The Impact of Sex Addiction on Mental Health and Relationships

Sex addiction, defined by some professionals as Hypersexual Disorder or Compulsive Sexual Behavior Disorder, is an addiction that does not involve any substances. Instead, it is characterized by a pattern of sexual behavior. Said pattern of behavior may include sleeping with other people, fantasizing about having sex, watching porn, and masturbating. What makes this an addiction and not promiscuity (which in and of itself should not point to a mental health symptom or illness) is that said behaviors and thoughts are intrusive, compulsive, and cause distress to the individual. Like any addiction, though, we must not underestimate the impact of sex addiction on mental health and relationships.

What Is Sex Addiction?

Sex addiction is part of what addiction experts define as “new addictions.” These are all compulsive behaviors that do not involve the intake of substances. New addictions include behaviors like these

  • compulsive gambling
  • compulsive shopping
  • Internet and video game addictions
  • workaholism
  • study addiction
  • and physical activity addiction

To this day, the DSM-5 only recognizes compulsive gambling as a formal addiction in and of its own right. Sex addiction is still a subject of research among professionals.

Characteristics of Sex Addiction

  • A persistent and escalating pattern of sexual thoughts and behaviors characterizes sex addiction.
  • Intrusive sexual fantasies and obsessions that you may have trouble keeping under control.
  • A constant craving or urge to have sex. Sexual encounters without emotional intimacy, that is, intercourse where intimacy, trust, and communication are missing. No attempts are made to build these, at least on the part of the individual with the compulsive behavior.
  • Sexual encounters may become exploitative.
  • Over time, what you used to enjoy sexually may escalate, and you may need more – more sex, more sexual partners, riskier sex, or different sex because the usual way you had doesn’t seem to be enough anymore.
  • You may end up doing sexual acts that are outside your level of comfort, and you may later regret them. Examples include cheating on your monogamous partner, or having unprotected penetrative sex, or a lack of control of your sexual urges in general.
  • Your sexual behaviors and the amount and content of your fantasies constantly cause you distress, guilt, and shame.
  • Your ability to function day-to-day may be impaired by sexual behavior.

Sex addiction can manifest differently for each individual. Some prefer sexual behavior the DSM-5 would characterize as paraphilic, such as voyeurism. Others may prefer sexual behavior that is not considered paraphilic. Excessive porn use, as well as excessive masturbation, may be characteristic of a Sex Addiction. However, specialists do not consider them addictions on their own unless they start to impair daily functioning.

If this is your case or you suspect you are on a downward spiral, you can always seek help. Harmony Ridge is a West Virginia Treatment Center specializing in all addictions. It’s always better to take action before the behavior patterns get worse.

Two people holding hands in bed

What’s the Difference Between Sex Addiction and Healthy Sexual Behavior?

The reluctance of professionals to treat sex addiction as a diagnosis on its own and not a symptom of some other disorder has a reason. It is rooted in the medical community’s wish not to pathologize healthy sexual behavior.

Some people have lots of sex, sometimes with multiple partners. This doesn’t automatically equate to a sex addiction. With the rise in popularity of consensual nonmonogamy, also known as ethical nonmonogamy, having numerous sexual partners doesn’t automatically mean you are being deceptive or secretive with your sexual partners.

A man is preoccupied in the bed while his lover looks at him from afar. He may be preoccupied with the impact of sex addiction on mental health and relationships.

Even paraphilic behaviors are starting to become less stigmatized. Or at least this is so as long as they are between consenting adults informed about the risks and implications of what they are doing. Add to that that what constitutes excessive sexual behavior varies from individual to individual and culture to culture. Standards for what is too much sex are different for people in Salt Lake City, Santa Monica, and West Virginia.

The hallmark of sex addiction is that the person who suffers from it feels distressed by their behavior. It’s also characterized by an inability to control their urges and cravings. If you are sleeping around or having a lot of sex but have no problem leaving your lover’s bedroom to show up to work on time, it may not be an addiction. The same is true if you can use protection or otherwise stick to your boundaries in the bedroom and are not ridden by intrusive sexual thoughts.

The Impact of Sex Addiction on Mental Health

Like any compulsive behavior, sex addiction can be harmful to your mental health. Sex addiction is often comorbid with both anxiety and depression. It is also comorbid with various personality and mood disorders, as well as impulse control disorders. Even if your only diagnosis is sex addiction, because of secrecy, low self-esteem, shame, social isolation, guilt, and concern about your inability to control yourself that comes with this addiction, you can end up having internal patterns that can be harmful to your overall well-being.

A man and a woman lie back to back on a bed looking distraught because of the impact of sex addiction on mental health and relationships
Sex addiction can make other existing mental health symptoms worse.

#1 – Impact of Sex Addiction on Depression

Negative self-talk and harmful patterns of thinking are one of the main characteristics of depression. This trait helps to perpetuate the disease over time. This is so because it is a large part of what pushes the person to be depressed and continue to be depressed over time. The guilt, shame, and low self-esteem that come with sex addiction are generally used to feed said negative patterns of thinking by the depressed mind. Sex addiction can also be a damaging coping skill that keeps the person distracted from the underlying reasons behind their depression.

Sex addiction or compulsive behavior regarding sex is often found when the person also has a mood disorder like bipolar disorder, a personality disorder like BPD, or even an impulse control disorder like ADHD. They may turn to have sex when they get triggered or can’t regulate intense emotions. DBT is the ideal therapy for people who struggle with emotional regulation. At Harmony Ridge, there is dialectical behavior therapy for addiction available if you need it.

