What's the difference between just loving sex or having a sex addiction? When have you crossed that line? We spoke to two sex addiction experts and a recovered sex addict, to get the lowdown on an often misunderstood problem.
Erica Garza knew she had a problem with sex when she began to put herself in dangerous situations for the sake of an orgasm. "I was regularly going home with strangers and having unprotected sex with them because I got off on the adrenaline rush of doing something shameful," she admits.
"I’d spend hours searching for the perfect porn clip, one that was harder and sicker than the last, and masturbate until I was sore and exhausted."
Life as a sex addict
At 30, Garza, author of Getting Off: One Woman’s Journey through Sex and Porn Addiction (£9.99, Simon and Schuster) sought help – although she says, "I always kind of knew I had a problem." But how did she know it was an addiction rather than just loving sex a bit too much?
"Because it (sex addiction) felt like something I couldn't control. And that felt dangerous and destructive, but I didn’t know how to stop and I didn’t know how to face the uncomfortable feelings… without the sexual crutch," she says.
I was regularly going home with strangers and having unprotected sex with them because I got off on the adrenaline rush of doing something shameful.
Garza’s experience is typical of what sex addiction counsellor, Julie Gravell, sees in her therapy room every day. "It’s like every addiction: the point where it’s out of control is when you want to stop, but you can’t, and now this is going against your value system."
It’s not just about the time spent having sex either, it’s the time spent in your head, thinking about sex.
"Imagine there’s a pyramid of what your brain has decided is important. Sex addiction is when sex and eroticism is up there at the top, taking precedence over everything else," explains Gravell.
For Garza, this 'everything else' meant her writing career, family and friendships. "I prioritised my addiction. I would choose sexual experiences over platonic every time. An opportunity to have an orgasm was always more appealing than making a friend."
High libido vs sex addiction
Marian O’Connor, a sex therapist for Tavistock Relationships, says a key difference between a high libido and sex addiction, is that, "Addiction usually means there is very little pleasure involved. This is because in compulsive sex, the wanting overrides any satisfaction."
This insatiable nature of sex addiction is what makes it so destructive; the addict needing riskier and more harmful experiences to get the same buzz.
I prioritised my addiction. I would choose sexual experiences over platonic every time. An opportunity to have an orgasm was always more appealing than making a friend.
They are forever chasing that next rush of dopamine – the neurotransmitter responsible for giving us that lovely feeling of reward. In fact, in sex addiction, unlike say, alcoholism, where it’s about a substance, that rush of dopamine is what people get addicted to.
"But that’s where you get the escalation," explains Gravell. "Your brain can’t handle all the dopamine, so closes off some receptors. Your baseline drops and so you need more to hit the same level."
"That’s why when people sit for hours watching porn, it’s not about the climax," she says. "It’s about seeking that next, better and bigger high – for example, the 'perfect' image."
Causes of sex addiction
The reasons someone becomes a sex addict are complex and individual, but like all addictions, childhood trauma often plays a part, the addiction being an attempt to numb or escape from that emotional pain.
"Sex becomes a way the addict finds to soothe themselves when they have not learned how to do that from other caring adults," says O’Connor. "They may find porn at an early age, get initial satisfaction from the sexual feelings… but then start to use porn impulsively as they have no other ways to self-soothe."
This was the case for Garza who grew up in a strict Catholic household, "where nobody ever talked about sex, except to say it was bad and dirty," she says.
"So, by the time I turned 12 and started exploring my body, the pleasure I felt during these explorations was overshadowed by shame."
Orgasms were like mini-vacations from the misery I felt all day. But when they were over, all that misery came flooding in again.
A nervous child, who was bullied, Garza says, "Orgasms were like mini-vacations from the misery I felt all day. But when they were over, all that misery came flooding in again, so I would have to reach for another, and another."
Shame became the driving force of her addiction.
"I didn't know how to feel pleasure without shame, so I would look for it in my sexual experiences. I would look for porn clips that made me feel ashamed of myself – scenes of women being degraded – and then I would look for partners who would mistreat me in the same way."
Fully addicted to this shame cycle, when Garza did come across a healthy relationship, she would sabotage it. "I'd cheat or leave my partner for someone who would make me feel worthless because that's what I felt I deserved."
