self-loathing and the like). In addition, Carnes proposes criteria for defining when a particular sexual behavior has become an additions. It is a secret. It is abusive or degrading to self or others. It is used to avoid painful feelings, despite the ultimate realization that those feelings result from it. It is empty of a caring, committed relationship. Carnes is the author of "Out of the Shadows: Understanding Sexual addiction," "Don't Call It Love: Recovery from Sexual Addiction" and "Clinical Management of Sex Addiction."
Peggy Nolen is a licensed professional counselor in Covington. She specializes in anxiety, depression, problems with drugs and alcohol and recovery from traumatic experience. She can be reached at (770) 314-5924.