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Sex addiction

Published 20 December 2005. Updated 19 October 2009.

Within the World Health Organisation, sexual activity is considered to promote both sexual health and general well-being. However, there are many problems associated with sex, just like with life in general. At the end of the 1970’s, the American AA movement began talking about an actual addiction to sex.

The various sexual desires people have and the possibilities for acting them out vary considerably from individual to individual. Therefore it is impossible to set clear boundaries for such sexual activity that could be classified as problematic addiction. As sex entails pleasure and gentle physical closeness, we are all more or less dependent on it in a positive sense.

Harmful sex addictions are compulsive, sex-related thoughts and actions. The person suffering from the addiction is often distressed and ashamed and tries to hide their thoughts and actions from others. These sexual obsessions recur and may eventually manifest themselves daily as repeated acts of masturbation. They may also include other forms of behaviour, such as the constant changing of partners or dependency to a relationship that is in some respects impossible.

The following twelve behaviours are considered to be signs of sex addiction. If one of these behaviours controls an individual’s life, becomes obsessive or harmful, or if the individual exhibits more than one of these signs, they suffer from harmful or unhealthy addiction. However, it should be remembered that similar behaviours may also be part of normal sexuality when they are controlled and moderate.

  1. Compulsive masturbation that may recur several times a day. The pleasure of orgasmic release is often used to alleviate mental symptoms like anxiety, depression or stress-related fatigue.
  2. Compulsive collecting of erotic and pornographic magazines, videos and Internet material and their constant use as a source for sexual arousal.
  3. Constant, uncontrollable use of electric sex services as a source of sexual arousal. These include sex phone lines and sex services in the Internet.
  4. Constant changing of sexual partners, being on a constant lookout for new partners. Relationships last only for a short period of time and are focused on sexual, self-centred pleasure, not on the relationship itself.
  5. Compulsive, recurring sex with prostitutes.
  6. Recurring anonymous sex: sex with a stranger in some unusual place such as in a public lavatory or the parking lot.
  7. Having dangerous sex. For example, a married person may have several simultaneous affairs and finds the possibility of getting caught sexually arousing.
  8. Attending sex bars, clubs or erotic massage parlours constantly.
  9. Compulsive sexual peeping with the intention of becoming aroused, sometimes also simultaneous masturbation.
  10. Recurring flashing with the intention of becoming aroused. Flashing may entail direct exposal of body parts or exceptionally revealing clothing.
  11. Touching strangers or acquaintances with the intention of becoming aroused. The physical contact is staged to look accidental.
  12. Recurring sexual violence, such as intimidation or rape.

One or more of the following additional features in connection with the previous 12 signs are also connected to sex addiction:

  1. You or your friends and family feel that you are too concerned with or even compulsive about your sexual desires.
  2. You feel compelled to have sex when you are stressed, anxious or depressed.
  3. After a compulsive sex experience the feelings of pleasure and satisfaction last for a very short time and you soon feel the need to repeat your actions.
  4. Your sexual experiences have lead to serious problems (e.g. the threat of break-up, divorce, venereal diseases, other mental problems or sexual violence).

If you feel you suffer from some form of sex addiction, you can visit for example your local mental health office or other providers of mental health services. You can find information on therapists specialising in sex therapy from the Family Association’s sexual health clinicsthe Sexpo Foundation and the Finnish Association for Sexology.

Osmo Kontula
Researcher, docent, Family Federation of Finland

Jukka Virtanen
Clinical sexologist, Eira hospital