A couple argues on a bed, the woman is blurred and seems to be making an argument while a man looks at a pill

#2 – Impact of Sex Addiction on Anxiety

Several aspects of sex addiction can have a severe impact on the mental health of a person with an anxiety disorder. Because of your urges, you may, for example, end up having unprotected sex. You’ll then be up at night, tossing and turning because you wonder whether you may have caught an STD.

The fact that you have cravings and urges you can’t control can make you even more anxious than you already are. Because sex addiction comes with disrespect for your own boundaries, certain sexual activities that you consented to at the time may later cause a panic attack. Thus, the impact of sex addiction on mental health and relationships extends to making other diagnoses worse.

Paraphilia sexual equipment on a red background
Sex addiction is about patterns of escalation and tolerance.

#3 – Patterns of Escalation and Tolerance

One of the hallmarks of sex addiction is that it comes with patterns of escalation and tolerance. This means your thoughts may escalate into behaviors; later, these behaviors aren’t enough to “scratch the itch.” At first, you may be content to have conventional sex with one partner just on the weekends, but then you want to do it every day. Then, one partner isn’t enough, so you start looking for more partners. You may even engage in riskier sexual activity, with or without what the DSM-5 calls paraphilia (fetishes, voyeurism, BDSM). You build up a tolerance for the initial rush sex gives you, and then you have to do more or riskier to satiate your cravings.

A woman looks through the window looking preoccupied

#4 – Social Isolation

Having excessive sex can mean you end up lying to essential people in your life. This can end up isolating you. Even if you are not in a monogamous relationship and all of your partners are casual, you may feel guilt and shame when seeing people who are close to you, even if you don’t share a sexual relationship with them, such as friends or family. They may trigger your low self-esteem and suspicion that you may be “unworthy,” which may drive you to see them less.

Because the social interactions that come with sex addiction tend to lack intimacy, trust, and open communication, the fact that you have multiple people in your bed every week doesn’t cancel out the fact that you feel lonely and misunderstood. Group therapy for addiction can be beneficial if this symptom is getting too severe.

A woman in distress pushes her forehead against her hands
The one difference between sex addiction and promiscuity is that healthy sexual behavior does not give you cause for distress.

#5 – Psychological Distress

As we have previously stated, what makes the difference between healthy sexual behavior and sex addiction is that sex addiction comes with distress. You don’t feel good about the number of sexual thoughts, fantasies, partners, and activities you have. You don’t feel good about what you do in bed, whatever that is. Thinking about your sex life stresses you out or even makes you angry or depressed. This only has harmful consequences for your mental health, creating a vicious cycle that’s hard to get out of.

A couple holds hands but we only see their laps

Impact of Sex Addiction on Relationships

Unlike substance addiction, sex addiction, at some point, requires the participation of other people. Even if they are consenting adults, though, you may lie to them or manipulate them at some point, especially if you are too deep into your sex addiction. In general, the relationships for someone with this addiction lack a sense of trust, open communication, and intimacy.

Loss of Intimacy Over Time

If you enter your sex addiction with a stable partner, monogamous or not, your relationship will lose intimacy as a result of this addiction. This is so because you’ll start lying to your partner and hiding things from them. You may become exploitative and inconsiderate of their needs when trying to have sex with them. You may try to negotiate boundaries that aren’t negotiable, neglect your limits, and not pay attention to other essential aspects of your relationship.

If you start this addiction while single, none of your relationships will have much of a chance of developing into healthy friendships or romantic relationships since, most of the time, you are using people for what they can give you. You are uninterested in getting to know them better, even if that’s not what you genuinely want or mean.

Not all people with sex addiction do all of these things. Still, these are some behaviors people who struggle with sex addiction end up having that slowly worsen their existing sexual relationships.

  • Have superficial sexual relationships in which they barely know their partner and do not foster communication, trust, or intimacy
  • Engage in various paraphilic behavior
  • Have poor communication about sex in general
  • Lie, cheat, or hide important information from their sexual partners (such as relationship or HIV status)
  • Engage in risky sexual behavior that could end up in themselves or their partners getting STDs or getting hurt, physically or psychologically.
  • Foster mistrust in their partners because of some of these behaviors
  • Hire the services of a prostitute or escort, sometimes incurring into debt to do this
  • Disregard their work, academic, family, social, or personal obligations to have sex, watch adult content and masturbate
  • Get into legal or financial trouble because of their sexual behavior

Sex Addiction Can Have Severe Impact on Mental Health

Like any addiction, sex addiction has a severe impact on your mental health and your relationships, both those that are sexual and those that aren’t. Sex addiction is different from healthy sexual behavior in these ways:

  • Sex addiction causes distress, whereas healthy sexual behavior rarely does
  • Sex addiction comes with a loss of control over your actions

Sex addiction generally escalates from thoughts and fantasies and solitary behavior like watching porn and masturbating to having excessive sex with one or multiple partners. This can come with cheating, lying, and hiding important information from said sexual partners. Then, as tolerance builds up, you start looking into riskier sexual behavior that you may later regret.

As a result of all the guilt, shame, and secrecy, this can hinder your self-esteem. It strains various relationships, and it hurts your mental health, making other diagnoses worse. Having access to individual therapy for addiction can help you spot an addiction to sexSex the early signs of one, and help you come up with better coping strategies for your daily life.


Caponnetto et al. (2022) “Sexual Addiction, Hypersexual Behavior, and Relative Psychological Dynamics during the Period of Social Distancing and Stay-at-home Policies Due to COVID-19.” NIH: National Library of Medicine.

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