Sex Addiction 101: Signs, Secrets, Symptoms, and Solutions



The truth is this: sex occupies much more time in our minds than in real-time, that’s for certain. So when you bring up the recent inescapable news cycle telling us of fallen stars, predators, and sex addiction at your next dinner party, brace yourself for strong opinions from every side. Sex is natural. Sex is fun. But sex for someone who is addicted is a cycle of craving, minimal attachment to a partner, and an inability to stop in spite of negative consequences.

Each headline equates to a group of wounded creatures. When one gets wounded, the echoes of that wounding spread out far and wide; impacting all of us in a myriad of ways.

Statistics tell us that three to six percent of Americans suffer from compulsive sexual behavior. I’ll call it sex addiction. You can call it anything you want, provided you don’t talk yourself into thinking it’s nothing. On the gender split, sex addiction disproportionately impacts men. The gender ratio of compulsive sexual behavior is roughly four-to-one male-to-female. A Harvard study from 2010 tells us treatment has great value and also anywhere from 10-50% of participants will lapse back into old behavior. While it’s a wide variation, I’ll make note of the good news, which is that 50-90% of those getting proper treatment, change.

It’s imperative we distill a teachable moment from what I hope is a shift in how predators terrorize their victims, how survivors speak up, and how the media reports on sex. To help make sense of the problem we must acknowledge a few things. We’ve never been more sexualized as a nation. Porn is the number one consumed item on the Internet. What used to require real, in-person searching is now a click away on every device, gadget, and laptop.  Interactions with no strings attached are available without shame, with a single click or swipe. It has turned our social order upside down.

These are important facts for us to know, since oftentimes your gut might tell you one thing while your loved one tells you another.

In my work as founder of Breathe Life Healing Centers and as an interventionist, sexual health impacts nearly every family with whom we work. It’s inseparable from assessing the whole person and is inseparable from meaningful healing. A history of sexual trauma is often one thing a client brings in the front door along with their suitcase and hope for help.

As an interventionist who has facilitated hundreds of interventions with families, I want to tell everyone what to look for. Nearly without fail, when a person raises their hand and says “I’m dying over here and I need some help!”, it’s the result of some discovery by a spouse, family member, job, or the law. So what are the signs, secrets, and symptoms of sex addiction to help you help the one you love?

First things first: Do a gut check! People often lie about the problem and their part in it. If your gut tells you something is off, it probably is. You must listen to the signs of turmoil your internal voice is communicating to you.

What are we to make of it all? What we’ve criminalized and punished with jail and acrimony isn’t the way to help the addiction masses dying in plain sight. The vast majority of compulsive sexual problems and sex addictions don’t involve overtly illegal behavior, leaving a huge percentage of those who are suffering in limbo.  My hope is we’ll restart the conversation about how proper treatment works to interrupt addiction and help a loved one recover rather than look through the lens of punishment. That’s my hope.

There are many sex addiction symptoms and if you open your eyes to the ones on this list, they might be right in front of you:

  • Chronic porn consumption
  • Risky, unsafe, and/or abusive sex
  • Compulsive masturbation
  • Exhibitionism or voyeurism
  • Obsessive use of “hook up” dating apps
  • Compulsive dating and dating site use
  • Ongoing affairs
  • Cybersex
  • Hiring of sex workers

Sex addiction is not only what you do, but what you don’t do. That is, relinquishing important elements of daily life that one loses due to compulsive fantasy and pursuit of sexual situations.

When you are an eyewitness to secretive behavior, bring it up! Feel empowered to speak up, and intervene; to bravely ask your loved one these simple questions that I promise, will not break him or her:

  • Have you lost the ability to control sex?
  • Where have you been? Who have you been texting? What have you been doing?
  • Has your lack of control caused you pain and cost you elements of life you value?
  • Are you compelled to fantasize and have sexual thoughts even when you try to avoid them?

If you doubt your impact to intervene and help, don’t. You are the one you have been waiting for to help another. You have the power, the intimacy, and connectedness to wield considerable impact.

Over the past decade, with much support from Dr. Oz, I’ve popularized a new, better way to intervene. I call it a Break-Free Intervention. It’s not rocket science. It’s not an ambush, and it begins with an invitation to a suffering, addicted loved one to join their friends and family in a family meeting.

The word “no” is a conversation starter when asking an addicted loved one to let you help them. We are burdened with the archetype of conventional intervention which says you surprise and bully. As with modern medicine, conventional wisdom has evolved past this approach. There’s a better way.

Sex addiction is tricky. Addicted folks can get better and many stay that way. Some have lapses. Hope is the fuel that enables friends and family to move ahead to help in spite of resistance and muddied thinking. There is no such thing as perfection but there is great hope in sustained progress. Yet don’t forget these important truths:

  • Good treatment works.
  • Addiction is not hopeless.
  • The whole family benefits from working together to facilitate change.

Remember too that in most communities there are powerful peer-to-peer support groups, including 12-step style supports groups like Sex Addicts Anonymous and Sex & Love Addicts Anonymous that are there to help.  These are not clinical treatments, but the support found in these fellowships can make a world of difference for anyone building a new life on a pathway to healing.

Favor compassion or conviction as you help someone you love get help. It’s important to understand that for the sex addict, the sex itself is rarely a thing of joy. Oftentimes, anxiety, depression, and deep emotional pain accompany the destructive cycles a sex addict lives in.

You can breathe life into hope, make change begin, and become the miracle you’ve been praying would arrive.

Brad Lamm, CIP is an interventionist, author, and activist.To learn more about sex addiction treatment, you can get more info here. To learn more about interventions, click here. His books Crystal Clear + Sexually Recovered, How to Help the One You Love: A New Way to Intervene, and Just 10 Lbs have helped many families change for good.