Sex addiction can manifest in many ways. It can mean over-use of porn, chronic masturbation, paying for sex workers, addiction to webcam content on platforms like OnlyFans and even online dating.
But experts and addicts alike are quick to point out that sex addiction is not about the number of partners, or number of times you have sex in one day. It’s about how your sexual conduct is negatively impacting your life.
Betraying your partner
And one of the main ways is how it’s affecting your relationship or your ability to form a relationship.
"Often my clients only know it’s a problem because their partner has told them they’re going to lose the relationship if they don’t get help," says Gravell.
"The over-use of porn means many find it difficult to get aroused by their partner... Often the only way they can, is by imagining the porn replaying it in their heads because they have completely changed their sexual template."
I figured if people got to know me beyond the sexual vixen I tried to be in bed, they'd find out what a loser I really was.
"Partners I see feel really betrayed because they’ll say they’ve not had sex for months and then they find out their partner has been paying for sex workers. Many of them talk about this absence of connection too: their partner is there physically, but mentally, not at all."
Garza actively sought out emotionless sex, as this allowed her to continue playing a 'sexual vixen' role, instead of revealing her true self and risk being rejected.
Lies and infidelity
This is often the case, says Gravell, "to the point that being a sex addict and sleeping with lots of people becomes their identity and then they can’t be faithful to their partners."
"No-strings-attached scenarios may have been physically risker, but they were far less emotionally risky and I didn’t know how to navigate real emotional intimacy with anyone," says Garza.
"I figured if people got to know me beyond the sexual vixen I tried to be in bed, they'd find out what a loser I really was. In bed, I felt valuable, but outside of the bedroom, I feared they would find out I couldn’t make conversation, that I was boring, unintelligent and ugly with the lights on."
Garza’s addiction to sex for validation meant she put herself in risky situations and any relationships she did have, often became toxic.
"I was addicted to being desired, so I would do things I didn’t want to do, like emulating things I saw in porn just to please the other person."
The consequences of sex addiction can go beyond ruining relationships. Being so preoccupied with sex can impact on work and, if people are spending a fortune on sex workers, on their finances too.
In terms of physical health, erectile dysfunction is common and "people masturbate so often that their genitals become incredibly sore," says Gravell.
Perhaps the saddest impact is depression, even feeling suicidal. "Because if you're in this kind of hyperstimulation, nothing is going to compete," explains Gravell. "You're not going to find pleasure in things you once did."
O’Connor says sex addiction can also occur when sex becomes a battlefield, say when one person is withholding. "The need for sex in such cases can be a cry for connection," she says. "Both partners can benefit from sex therapy to help them connect through less regular but more pleasurable and connected sex."
Treatment for sex addiction
And the good news is, people can and do recover from sex addiction, either through a 12-step programme group (SLAA: Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous), through sex therapy, or both.
The most important thing, say experts, is being willing to change and believing you can. It’s about looking at the unmet needs and root causes of sex addiction.
"At the beginning, when many people come to therapy, it's about what you have to lose," says Gravell. “But what you'd hope is that it becomes about what you can gain, with people hopefully going on to have an amazing sex life with emotional connection."
For Garza, the recovery process took a lot of experimentation. She tried therapy, 12-step groups, meditation and self-help books, among other methods and says it was a combination of all of these that eventually got her to stop.
But then as she points out, "What does it mean to stop if you still want to be a sexual person?"
After all, unless you are committed to a life of celibacy, sex addiction – like food addiction – cannot be about abstinence. You just have to learn to have a healthier relationship with it.
A fresh start
This process was helped along for Garza by meeting the man who was to become her husband, a man she could be completely honest with about her addiction. At first, she put in boundaries, for example, continuing to abstain from porn but she says, "Boundaries helped for a while but then, after some time, I started to feel like I'd put myself in a cage. I wanted to be a sexually adventurous and open-minded person but I didn't want to ruin my relationship."
It took some time and practice to figure out her boundaries, but today, Garza considers herself a recovered sex and porn addict.
"I also happen to be an incredibly sex-positive person," she says. "My husband and I are ethically non-monogamous, we watch porn occasionally and experiment together. But sex isn't our whole life. It doesn't consume me the way it once did."
"I hope in sharing my story that it finds someone somewhere and helps them feel seen. I want her (or him) to know that I've been right where they are and felt just as broken and unlovable, but then I found a way out. They can, too."